Andrew Cameron and Owen Ritchie beside their newest moonshine still they affectionately named Morgan. The owners of Still Fired Distilleries Inc of Lequille are making moonshine, vodka, and gin. It’s so popular it’s been difficult to keep up with demand.
©Lawrence Powell – TC Media
LEQUILLE, Annapolis County – Andrew Cameron tells a story that could have been right out of Smokey and the Bandit — or from a Steve Earle song. He and Owen Ritchie running ‘shine to Halifax.
“It got to the point where Owen and I started to run deliveries every week,” Cameron recalled. “We’d take as many orders as we possibly could.”
Then they’d pack it in the back of Ritchie’s half-ton and run it down to the city and meet up with customers and make the exchange. It was all legal because the orders were pre-sold. But Cameron admits onlookers might have been a bit suspicious.
“It kind of looked sketchy in a way,” he admitted. “Valley boys coming down to the Costco parking lot and peddling moonshine out of the back of the camo truck. The camo Dodge. So we knew right then and there that we had to start a retail outlet in the city.”
That’s just one of the stories from Ritchie and Cameron who built, own, and operate Still Fired Distilleries Inc in Lequille. While they may not have the first moonshine still in Lequille – it’s the first legal one. In fact they have two stills now – Kirby and Morgan -- and their ‘shines and vodkas are flying off the shelves so fast they’d been having trouble keeping up to demand.
They’d been doing trade shows and getting good feedback late last year – and people in the city were really wanting to pick up their product but had no way of doing it other than drive all the way to Annapolis. You can buy it right off the shelf at Lequille Country Store. Right on the edge of the big woods that goes clear through to Liverpool. The store sells groceries, guns and ammo, hunting and fishing licences, and the best jerky this side of anywhere. A sign up the road on Highway 8 says ‘No Gas Next 59 kilometres.’
Their HRM outlet is the Alderney Landing Farmers’ Market, by the Dartmouth ferry terminal, that they joined in January. They’ve since hired staff to handle that part of the business.
“So it’s been very well received,” Cameron said of their products and the HRM market. No more parking lots. “It’s nice that we got our first employee ever. And it went over very well. Sales have constantly been going up as the markets get busier.”
They set up shop at the Annapolis Royal Farmers and Traders Market when it opened for the season May 21 and that’s been going well.
The two former commercial divers took the plunge into the moonshine business after an almost unanimous plebiscite to go ‘wet’ in the small ‘dry’ community in 2014. (Remember Kirby and Morgan? The stills’ names? Kirby Morgan is a company that makes diving helmets.)
And it’s been a non-stop ride ever since they produced their first commercial batch of vodka just about a year ago. Demand was threatening to outstrip supply and Ritchie had a sleeping bag rolled out in one of the big racks that hold the corn mash vats so he could be there 24/7 to keep it all chugging along at maximum output.
They’ve been producing a premium vodka since the start, plus Granny’s Apple Pie Moonshine (think mulled cider on steroids), a Thai Chili Vodka, Blueberry Vodka, and their Vanilla Vodka. The latest offering has been their Night Owl Coffee Moonshine and the gin is only days away – they’re waiting on the locally commissioned artwork for the gin labels. More vats showed up at the rustic little building last week.
Cameron is animated about the coffee ‘shine. Or maybe he’s had too much caffeine (Ritchie recalls the day he was experimenting to get the Night Owl just right and was so wide awake he read half a Stephen King novel before he could get to sleep.).
It’s made from un-aged corn whiskey, cut down with freshly roasted fair trade organic Sissiboo coffee from Bear River. They blend them together down to 20 per cent alcohol and sweeten it with Nova Scotia honey.
“So we’re using all Nova Scotia products,” said Cameron. “We’re keeping it very local. And it’s a nice little business combination of three ventures – us, the honey apiary which is bee pollinated, and Sissiboo Coffee.”
Andrew said the reception for the Night Owl Coffee Moonshine has been enthusiastic.
“Everyone who is a big coffee enthusiast has found that basically that is the perfect blend,” he said. “I’ve had comments that it’s more coffee than coffee itself. And the other one we got at the market was there isn’t enough ‘Os’ in smooth. That’s what we heard as well. That was a good one. Very well received.”
They’d just introduced the coffee moonshine at Saltscapes and were on their second batch the day of the interview.
“We’ve been kind of educating people to use it – you can drink it on ice as is. It’s kind of like a nice ice coffee with a kick for the summer time. You can mix it like a Kahlua so you can make white and dark Russians out of it. You can do some really cool chocolate martinis if you want.”
They took a break last Christmas time.
“We were at the point where we were having trouble keeping up with one still. I was literally sleeping here six nights a week. Sometimes seven. Just always constantly a fight to keep the shelves stocked,” said Ritchie. “So we decided to go in and build a bigger, better still. We took the design we had on the first still obviously (we designed it on a napkin -- as you know -- in a bar). So we took that design and we kind of played with it – and just tweaked the little things that we learned over the first eight months. Things we could have done better. We added those all into the new still. It’s got some new features.”
Like a bigger stack that allows them to produce alcohol faster.
And they built the stills – Kirby all gleaming stainless and copper with a bronze porthole; Morgan a bit bigger and all shiny stainless with a brass viewport – works of art in themselves.
Ritchie remembers making copper plates for inside the still – he drilled hundreds of tiny holes in perfect lines. Until he couldn’t see straight.
But the moonshine is the same corn mash product and from that they make everything else. Ritchie said corn offers a very unique flavor profile. It’s smooth on the front of your tongue -- doesn’t have that initial burn that a lot of vodkas have -- and it maintains a slight sweetness in the aftertaste.
Most vodkas are tasteless.
“That sweetness we find a lot of people are catching onto,” said Ritchie. “It’s kind of a love/hate relationship. People either love it or hate it. With that same premium vodka we do our infusions.”
The infusions they do are the most natural way to flavor a vodka. Most on the market are being infused synthetically, said Ritchie. That’s why the vodkas are so clear.
“The way we chose to do it is using as-local products as we can get and infusing it naturally. So we basically blend our vodka down to the 40 per cent which it would normally be sold at, do the regular filtering, and bottle the vodka as if we were going to sell it as our premium, and at the last moment before we put the cap on, we either put in our 40 blueberries, our single Thai chili pepper, or our single vanilla bean.”
The blueberries are from two kilometres away. The chili peppers are from Truro although this year they’re going to start growing their own. And they have top quality vanilla beans they’re bringing in from South America.
“Basically for our gin we wanted to keep it quite simple,” Ritchie said, noting that the craft gin market has been blown wide open across Canada. “We’re using seven different botanicals, and we’re throwing a pretty neat twist into one of our gins.”
They plan to release two gins with one – Fundy Gin -- paying tribute to the Bay of Fundy.
And here’s the twist: “We’re actually going to be using dulse in the gin. It’s going to be a dulse-infused gin. So that’s going to be our seventh botanical in that particular gin.”
They’ve done their experimenting and testing – and the results are positive.
“The dulse brings over a really cool salty flavour and you can almost smell a fresh ocean breeze off it. It’s not that open-a-bag-of-dulse smell. It’s that salty air smell and that comes through with the gin. We’re just trying to make unique products to the area.”
It’s true. Ritchie lived this.
“I grew up as a young kid I used to make cash on the side with my friends picking dulse over in Delaps Cove, drying it on our roof or on the asphalt driveway, and selling it to local stores,” he said. “Picking dulse is a way of life around here.”
As far as Ritchie knows, there is one other company in the whole world that produces a seaweed-infused gin. “They’re not using dulse,” said Ritchie. “They’re using a sweet kelp. We wanted to use something local as a botanical and kind of throw a little twist into the gin. Make it unique.”
They’re hoping to release the first bottles sometime this month.
“Gin is a summer drink, so we want to have it out for the summer,” said Ritchie “We’ve done tastings with quite a few people already and it’s been received really, really well. It’s a simple gin, so it’s not overpowering in any of the characteristics. It’s quite light and it’s a really nice mixing gin.”
They’ve set up a little tasting bar just off the big double doors of distillery. Ritchie took a giant tree stump complete with roots, cleaned it up and slapped a counter on top of it. It’s outside so people going in or out of Lequille Country Store and take a little nip if they like.
It’s not like the old days. People come in and talk about making moonshine.
“They tell us their stories and show us pictures of their stills,” said Ritchie. “It’s always neat to meet other people that are at where we were,” Ritchie said. He and Cameron experimented and later went to the United States where they took instruction in the distillery arts. “Or people come in and tell stories of their grandfather’s moonshine that he used to make on the mountain.”
And they made some crazy stuff – from pine sap ‘shine to maple syrup lightning.
And it was a business then like Still Fired is now – it just wasn’t legal. Cameron talks about the process you had to go through to score a mason jar or two.
“If the light was on on the front porch you knew the moonshine was there,” he said. “You had to flash your lights or something and wait for them to come out and get you.”
“It’s something that I never would have thought but it goes, I think, really deep into the culture in Annapolis and the surrounding areas,” said Ritchie. “There was some pretty interesting stuff guys were coming up with. It’s pretty neat to see what people have done over the years. I mean there’s been a long history of bootleggers in the Lequille area and a few of them have made all their own moonshine that they sold.”
He said that in Nova Scotia in general it’s always been happening but now the laws are changing in a way that is allowing people to actually show their creativity where for years and years you had to hide it.
“It’s pretty neat to see all the people coming out of the woodwork.”
-- Check them out on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stillfireddistilleries.ca/?fref=ts
-- Or go to: http://www.stillfireddistilleries.com/
-- Lequille Country Store is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week.
-- They’re at 9543 Highway 8, Annapolis Royal.