Gillespie's Fine Spirits took over a little corner of Progress Way and makes vodka-based award winners 

Eighteen months after opening, the Squamish distillery has a cocktail bar and classes

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRYN ATKINSON - mixing it up Kelly Ann Woods and John McLellan of Gillespie's Fine Spirits.
  • PHOTO by cathryn atkinson
  • mixing it up Kelly Ann Woods and John McLellan of Gillespie's Fine Spirits.

Progress Way is a good name for the street that is home to Gillespie's Fine Spirits.

The distillery's owners, John McLellan and Kelly Ann Woods, found the right place to build their dream business in Squamish's industrial park after a lot of time and effort and no progress at all in Vancouver.

It shows the Sea to Sky advantage for many food and drink business ideas — particularly when it comes to artisanal approaches.

"The problem with Vancouver is that it has the Vancouver building code on top of the B.C. building code... it is bureaucracy gone wild," McLellan said.

This meant that, according to McLellan, their distillery would require the same fire safety regulations — an F1 fire category — as a dynamite factory.

"It was the highest possible fire rating. The (Vancouver) building code hasn't been updated for a long time. Distilleries used to be huge, like petrochemical plants," he said. "Something our size, which is much smaller, is not considered. This would have been the size of a moonshine operation."

So after a year or so of trying in Vancouver and even renting a premises and waiting for permission, Squamish was suggested, and they checked it out.

"It wasn't even on our radar," McLellan said.

"A friend lived here. It was one of those jokes — isn't Squamish one of those places your drive through on your way to somewhere else?

"Now we have the most epic view ever. It's the silver lining. We met with the economic development officer for the District of Squamish and he was super cool and enthusiastic.

"We've been really fortunate. Squamish has been easily one of the most supportive local communities."

Gillespie's Fine Spirits opened in September 2014.

McLellan explains that the company is named after his late friend, Cameron Gillespie, who encouraged them to start a distillery.

Until that point, McLellan was an enthusiastic amateur spirit maker, but Gillespie saw his talent.

"He was a good friend and a major inspiration behind us starting, but he died in a motorcycle accident in 2009," McLellan said.

"He was the first guy who put it into my head that rather than make it in my kitchen for fun, we could do it for real. He planted the seed.

"We were halfway through writing our business plan when the province introduced the craft designation for distilleries. We were amazingly lucky."

McLellan and Woods decided to go for full distillery training in Washington state and didn't look back.

"I grew up in Scotland and my dad has a boat. We'd sail down the west coast and I appreciated it but I was at an age where I probably too young to fully appreciate it," McLellan said.

"I'd joke that there isn't much on the west coast of Scotland except sheep and distilleries. We'd visited many distilleries before I was old enough to even drink. It has been a fascination since then.

"It was a passion for stove-top gin making that brought me down this road."

Gillespie's first round of alcohol products are all vodka based and include Aphro (with cacao, chillis and vanilla), Lemoncello (made with organic lemon zest), Gastown Shine (made with 100 per cent B.C.-grown wheat), V-Twin Rye Vodka and Sin Gin.

They are already winning awards.

"Lemoncello just won best aperitif digestif in B.C. Distilled, the craft distillery show, in April," McLellan says.

"And Aphro came second place for flavoured vodkas.

"I would say the Lemoncello and the gin are our most popular products."

Gillespie's will start making a rye whiskey and bourbon-style whiskey using wheat instead of corn later in 2016.

"Opening a local distillery is very much about being local. Our ethos for setting up this company is to create a sustainable company. Kelly and I were a meeting of minds. She told me, 'If you can make it, I can sell it.'"

Woods' background is 20 years in bars, restaurants and as a sommelier.

She has enthusiastically opened a cocktail bar at Gillespie's, which operates in the evenings, and is offering ongoing cocktail-making classes.

The next cocktail class takes place on June 12.

Last year, a five-day artisan craft distilling workshop offered by Capilano University brought on Gillespie's as the location for part of the program.

Currently, Gillespie's Fine Spirits are not sold in Whistler, but can be found at various locations in Squamish and Vancouver.

For more information on Gillespie's Fine Spirits, visit www.gillespiesfinespirits.com.

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