“I make alcohol for a living. You can’t complain about that,” jokes David Dickson, a professor and the head distiller at the Niagara College Teaching Distillery in Ontario, Canada.
Dickson is being humble in his job description. In his role at Niagara College, he’s training future generations in the craft and science of artisan distillation.
According to Dickson, the program is the first of its kind in North America in which a commercial distillery operates in association with a college. The timing was right. Ten years ago, there were only a handful of craft distilleries in the region. By the time the program launched in 2018, the proliferation of distilleries grew ten-fold, creating a demand for qualified recruits in the industry.
Dickson’s classroom is not your average lecture hall. It’s a fully functional distillery with mash tanks, fermentation tanks and stills. The focus is on experiential learning. Students come from all parts of the globe to master the grain-to-glass process. Because it is a post-grad program, these distillers-in-training are over Canada’s legal drinking age of 19 and get to enjoy the botanicals of their labor.
The school’s first small-batch release was called Eau-de-Vie de Fruits. Dickson describes it as an “unaged brandy with a lighter, brighter spirit.” Some of the grapes were grown right on campus. “A lot of things go into your first spirit release. It’s similar to your first actual service in a restaurant. You’ve worked a long time and put a lot of effort into it and now you’ve got something to show for it. It was definitely a good feeling.” Like all releases, it was available exclusively at the campus’ Wine Visitor + Education Centre. All 150 bottles in the run sold out.
Some 100 products are now in the portfolio, produced at the rate of about 10 new spirits and fortified wines a year. Along with classics like rum, gin and vodka, the portfolio also features specialty releases like Smoked Chocolate Old Fashioned and Ambrosia, a honey spirit distilled from campus beehives.
Deciding on a new release is a collaborative process. “Students have great ideas. Sometimes it’s a million-dollar idea,” says Dickson. “I want them to go off on their own and be successful with it. But for class we tend to do interesting spirits that have learning outcomes attached to them. It needs to be feasible, tasty and, ultimately, releasable in the time frame we have.”
And while releases typically sell out, profitability is another matter. Margins are thin to start with and profits, if any, are reinvested back into the program. The distillery, however, is not necessarily designed to be a money-maker. Breaking even is the goal. “Profitability is a hard lesson,” says Dickson. “But inefficiency leads to more learning.”
Dickson’s background was well-suited for the job. With a specialization in biology and a master’s degree in environmental sustainability, he was recruited by Dillion’s, a small batch distillery in Lincoln, Ontario, where Dickson served as the head distiller before helping to launch the distilling program at Niagara College. “I love what I do because it allows me to explore multiple passions simultaneously: science, artistic expression, and teaching. Every day is a new sensory experience. I get to shape the industry in Ontario and abroad and infuse knowledge of the things I care about like environmental issues and safe consumption in the next generation.”
And no one can complain about that.
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“I’m a guy who geeks out on gear. Barfly has the types of jiggers I like. They have the types of spoons I like. It makes a big difference in the experience of actually making a cocktail. Cheaper sets just don’t give you the same feel. I’d rather have the right piece of equipment for the job. Otherwise, you compensate in some way, and it lessens the experience for me and anyone I’m making cocktailst for.”
– David Dickson, a professor and head distiller at the Niagara College Teaching Distillery in Ontario, Canada