Who woulda thunk it?
by Jodi DeLong
In the winter of 2019, you may have heard the tale of Moonshine Creek Distillery, owned and operated by brothers Jeremiah and Joshua Clark in Waterville, NB. Although they had been in business for just slightly more than a year, they created an overnight sensation by partnering with St. Stephen chocolate makers Ganong to develop a unique liqueur production using Ganong’s chicken bones candies.
Originally, the distillery made a limited run of 2,500 bottles—however, they hadn’t anticipated the reception by the public, and ended up producing 15,000 bottles.
A bootlegger in the Bible Belt
The story begins with Jeremiah and Joshua’s late grandfather, Marlen Henderson, of nearby Debec. Jeremiah explains. “Grandfather was partially paralyzed in a logging accident, and with 10 kids to provide for, he pretty much did anything for a buck. He had livestock, and was a butcher, a barber, a bootlegger...a bit of everything.”
Flash forward some years, and the Clark brothers have been active in the hospitality industry for several decades. Joshua, 36, manages and acts as chef at a restaurant and brew pub in St. Stephen, and Jeremiah, 40, had worked in food and beverage operations around the region. He says, “You start taking real pride in what you’re doing—I started making craft-style cocktails using modern spirits.
“You get asked questions working as a bartender; there were questions I couldn’t answer, and I didn’t like that.”
Jeremiah started making his own beers, wines and spirits, and discovered that he really enjoyed and preferred distilling to beer and wine making. Maybe this could become a business. But first, there was a lot of hard work to do—drawing up business plans, trying to find investors willing to take a chance on a spirit distillery in rural NB—in the middle of the so-called Bible belt of the province, at that!
A truly Canadian Spirit
Moonshine Creek’s flagship product is Canadiana, a spirit 100 per cent derived from New Brunswick maple trees. Jeremiah says, “we’re fermenting the tree sugars—that is, the maple syrup—but we also use the water that producers remove to make syrup.”
“We went to producers in St. Quentin, (the maple syrup capital of Atlantic Canada) and asked if they could capture the water,” he says. He puts the water through reverse osmosis and “We use it to dilute the maple syrup to make it fermentable. After distilling, we add water again to lower the alcohol content to 40 per cent.”
Aside from yeast and a couple of nutrients to help the fermentation process along, Canadiana is 100 per cent organic local product. The bottles are festooned with maple leaves and printed in true Canadian red and white, and Jeremiah says that they’d like to get a geographic indicator on the product to show that it is a unique and Canadian spirit. He’s offered the recipe free to other distillers, to encourage them to produce it and have something on the world stage that is instantly identifiable as Canadian, like bourbon from Kentucky or single malt scotch from Scotland.
“For food and beverage tourism, this would really boost us. Think of the geographic tourism where people visit a specific area because they’re a fan of a particular spirit.”
One product produced at Moonshine Creek is White Pup, an actual moonshine made from grain that is ideal for using to make other liqueurs. Jeremiah says, “We were doing workshops showing customers how to make their own infusions. We were searching for ideas for the holiday season and Ganong chicken bones are a local treat especially around Christmas; we did this in a workshop and people loved it.” The brothers met with Ganong’s owners who were open to the possibilities, and the new product was born.
Photo Credit: steve smith / visionfire
Challenges and answers
Finding investors who shared the brothers’ vision was the first major challenge to opening Moonshine Creek. There were already a handful of distilleries in New Brunswick, but nothing like the scene in Nova Scotia. The brewery and winery scenes in NB have been growing steadily in recent years, and Jeremiah says, “when I approached potential investors, they often thought we wanted to open a brewery, and I had to explain we wanted to make whisky, not beer. If you’re not passionate about the industry, you might not see the differences.”
Jeremiah would explain that they were making alcoholic products using local ingredients, and that they wanted to embrace their local culture and colloquialisms to help encourage tourism in their area. Situating their distillery just down the road from Covered Bridge Potato chips was part of their game plan.
One of the challenges to opening was making sure that everything would be up to code—in a province where the industry was so new at the time, no regulator or department initially had answers for some of the Clarks’ questions. While most hurdles have been overcome—they opened their doors officially on August 1, 2018—there are still issues to do with licensing and being unable to attend venues like farmers’ markets to sell their products.
Jeremiah is frustrated by this. “Wines and ciders and meads can be sold at farmers markets, but not distilled spirits—and while government staff are looking at it, we don’t see a firm date regarding changes.” Neighbouring Nova Scotia may be the most progressive of the Atlantic provinces in terms of local distilleries, “and the benefits are obvious. They’re developing jobs and growing their local economies.”
At one point, he threatened to move the business to Nova Scotia to avoid a tax markup paid to New Brunswick’s liquor outlets. “We told them we’d have the best branding story in Canada if we were the moonshiners who left to set up at the edge of Nova Scotia because we had to run away from the “revenuers” in New Brunswick.” The province has since implemented a “don’t touch, don’t tax” policy so that they don’t get a markup on products sold at the distillery.
At this time Jeremiah does the lion’s share of the work on site. He explains: “Joshua has just started his young family, plus he manages the place in St. Stephen, so I said for now I’d steer the ship and once we get to safer ground, he can come work fulltime as well. He helps out when he can, and we have several other fulltime and part-time employees, plus seasonal people.” The main trick is to not spread themselves too thin while the company is in its early years of growing.
Don’t drink and bumble
If you’ve visited Moonshine Creek Distillery or purchased one of their products, you’ve likely seen the advice, “Don’t drink and bumble.” Jeremiah explains. “Around here, if you are driving around aimlessly, you’re going for a bumble. ‘Don’t drink and bumble’ is both a way to start a conversation at the distillery and to stress to customers not to drink and drive. We thought it was a fun way to get out the important message and also share local culture.”
It’s a point of pride to Jeremiah that he and Joshua defied the odds and were able to create their now-booming business in their home community, “that we could be the change that we wanted to see in our part of the province.” He’s especially happy that after years of working away, he could come back home and create a viable business.
“You can’t miss home if you never leave,” he says. “I never missed home or appreciated this place until I left to work for a few years. Now I’m content being where I’m from, in the house we grew up in.”