When Cam Forminca, Nolan van der Heyden and Jordan van der Heyden finished post-secondary, like most recent grads, the three bounced ideas about their future. With mixed backgrounds in environmental science and engineering, the three twenty-somethings wanted to do something new, something different, something out of the box. This was five years ago, and now, they are the proud founders of Willibald Farm Distillery, a gin distillery in Ayr.
“We saw a lot of opportunities in beverages and alcohol. Beer was up and coming, or already there, spirits were on the horizon, so we saw the potential in that,” Forminca said.
After two years of construction on the van der Heyden’s existing farm, and investments from friends and family, the guys started distilling in May 2016, opening their doors a year later in April 2017. By October of the same year, Willibald gin was being sold in Waterloo LCBOs, and now the product can be found in approximately 50-60 LCBO locations across southern Ontario.
“Our opening day, we had probably around 600 people out here,” Forminca said.
“You hope it’s going to be good. I don’t think we were ready for that type of response. [The] parking lot was full, both sides of the laneway to the end of the road, both sides of the road to the corner, [was full] of cars. We had two bartenders, so they were wildly overworked.”
Since opening, the business has only been growing. Their liquor license at first only allowed them to serve samples of their gin. People would make the drive to Ayr, tour the distillery (which is beautiful) and sample the gin. While this experience was worth the drive, Forminca explained that it was hard to make people come back a second time.
With the passing of a new government legislation, they were then allowed to serve cocktails, which gave customers more incentive to make the drive. Forminca and his partners are constantly experimenting with cocktail recipes, having different specials every weekend. Although most of their business comes from Ayr, slowly, more people are driving in from other nearby cities.
This summer, Willibald experimented with more ways to interact with their customers and bring them out to the farm, holding “Summer Sessions,” a ticketed, recurring event with cocktails, food and live music..
They’ve also made themselves very visible in Kitchener and Waterloo. Bright yellow, Willibald-branded Volkswagen aside, they also poured cocktails at the Arabella pop-up on Ontario Street at the beginning of August, and served samples of their gin at the Community Edition’s annual art-party-on-a-train, Steel Rails (shameless plug for our own event).
But the question remains: why gin?
“Knowing that we love oak aging and oak aged products, aging a gin seemed like a really cool opportunity, it wasn’t really being done really at all in Canada,” Forminca explained.
“I saw a lot of benefit in having a gin that you could use in most of the traditional ways that you would use a gin, but having that aged component to use it now in cocktails that would typically require an aged component that an unaged gin would not be ideal for, and unaged whiskey obviously doesn’t fill that void, so it’s like, aging the gin was like two birds with one stone. It was like creating two products in one.”
Forminca included that he and his partners don’t have the desire to release a ton of products.
“We believe in keeping a very narrow focus and really knocking those out of the park,” he said.
That said, currently a full two thirds of their production capacity is going to whiskey, which won’t be ready for a few years. In addition, a new product will be released in early September that consists of unaged whiskey, apples, cinnamon and other spices. This “mulled-whiskey-esque-spirit” will be aged in ex-bourbon casks and will compliment the “fall on the farm” aesthetic perfectly.
It’s no secret that Forminca and the van der Heydens have hit the ground running on all things Willibald, but their newest project is the biggest one yet. In just a few weeks, Willibald’s kitchen will open. The distillery will be offering full dinner service from Wednesday to Saturday every week, and lunch service on Saturdays.
“We’ve been working on a little project out here, over the winter and into the spring [sic] to try to build an emphasis around the farm. The farm, we realized pretty early on, is one thing in distilleries, specifically in Ontario, that set us apart. We’re one of the very few farm distilleries, there’s only two others,” Forminca said.
“If we can create a reason to get people out here and have them experience it, then we can really get people on board with what we’re trying to do.”
The restaurant’s focus will be farm to table. They will utilize the resources they have on their own land, like their vegetable garden, as well as resources from neighbouring farms, like grass-grazing Galloway heritage beef and pigs.
“You do as much as you can, and create as [much of a] sustainable of a project as you can. That’s all you can do. For us, that means relying heavily on the seasons,” Forminca said.
Alongside head chef Byron Hallet and sous chef Mike Gibner, both from KW, the team aims to create a menu that is seasonal and creative, yet approachable. With the installation of a wood-fire oven, Forminca can guarantee that pizza will be on the menu.
“We’re going to provide an experience, that’s big for us. We want you to come out here and get something you can’t get other places, and get a Willibald-esque experience, opposed to something you’re super comfortable with,” Forminca said.
“Now, that’s not to say that everything we’re going to do will be way out there, but I think we’re going to try to present flavour and quality in a way that’s a little bit different than what we’re used to around here. That’s the goal.”
The restaurant also opens the door to expand Willibald’s in-house liquor license, too. Now, rather than being limited to just serving Willibald products, they can serve other alcoholic beverages, making it easier to widen their cocktail menu and serve a classic Negroni, a drink they haven’t been able to make before because it requires vermouth and Campari.
Forminca explained that one of his goals with the opening of the restaurant is to continue to represent the Willibald brand, and communicate with their customers. He cited the owners of Monigram, a coffee shop in downtown Galt, saying that they set the bar for exceptional small business owners. They’re present and proud of the brand they’ve established, and Forminca idolizes that approach.
“Being small enough, it’s definitely manageable,” he said.
The next few weeks will undoubtedly be busy on the Willibald farm, but the atmosphere feels positive and energetic.
“This is an agricultural business, and we treat it like that, and we thought the restaurant would tie into that very well, and tie into the existing business very well, and provided just that next level opportunity to showcase what we’re up to on the distilling side of things,” Forminca said.
“When we take something on, we take it on or we don’t do it. We’ve had that mentality since we opened, and this restaurant is going to be no different.”
Beth is the former Editor in Chief of the Community Edition. She held this position from October 2017 - November 2019. When she's not writing, she's usually knocking back too many coffees at Princess Café, searching for new craft beer in the Region or forcing one of her foster cats to love her. Follow her on Twitter @angryelbows.