If you find yourself deep in the grey jungle of Kanata’s tech park, driving down Silver Seven Road, you might stumble upon Ogham Craft Spirits’ distillery and tasting room. Tucked between a craft brewery and a spa, the building’s unassuming façade cradles a true jewel.
Named after an ancient Irish alphabet, Ogham promises to create spirits that faithfully represent the land they come from. From the grain and water used to produce its signature gin and poitin, to the equipment used in the distillation process, every part of Ogham’s offerings is an homage to its community.
View this post on Instagram
Ogham’s founder – who wishes to remain unnamed at this time – welcomed Apt613 into the facilities of the one-person operation for a tour and a tipple, just days before its September 4 grand opening. He guided us through the various parts of the distillation process, explaining the chemical processes that occur in each large metal container, with a precision I—a law school graduate whose last encounter with structural formulas dates to a time when TikTok was a hot new Ke$ha single—could never hope to convey.
“I directly drew the inspiration for the project from a distiller called Dingle on the west coast of Ireland,” says the founder. “They hand-forage all their botanicals from the immediate area, so when you’re at the bar, everyone in the town is super proud of that gin that comes from that distillery. You can meet the people who farmed the grain, picked the botanicals, and raised the sheep that are fed off of the grain that comes over the still. I love that little ecosystem that they have there, so here in Canada, I want to kind of do the same thing.”
While some of Ogham’s supply chain reaches beyond the Ottawa Valley, the distillery is gradually finding local sources for every ingredient that goes into its spirits. “One company I’m working with, Ottawa Valley Grain Products, I spoke to them, I told them my ambitions,” says the founder. “Corn was something that I was missing, so they called me up and they said, ‘We found a farmer who has corn. Are you able to pick it up?’ And so I drove up there and loaded 100 kilograms of corn into the back of my hatchback, and that’s what’s about to go into the next batch when we start this next week.”
Although his dream is to create his own whisky, he’s had to put it on the back burner for a little while: In Canada, a spirit must be aged in wood for at least three years to be labeled as whisky. Eager to start distilling, he decided to focus on products with a faster turnaround. Enter Ogham Craft Spirits’ maiden products: Pot Still Gin and Poitin, a traditional Irish distilled beverage sometimes called “Irish moonshine” (though the term most likely comes from the Irish word pota, meaning “pot,” the Irish word for a hangover is póit. Make of that what you will).
“This is essentially the same product that we’re going to be putting into wood to become the whiskey,” says the founder. “So if you visit us now and you taste what the poitin is like, then three years down the road you’ll be able to understand how the whiskey got to where it is.”
“Nobody knows what a distillery looks like. Nobody knows how to handle it.”
Craft spirits have experienced a significant boom over the last few years, with distilleries christening their stills across the country (it is traditional to name one’s still, as it is the hardest worker in the distillery – Ogham’s copper still is named Hope). From securing investment and navigating taxation to the dreaded Angel’s Share, the tongue-in-cheek name for a loss of approximately 2 per cent of the total volume of whisky during every year of aging, mostly due to evaporation, there are challenges in every step of the journey.
“You can go into a bank and say ‘I want to start a bakery,’ and they go ‘Okay, well we know it’s going to be, let’s say $300,000. Because you need ovens and people and you need footprint.’ Nobody knows what a distillery looks like. Nobody knows how to handle it,” says Ogham’s founder.
The COVID-19 pandemic added a number of other challenges. Ogham’s founder was set on sourcing his equipment from Canada and found a perfect partner in Specific Mechanical, from British Columbia, who were set to deliver the equipment in winter 2020. But capacity restrictions significantly slowed down production, delaying delivery to May 2021. Ever the optimist, Ogham’s founder didn’t let this setback slow him down. “The project had so much momentum at that point, it was like, ‘Well, regardless what happens with COVID, we’re full steam ahead at this point, so we hope that it all works out!’”
His advice to aspiring distillers: Start small, understand the industry, and do your research. Oh, and if you can’t afford a tax lawyer, consider becoming one: “Most businesses are not regulated the same way as the alcohol industry. There’s an entire tax infrastructure you have to navigate.”
Despite the delays, malfunctions, and roadblocks, Ogham’s founder has no regrets. “I have never met an unhappy distiller. They’re all very passionate about what they do […] It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of practice, practice, practice. But once you understand the basics, you can drink your mistakes. Maybe it didn’t exactly turn out as you wanted, but with a little tonic or a little Coke, it’s all worthwhile.”
You can purchase Ogham Craft Spirits at the distillery located at 767 Silver Seven Road, Unit 23 Ottawa, Ontario. If you or someone you know grows grains or botanicals, or if you’re a local vendor with something to share, reach out to Ogham on the distillery’s website or via Instagram.