For most, the name Georgian Bay brings memories of carefree days spent on the water, basking in the summer sunshine and the freedom of the North. Now, that sentiment has been encapsulated into bottles and translated into a singular brand using the cottage destination as its namesake. Georgian Bay Spirit Company has revolutionized spirits and ready to drink cocktails, infusing all-natural flavour, carefully sourced botanicals, and a hint of Canadiana into every sip.
Friends and business partners, Tim Keenleyside and Denzil Wadds, were working together at their advertising firm when the idea to enter the liquor market quickly became a serious venture. Both passionate gin enthusiasts, the pair decided to create a product that put quality first. However, they had never made gin before.
“It was an exciting time because we didn’t know anything about making gin or vodka when we started looking around for potential distillery partners who would let us use their skill to produce a product,” founder Tim Keenleyside told us in a phone interview. “At the same time, we submitted our proposal for Georgian Bay Gin – which was our first product – to the LCBO. They really liked the concept…and said, ‘We like the brand you’ve come up with – you have six weeks before moving into the tasting round.’”
In those following six weeks, Keenleyside and Wadds found themselves in Wadds’ kitchen making gin. While the first batch wasn’t striking, the government-run retailer loved the product and concept. In the 8-month period from when their product was accepted to when it had to hit shelves, the partners went back to Wadds’ kitchen to perfect their craft. 48 recipes later, the blend for Georgian Bay Gin was born.
“We settled on six botanicals. First, obviously, is juniper. We use a blend of hand-picked Georgian Bay juniper. In fact, I was just up on Georgian Bay yesterday with a bunch of our team members picking juniper in the cold, which was a lot of fun….We do blend in Italian juniper as well, and Egyptian coriander, California lemon peel, and Spanish orange peel. Then we have angelica root, which is a very woodsy botanical often found in herbal tea, and something called grains of paradise, which is a member of the ginger family found in western Africa.”
This impressive botanical fusion – and extensive testing – has certainly paid off. The Toronto-based brand won Double Gold for their gin at the 2018 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and the vodka won Double Gold and Best Vodka in 2016. For the competition, each submission goes through a blind taste test. In order to move onto the final round, each judge must score the beverage with a gold, amassing a Double Gold standard.
“Once you make that spirit, and put it into a bottle, and sell it, everything from there is meant to be consistent. You are selling that product for the rest of time. You get one shot at making this exceptional product. We were very aware of that,” Tim remarked. “When we had the opportunity with the gin, in that 8-month window, to really work on it and really perfect it, we were set on finding absolutely the best botanicals…Finding the right botanicals, taking our time, having the right palette, doing a lot of testing with friends and family, taking detailed notes – all the upfront work really pays off.”
Their most notable offering, however, is their craft cocktails, conveniently offered in a 473mL can. The Gin Smash and Vodka Smash have completely revolutionized the ready to drink market, offering an all-natural mixed drink at a competitive price. Most coolers contain artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup, which supports a long and stable shelf life but detracts from flavour and quality. By taking a “real mixology focus” and exclusively using natural ingredients, the end result has attracted fans from all over, and a youthful consumer base – one that hopefully will grow into lifetime customers.
“We’ve had a unique response in that [our products] seems to be a hit across a wide range of demographics when you look at age. From 19-year-olds to 60-year-olds, people have really embraced this product…We are really focused on a mindset. If you take a university student and put two products side by side and you gave them a choice between something at the same price that and said one is natural, made with a craft spirit and more complex in flavour, which would they choose? We’ve seen that millennials really do embrace this idea of bringing a greater quality and more of a mixology forward focus to this space. We’ve been embraced by younger consumers are we are developing products to really bring them into the brand,” Keenleyside said.
As a gin and tonic man himself, it is obvious that Tim Keenleyside is dedicated to creating a new generation of true craft cocktail enthusiasts. By using Georgian Bay as the inspiration of the brand – an environment that is built around purity, balance, nature, and relaxation – the spirits aren’t just an alcohol: they represent community, family and a connectivity to our environment. Having built the company from the ground up, Keenleyside, Wadds and their third partner, former CFL commissioner Mark Cohon, now lead a team of 20 employees and are entering into a period of hyper-growth.
When asked for what kind of advice he would give young Canadian entrepreneurs, Keenleyside said, “The number one you need going in is perseverance; you need to have passion going in to deal with the challenges you are going to face. Really, it is not easy. When we were small and didn’t know what we were doing, the stakes weren’t that high – and we had the freedom to make a lot of mistakes. As we started to grow, the mistakes got bigger and more expensive. At that point, you have to surround yourself with good people. Denny and I saw with Mark Cohon: someone who could scale businesses, who understands building great Canadian brands. So, Mark came on board and that was an important moment in our growth. And we had gone from a handful of people up to 20 in a short period of time, but we work with recruiters and people knowledgeable in the business and contacts in the business to build a really amazing team. And when you surround yourself with really great people, things start to take off.”
Georgian Bay Spirit Company is really taking off. Now internationally recognized as a top-tier producer for gin and vodka, and with their canned cocktails flying off the shelves, the Canadian brand is asserting itself as a major player. In the spring, we can expect to see the relaunch of their sold-out summer special, the cranberry flavoured Gin Smash, and a brand-new flavour launching shortly after.
Can’t wait until spring? Check out some of the delicious drinks made with Georgian Bay Spirit Company products that are the perfect recipe to get you in a holiday mood.