The Story of Georgian Bay Spirit Co.

Georgian Bay Spirit Company took the craft beverage world by storm when they released their first canned cocktail, the Georgian Bay Gin Smash, in the spring of 2016. The success of this revolutionary product hinged on two very important areas of expertise: the first was understanding how to distill and blend outstanding spirits, and the second was understanding how to enjoy them.

Before the Gin Smash, the only available canned cocktails were either sickeningly sweet or completely flavourless, which meant that if you wanted a quality cocktail, you’d have to buy a bottle of gin, make a pit stop for ingredients, and craft the beverage yourself. But, what Denzil Wadds and Tim Keenleyside taught us when they created the Gin Smash is that enjoying a cocktail doesn’t have to be complicated. When the duo started producing spirits together in 2013, they understood that people wanted a beverage that wouldn’t slow them down, and yet still tasted as good as a handcrafted cocktail. In response, they created ready-to-drink cocktails made with their award-winning spirits that could be easily enjoyed around a campfire with friends, lakeside at the end of a long paddle, or even at the bottom of the ski hill.

With these moments in mind, it will come as no surprise that the inspiration for the distillery came from Denzil and Tim’s own adventures on Georgian Bay. Both men grew up in families who had cottages on the Bay since the 40s, and it was at the peak of Osler Bluff Ski Club, just a few minutes outside Collingwood, that the two decided what to name their company.

“The most difficult part of creating any brand is naming it. So, we’re standing on top of Osler on a beautiful sunny day looking out over Georgian Bay, where Tim and I had spent so much of our childhoods, and then suddenly someone said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Georgian Bay Spirits’, and that’s what we named it” recalled Denzil. Since that moment, Denzil and Tim have made it their goal to create a product that will bring people together and help create the kind of lasting memories that they’ve spent a lifetime making on Georgian Bay.

The pair’s story began long before that moment on top of Osler, though. In fact, for 20 years, Denzil and Tim owned a small ad agency in Downtown Toronto, where they spent their careers developing brands for other organizations. One day, when Denzil was meeting with a client at a duty-free shop, he came across a bottle of Junior Johnson’s Moonshine. The bottle told a story of a moonshine recipe that was passed down from generation to generation going back to the era of prohibition, and although it tasted awful, it turned out to be one of the shop’s top selling bottles of liquor. As a natural born storyteller with two decades of advertising experience, Denzil took this encounter as a sign, and he brought a bottle of Junior Johnson’s back to his agency to announce that they were going to make moonshine.

Denzil began researching the distilling process and working on branding for their product in January 2013. He then started experimenting with distilling gin in his own kitchen using a coffee siphon (i.e., a fancy coffee maker that works in a similar fashion to a still). He would experiment with recipes late into the night after putting his kids to bed, often staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning. Finally, after many tries, Denzil came up with a recipe that could be used to pitch the budding company’s product to the LCBO. He and Tim then contracted a distillery to scale the recipe from the half litre produced in Denzil’s kitchen, to 600 litres. Though the recipe was far from perfect, they received a conditional listing with the LCBO and were granted a year to work on their recipe.

By 2014 Georgian Bay Spirit Company was on the shelves of LCBOs across the province, and in 2016 they released the first cans of Gin Smash. After releasing their first canned cocktail, they sold what they expected to sell in a year in just four weeks and spent the following summer trying to catch up with the quickly increasing demand for their products. “It was at that moment that we realized we had a real company, and we would have to start giving more attention to it. We started building a team around us with people that really knew the business, brought on a board of directors, and as of now we have 35 employees that are all incredibly talented and are helping us continue to grow this business” explained Denzil.

Denzil and Tim closed their ad agency in 2017 so they could give their full attention to their burgeoning business and began looking for a property to open a manufacturing facility in Collingwood. In 2019 they started building their distillery and began production on-site in 2020. Denzil and Tim are thrilled to finally be producing their spirits on Georgian Bay, as they had always dreamt of.

“To be able to have a distillery on Georgian Bay, in a town like Collingwood, where you know palates are only getting more sophisticated and there’s more and more creative, interesting, diverse people up here. It’s just fantastic. Literally since day one I wanted to have a distillery in Collingwood. I just needed to build a business that could support it first” explained Denzil.

They have now produced well over a million litres of alcohol at their location on Raglan Road, in Collingwood, and have won numerous awards for their spirits including being named in the top ten spirits at the London Spirits Competition last year, as well as winning world’s best vodka at the San Francisco Worlds spirits competition in 2016. Though Denzil lives outside the town he says Collingwood still feels like a second home, and as the company has settled into their new space, he has started connecting more with many of the local businesses. Soon after arriving, Denzil and Tim connected with the Business Development Centre in downtown Collingwood and were introduced to many other local businesses through their contacts there. “The staff from the town gave us tons of information about demographics and the tourism industry in Collingwood and helped facilitate conversations between other businesses as well” explained Denzil. Tim and Denzil also participated in a round table of local craft beverage producers that was hosted by the town in 2020 and have since become a part of the Collingwood Craft Beverage Tour.

Even when Denzil’s not working, he can often be found having lunch at Northwinds Brewhouse, or spending time mountain biking or skiing with his family in Collingwood, and as Georgian Bay Spirit Company continues to grow, it’s likely that the town will be seeing a lot more of him. One of the things that Denzil looks forward to most is opening an on-site tasting room and patio at the distillery in the next couple years so they can finally interact with their customers in-person. He imagines hosting weddings and bands in their space someday and anticipates experimenting with more small batch products once they can offer tastings on site. Needless to say, there’s a lot for Denzil and his team to be excited about.

To keep up to speed with Georgian Bay Spirit Company’s ongoing adventures you can check out their website at georgianbayspiritco.com.

Photo Credits: Dave West Photography
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