Riley Giffen has found himself in a unique position. Poised to return to University at the start of September, he has spent his dwindling days of summer vacation in a quite unusual place—pouring over a custom-made still to prepare for the launch of his very own distillery.
Named Coldstream Clear, for the pristine area that his company is headquartered; Giffen has spent the past year in between commitments at both school and working in Calgary, preparing to launch his company.
“I went to school at the NSAC in Truro,” said Giffen. “I took an organic chemistry class in my second year—we had a couple of units on distillation, on a super small scale. We weren’t distilling alcohol there; but you can distill all sorts of other things.
“I don’t even know how it came to be, or how I put two and two together,” he said. “I didn’t realize right away that the same principle is how you make alcohol. I was interested in it, read a lot online, and the next semester I had a project where I made bio-ethanol, which is really similar. So from that, I knew how to do it, and I knew I wanted to try it.”
There’s a fairly large gulf between making beer and wine at home, and distilling Vodka. You need specific permits to distill, which requires a lot of red tape to navigate.
“If I wanted to be able to do it, I had to get a license,” he explained. “If I got a license, you can’t just do it for fun. You have to sell it. It’s legal to make wine and beer for fun—just not spirits. Any distilled liquor requires a permit.
“The first stuff we made was far from what we’re making now,” continued Giffen. “Looking back, I can’t believe we thought we should do this. At the time we thought it was pretty decent—but that’s probably only because we made it ourselves.”
Giffen admits that it took a lot of attempts to start towards what’s now his final product. Along the way he garnered interest from his friends, and ultimately his father, who runs a water distribution business.
“They kept working to refine it and make it better—and eventually it did work and it was a lot better,” said Giffen’s mother Elaine. “Then they started to joke that they should sell it. That was last summer—a little over a year later, and we’re here with licenses, getting ready like crazy people for the opening.”
Licenses are only half the battle—they also had to come up with a Vodka that was both good enough to sell, and easy enough to make so that they can have genuine distribution numbers to allow for ample supply to the local market.
“It’s just trials on trials,” explained Giffen. “Getting better at distilling, and being more aware of what’s going on. We spent six months lining that up, and getting it custom made—reviewing specifications, and fact-checking, and calling back and forth.”
Getting his feet wet in the permitting side of the company was a rather straight forward task—but it was also extremely lengthy, and required as much work as he was pouring into the actual product from the still.
“It started with the Nova Scotia Liquor Commission (NSLC) website,” explained Giffen. “They have a checklist of about 18 different things. I looked at that, and thought that I can do that, although I can see where a lot of people get frightened and turn away from it. But I thought if I just plug away at it, I can make those 18 things go away.
“Those 18 things turned into probably 18 more steps for each of the original steps,” he continued. “It took me four months to get the permit to build our infrastructure; then just on the 26 we got the final permit that we needed. It took almost a year of doing things as fast as we possibly could.”
It was Giffen’s family that came together that helped him to get the business off the ground as quickly as they did.
“If my business partners weren’t my family then I don’t know how this all would have worked,” he concluded. “We all had equally important roles whether it be in the licensing process, creating recipes, building the distillery or actually distilling. Even my oldest brother and sister have helped out a huge amount whenever they could.”
The distillery’s grand opening celebration is on Sept. 5, from 1-6 p.m., at its location on 2006 Coldstream Road.
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.