On a blustery morning at the 2012 Savour Stratford Culinary Festival, Michael Heisz was sitting in the whisky tasting seminar when a friend leaned over and whispered, “Why don’t we make this?”
Michael was looking for ideas. After 15 years of design process engineering and managing a staff of 80 at Blackberry in Waterloo, he was looking for a career change. In his research he discovered that craft distilling was on the same trajectory as craft brewing in the 1980s when the market started looking for something besides mainstream mega-brands.
Enter, Heisz’ new venture, Junction 56 Distillery: ‘Junction’ for the railroad running alongside his distillery building, and ‘56’ for 1856, the year the railroad reached Stratford and transformed the town. Perhaps Michael’s affinity for
fermentation comes naturally. He grew up in Formosa, Ontario, where he had summer jobs in the large brewery where his father and grandfather worked.
‘PROOF’ OF CONCEPT
Heisz took an engineer’s approach to his research. “I took this great craft distilling course down in the United States, and visited three other craft distillers where I asked a lot of questions and got lots of ideas and practical advice. The distillers culture is very open because they don’t view each other as competition – we’re creating a movement and going after our own little slices of the major brands’ markets.”
Heisz also took a business course from Stratford Perth Centre for Business, finding the section on cash flow projections especially helpful. “Distilling is a less temperamental process than brewing but the capital requirements are
higher,” he says. “Holly Mortimer at Perth Community Futures was really helpful with my business plan, and we
secured joint funding from the Business Development Bank of Canada and Perth Community Futures. I have to say I so appreciate how pain-free they made going through all the steps for financing.”
After his background work, on January 9, 2015, Heisz bought the former Pounder Brothers building supply store on Cambria Street. “And construction began on the 10th,” he smiles. “I actually came into this with no intention of buying a building, but when Pounder’s came up for sale, it was perfect. This way we’re preserving a significant building and its 19th-Century look will be a big plus in our marketing. I wanted to be physically and visually close to Stratford’s downtown as my primary market because our plans include foot traffic, retail and eventually tastings.”
“Provincial licensing for production, transportation and sales is still a real maze, but the easiest part was getting required approval from our neighbours, churches, parks and libraries,” he shrugs. “The only reply was from a minister who wanted to know when he should drop by to sample my work.”
Junction 56’s sparkling steel and copper tanks and towers started up in April for the first 300-litre bottling in June. “We’re starting with vodka – it’s the simplest. Then we’ll make vodka for vapour-infused gin – the plan is to go for a citrus-y, clean profile, but the variations are almost limitless. Next we will make white, un-aged whisky, sometimes called white whisky or moonshine. We will set aside some of that for Canadian whisky which requires a minimum of three years barrel aging.”
To differentiate Junction 56, Michael intends to do a lot of experimenting with local ingredients, like grain from his
family’s farm, local botanicals for the gins, and local woods for aging. “Some of the chefs in town are already asking about how they can help and suggesting some things to try,” he says. “There’s no reason not to try stuff!”
Michael’s biggest lesson to pass on: “In this case, go as big as you can afford, because distilling is not labour
intensive. I’ll spend one or two days a week distilling and bottling – the rest is marketing, running the business, and getting out and selling.” And his friend at the whiskey tasting? “He’s now a silent investor,” Michael smiles.