The Last Straw Distillery story is about family and friends coming together to bring a crazy idea to life. How exactly did a group of people with no background in the food and beverage business - let alone in making spirits – build an award-winning distillery in Vaughan, Ontario? It’s a story of imagination, hard work, perseverance, and above all, love. It’s also a story best enjoyed with a dram of Darker Side – so take a minute to pour yourself one, and read on!
It started as a brewery.
Inspired by the story of John Graham at Church-Key Brewing near scenic Campbellford, Ontario, Don DiMonte was researching what it would take to open a craft brewery of his own. In the course of his research, he learned that Ontario only had one recent distillery startup – Still Waters Distillery in Concord – and saw an opportunity. He was working full-time in the family construction business – sewers and water mains mostly – and at some point while knee-deep in icy water digging out a broken pipe by hand, the brewery dream turned into a distillery. Don dropped in to Still Waters and met one of the founders, Barry Stein, who welcomed him with open arms, and encouraged Don to chase his dream.
Don’s wife, Ana Simoes, had recently finished law school in Ottawa as a mature student – compressing her classes into three days per week, so that she could be home with her family the other four days – and was just starting her career as a lawyer in Toronto. Time and money were both in short supply for both of them. Shortly after Don’s Still Waters visit, he shared his distillery dream with Ana. She joked that “Last Straw” would be a good name, since it ties in to the grain-to-glass nature of distilling, and if it didn’t work out, it might just be the last straw for their family finances. Then and there, they decided to add a distillery to their already insanely busy lives.
A few days later, Don headed to downtown Toronto to pick Ana up after work, where she was out for drinks with the group of newly minted lawyers she had just finished articling with. Don ended up debating the merits of craft beer with one of those lawyers – Mike Hook – who Ana had gone to law school with as well. Don said that while beer is great, his true passion is whisky, and shared that he wanted to open a distillery. Mike offered to do the legal work in exchange for a stake in the company. They went on to have a long conversation about all the cool stuff they’d do if they had a distillery. At the end of the evening, the group dispersed into the night. Mike left with the assumption that the conversation was just cloud talk.
Until the next morning, when Don called Mike to start the wheels in motion. Last Straw Distillery Corp. was born a few days later, in the spring of 2013.
The dream was a field-to-glass farm distillery, and a family farm near the Town of Erin seemed like the perfect opportunity. The team started the licensing process with the Canada Revenue Agency. The still was ordered. The whole extended family from ages 9-82 came together to help with the buildout. A construction background certainly helped, with many skilled friends helping to frame and drywall, run electrical and plumbing, and MacGyver-ing up some home-made distilling equipment to help save on startup costs.
Though the agricultural zoning at the property allowed for a farm distillery use on the property, the team thought it to be good for community relations, and perhaps a little PR to ask for town council’s blessing. The community members all loved the idea, and Last Straw got its first newspaper writeup in the local paper. In the meantime, the team met Shawn Wells – a whisky fanatic, globetrotter, and branding wizard – who joined the team to develop our brand, website, and early marketing campaigns.
Don got to work on researching the finer points of mashing, fermenting, and distilling, experimenting with different grains and processes. Family and friends bravely sampled our nearly undrinkable first efforts, and managed not to spit them in our faces. Don took some of every batch to “the Barrys” at Still Waters, who helped him to recognize mistakes, and refine the process. Trial and error may not be the most efficient way to learn to distill, but it brought the advantage of understanding the processes in detail. Experimentation became a core part of Last Straw as a company, and the source of our Blackstrap Rum, barrel-aged moonshines, and weird one-off releases.
Then came the first roadblock. Unfortunately, town council took a different view of the zoning, and required a zoning amendment, which the company couldn’t even come close to paying for. With the distillery licensed and built out after months of work, and ready to work towards a grand opening, this was a huge setback. It was not, however, the last straw. The search was on for a new home.
After a few weeks of searching, Don found a small industrial unit in Concord which was available, and the second build-out was on. The support from family and friends was just as strong this time around, and with their help, we pulled through. After half a year spent getting the licenses, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection systems in order at the new location, the grand opening to the public was set for early August. There was just one problem – the provincial licensing and bottle shop permissions still hadn’t come through. This too was not the last straw. It came right down to the wire, with thrice daily calls to the government, and the sales license came through with an hour and a half to spare before the opening.
Last Straw opened its doors in August, 2016 with three products – Gin Twenty-One, Blackstrap, and Dark Side of the Moonshine (another Ana name) – all of which were made with a home-made 55 gallon steam jacketed mash tun/stripping still appropriately named MacGyver, and a 100 gallon stainless steel column still. We’d never intended to make a gin, but Don’s youngest son, Brandon DiMonte, had talked the team into letting him experiment with different recipes. We bought a small hobby still, he made his own base spirit from sugar and water, and got to experimenting. After batches A-Z, and 21 more numbered batches, and with the help of our family and friends at a series of tasting events, his test batch #21 became our production recipe. More importantly, Brandon has since become our head distiller – the youngest (and we think best) in Canada. Brandon’s methodical, repeatable approach to the process is the perfect balance to Don’s drive to innovate and experiment.
While whisky is the heart and soul of the distillery - the first offerings of big, bold, single grain whiskies were released in July and November, 2019 - Last Straw offers a full range of spirits made grain-to-glass in house, in ultra-small batches - vodka, rum, barrel aged moonshines, and weird one-off experimental products. Check out our web store for what's currently available.
Slowly but surely, we’re making headway into LCBO stores through the craft distillers direct delivery program, in direct-to-licensee sales to bars and restaurants, and building a growing following of fine folks who visit us regularly to be the first to try our new releases. We’re actively exploring export markets in the United States and Asia, and sales to other Canadian Provinces’ liquor authorities. We're collaborating with local craft breweries, and regularly lend our used casks out for barrel aging programs, including a few spirit/beer collabs which see a beer literally basting in its own juices.
There have been other false starts, near-fatal mistakes, and unanticipated challenges along the way, all part of the experience of opening an independent distillery in one of the most highly regulated and taxed places in the world. None of those have been the last straw. The result of these tribulations is a giving spirit, as Last Straw tries to pay forward the love and assistance our family, friends, colleagues, and “competitors” so willingly gave to us in our early days – and still do in many ways. Don is the de facto first resource for dozens of aspiring distillers across Ontario. Last Straw has incubated several distilleries which now stand on their own – including Durham Distillery, O’Kenny Craft Spirits, and Pepprell Distilling. Mike has written a step by step guide to the legal aspects of starting a distillery, and has guided several startups through the process.
We also contract distill and bottle for several other companies, and have helped companies develop their processes from the research and development stage onward. We custom-distill private label spirits for people and companies looking to add a bespoke touch to gifts, events, and special occasions. We also sell custom and private casks at prices that can’t be beat.
Nowadays we’re working our way up the supply chain, to partner directly with local, small, family-run organic and regenerative farms, and other small suppliers, to ensure that our success becomes the success of our community in general. If you’re interested in working with us, we’d love to hear from you.
Through all of this, we have developed recipes of the highest quality that are truly unique to Last Straw Distillery. Each recipe was developed from scratch, and in-house by trial, error, and practice, and without the use of outside consultants, high-tech gadgets, or marketing gimmicks. To this day, everything from dumping the grain in the mash tun to filling and labeling bottles is done by hand, and with pride. We love what we do and we believe that the love comes through in every bottle.
Oh, and buy our stuff. That would make us really happy.
<3 – Don, Ana, Mike, Brandon, and the Last Straw family.