Bright Side of Business: From bedroom moonshine to award-winning spirits, Dunrobin Distilleries has the recipe to success
When Mark Watson was a high schooler, he cobbled together an alcohol still in his bedroom, “borrowing” pyrex parts from his grandfather. His good friend, Adrian Spitzer, had his own still.
“Much to my parents’ dismay, we started making our own moonshine,” Watson recalls.
Fortunately, the pair didn’t go blind and that’s just as well because, several years later, they’d go on to co-found Dunrobin Distilleries, which uses local ingredients to create award-winning artisan spirits and bitters.
For Watson, the journey was a winding one. In university, he tried his hand at brewing beer and after graduation learned how to make wine through a winemaker. “It was a background hobby,” he says.
In 2007, he moved to Dunrobin with his family, taking over a small hobby farm. The farm had a maple syrup evaporator and an apiary and Watson began experimenting with making his own honey and maple mead. Before long, he went back to where he’d started: distilling.
“One thing led to another and I was building another mini-still,” Watson says. “I started making whiskey out of my garage, just for personal consumption.”
At first, Watson would share the whiskey with friends, taking it out on fishing trips. But the more he made, the better he got at it and so he made the decision to go into distilling full-time. By 2017, he’d introduced Spitzer to the project and, one year later, they incorporated the business.
During this time, Watson began growing botanicals on the farm. “You really have top control over the quality of what you put into the liquid,” he says.
Dunrobin Distilleries uses non-GMO ingredients, taking a “farm-to-glass” approach. The water it uses comes from a spring-fed aquifer, filtered through hundreds of feet of granite from the foothills of the Canadian Shield.
“It took us a long time to develop the recipes and now we’ve got them nailed down,” Watson says. “I would say it is the secret to our success.”
And it’s a great deal of success, too. Just this year, Dunrobin Distilleries products won a total of 10 awards across three different global competitions.
One of the competitions was the U.K.-based Global Spirits Masters. Watson and his team took home a gold award for their Dunrobin Artisanal Gin and silver for their Dunrobin Earl Grey Gin, a unique, purple-coloured product made with bergamot from the farm.
“We’re really proud about that one because I know they’re very big gin connoisseurs in England,” Watson says.
Dunrobin Distilleries also won two second-place prizes for its Canadian Whiskey in the U.S.-based International Whiskey Competition. “Considering that Canadian whiskey has such a long history — well over 100 years — to be recognized for that was a surprising victory for me,” Watson says.
Unsurprisingly, Watson’s favourite spirit is the award-winning Dunrobin’s Canadian Whiskey. From the new ready-to-drink line, his favourite is the canned grapefruit gin cocktail — a particularly large vote of confidence, as Watson was never a gin fan.
“I got sick on it while I was in high school and I could not stand it for the longest time until I started making it,” he says.
Dunrobin Distilleries’ gins are made with high-quality wild juniper and botanicals from the farm. “It’s not your granddaddy’s Beefeater,” Watson jokes.
In just a few short years, Dunrobin Distilleries has grown to a total of 34 full- and part-time employees, including vice-president Jonathan Hatchell, former CEO of the Royal Oak chain.
Looking ahead, Watson is excited about a new rum that the company is making, set to release in 2023. “We’re continuing to innovate and we’re continuing to create new great products.”