School Spirits: Niagara College unveils Canada’s first student-crafted vodka

Canada’s first class of Artisan Distilling students have achieved a new milestone with completion of Niagara College Teaching Distillery’s first vodka.

After more than a month in the making, School Spirits Small Batch Vodka made its debut on March 28. It is the second product from the class of 16 students who began their studies in September 2018, following the release of an Eau-de-vie de Fruits in mid-January.

“It’s a proud day for us at Niagara College as we, for the first time ever, are able to showcase a student-crafted vodka made from the combination of experiential learning and knowledge of fractional distillation,” said Steve Gill, general manager of NC’s Learning Enterprises. “After the Teaching Distillery’s first spirit flew off the shelves in January, the next release has been highly anticipated. It seems everyone wants a taste of what our country’s future leaders in the growing craft distilling industry are producing.”

“Vodka was the next logical step for our Artisan Distilling students because it is a staple at many craft distilleries,” said NC’s head distiller David Dickson. “It’s very labour intensive to produce vodka at our Teaching Distillery, with our equipment designed for small batches, and navigating this manual process takes both knowledge and finesse.”

While it is sure to be enjoyed shaken and stirred, straight up and in mixed cocktails alike, Dickson noted that it is the absence of flavour that defines this neutral spirit, made from corn and barley. “The goal is to separate pure ethanol from all of the molecules that give flavour to a distilled spirit,” Dickson said. “This is accomplished by distilling the spirit to a very high percentage and separating all other flavouring molecules based on boiling point.”

Students manually controlled heat entering the pot still, which contains the alcohol, as well as the cooling for the dephlemator.

“Everyone got a chance to work on it, from start to finish,” said student Michael Bright. “We did the mashing, fermenting, stripping run and then, ultimately, the rectifying run on a hybrid still which brought it up to 95% to make vodka.”

The Niagara Falls resident, who has already graduated twice from Niagara College and has an honours university degree under his belt, was formerly a bar manager who enjoyed experimenting with cocktail recipes, infusions and creations. He decided to go back to school last fall to pursue distilling, anticipating promising future career opportunities in the growing industry.

“This whole course has been a really good experience and I’ve been learning quite a lot,” said Bright.

In addition to becoming a regularly released spirit from the Teaching Distillery, the new vodka will be used as a base to create future spirits at the Teaching Distillery, such as gin.

School Spirits Small Batch Vodka is available at NC’s Wine Visitor + Education Centre (135 Taylor Rd, Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON) while supplies last, priced at $28.10 for a 375-ml bottle. Proceeds from sales support student learning.

Niagara College’s Teaching Distillery is a 2,500-square-foot facility equipped with five stills, four mash tuns and 10 fermenters. Home to the College’s Artisan Distillingprogram, students will produce a variety of distilled products including vodka, gin, brandy, rum, whisky and other spirits. It opened in September 2018, completing the trifecta of beverage fermentation sciences at NC’s learning enterprises, following the footsteps of its Teaching Winery and Teaching Brewery which were also the first of their kind in Canada.

Niagara College offers more than 130 diploma, bachelor degree and advanced level programs; as well as more than 600 credit, vocational and general interest Part-Time Studies courses. Areas of specialization include food and wine sciences, advanced technology, media, applied health and community safety, supported by unique learning enterprises in food, wine, beer, horticulture and esthetics. For more information visit niagaracollege.ca.