Whisky producer eyes old warehouse on the edge of Winnipeg's Exchange District

An accountant with a passion for spirits is placing a half-million-dollar bet that downtown Winnipeg is ready for a whisky distillery.

Microdistillery Patent 5 hopes to open early in 2018, with decor from St. Regis Hotel's historic Oak Room

Pending city hall approval, the Dominion Express Co. building in the east Exchange will house Winnipeg's first microdistillery and tasting room. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

An accountant with a passion for spirits is placing a half-million-dollar bet that downtown Winnipeg is ready for a whisky distillery.

On Oct. 10, city council's property committee will consider a proposal to convert a corner of a 1903 delivery-service building on the edge of the east Exchange District into a microdistillery and tasting room called Patent 5.

Brock Coutts, a number cruncher by trade, is seeking permission to produce spirits and sell them to the public early in 2018 at a 1,700-square-foot distillery he plans to build in the Dominion Express Co. building on Alexander Avenue.​

Brock Coutts hopes to begin producing vodka, two varieties of gin and two whiskies at Patent 5 in 2018. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
Pending approval, Patent 5 would be only the second artisanal distillery to open its doors to the public in Winnipeg since Manitoba slightly loosened its liquor-production regulations — and the first in the city's downtown.

Gin and vodka producer Capital K opened on Dublin Avenue in the St. James Industrial neighbourhood in 2016.

"When you travel in the U.S., every liquor store you walk into has a hundred different whiskies," said Coutts, who first cooked up the idea of opening a microdistillery in Winnipeg after catching the home-brewing bug and  then seeing the potential for artisanal spirits.

"Microdistilleries are booming in the U.S. There are probably 1,500 today, from a couple hundred a decade ago," he said Tuesday in an interview.

Patent 5 is not Coutts's first shot at being an entrepreneur. He used to run a granite company that supplied alabaster to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. He also studied chemistry and has been brewing beer at home for four years.

He said he's dubbing his distillery Patent 5 after the fifth patent ever issued in Canada — the specifications for a patent still, back in 1869.

The window on the future tasting room at Patent 5 will be fully uncovered to restore the facade to a semblance of its original appearance. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
He and two silent partners are investing roughly $500,000 into the venture, which would produce vodka and two varieties of gin at first — a London dry gin and a floral gin, with Manitoba botanicals gathered by foragers. 

He would then begin producing whiskies.

Coutts said the plan is to produce a wheat whisky as well as a corn-based whisky, more akin to Crown Royal or bourbon. The intention is to price the gin and vodka as premium products in the $40 per bottle range, while the whiskies would have more expensive price points.

He believes Patent 5 will be the first whisky producer within the city limits since 1880, when Radiger & Erb produced a wheat whiskey at a Higgins Avenue property that would later become the Ogilvie flour mill. 

He's aiming for a license to sell bottles and offer samples in a tasting room that would open after production is underway.

"We need to make sure we make a great product before we bring in people to taste it," Coutts said. 

"We're planning for this to be a tourist destination. When you come to the city, you visit The Forks, you visit the Exchange, you're making a stop at the distillery and you're bringing a bottle of this home to show your friends and tell them the story about it."

Coutts said he believes Winnipeg could support a total of three or four small distilleries, including his own and Capital K. The growing number of microbreweries producing beer in Winnipeg points to a demand for artisanal alcohol, he suggested.

Oak from the Oak Room at the soon-to-be-demolished St. Regis hotel has been moved to Alexander Avenue, where it will be incorporated into Patent 5's tasting room. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)
Patent 5's storefront would be located around the corner from PEG Beer Co., whose proprietor said she likes the idea of a microdistillery opening around the corner from her microbrewery and restaurant. 

"I think it's perfect. I think it's a great synergy in the area. They're a friendly group of guys and we're glad to have them as neighbours," said Nicole Barry, who opened PEG in 2016. 

While the city has not yet published its report about Patent 5, Coutts said he's been told city planners are recommending council's property committee approve his proposal.

Heritage Winnipeg also supports the distillery, and not just because it will reuse a 114-year-old building.

Some wood and glass from the Oak Room at the shuttered St. Regis Hotel on Smith Street has been moved to Alexander Avenue, where it will be incorporated into the tasting room.

"What we loved about the project is people are going to see it. The public is going to see it. We didn't want to see the Oak Room saved and put in a private space," said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.

"The fact this is going in a tasting room is going to allow people to come and learn about the history of the St. Regis."

An accountant with a passion for spirits is placing a half-million-dollar bet that downtown Winnipeg is ready for a whisky distillery. 1:48

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.