Whisky production returns to downtown Winnipeg after 139 years

Patent 5, an artisanal distillery on Alexander Avenue, has started brewing up gin and vodka and will soon begin making single-malt whisky in a place that used to house steamship-delivery horses during Winnipeg's warehouse boom.

Patent 5 distillery set for soft launch this week; tasting room incorporates wood from Oak Room

The combination still at Patent 5 Distillery, which is planning a soft launch this week and opens in March. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

For the first time in nearly 140 years, whisky will be produced in downtown Winnipeg.

Patent 5, an artisanal distillery on Alexander Avenue, has started brewing up gin and vodka and will soon begin making single-malt whisky inside a 1,700-square-foot space that used to house steamship-delivery horses during Winnipeg's warehouse boom.

The new distillery, whose tasting room opens for a soft launch on Thursday, is the first to produce whisky downtown since 1880, when Radiger & Erb produced a wheat whisky at a Higgins Avenue property that would later become the Ogilvie flour mill. 

Patent 5 co-owner Brock Coutts said he and his partners spent five years looking for the perfect property before the old Dominion Express Co. livery stables became available.

The building on the edge of the Exchange District was completed in 1904, when Winnipeg was still experiencing rapid, railway-fuelled growth — and bars and bawdy houses infamously outnumbered churches in what was then a debauched boomtown.

"The history of this area is awesome," said Coutts, who studied chemistry, brewed beer at home and ran a granite-supply business before he and several partners invested almost $1 million in the distillery.

The tasting room at Patent 5 incorporates wood and stained glass from the old Oak Room at the now-defunct St. Regis Hotel. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Patent 5 is not the first artisanal distillery to operate in Winnipeg since Manitoba loosened up its liquor-production regulations in 2014. Capital K started producing gin and vodka in 2016 in its facility on Dublin Avenue in the St. James Industrial neighbourhood. Capital K is also selling an "oaked wheat" spirit with the intention of producing whisky down the road.

At first, Patent 5 will only sell gin and vodka as well, as whisky takes at least three years to age. Coutts' distillery uses a copper combination still, which incorporates elements of a traditional pot still and the more modern column still. He's flavouring his gin using vapour infusion, rather than placing the alcohol in direct contact with botanicals such as orange peel and chamomile.

The distillery takes its name from the patent for the column still, the fifth patent issued by the Dominion of Canada, back in 1869. Patent 5 also plans to produce a genever, which incorporates elements of both whisky and gin, and sell it within three or four months, possibly under the label of "auld gin."

The single-malt whisky will take longer to produce.

"I'm hoping that a year after we make it, we'll be able to offer some for people to taste and buy and understand where we're going with our three, five [and] 10-year-old whiskies," said Coutts, who has yet to decide how the whisky will be labelled.

What he does know is he wants it to be smooth, rather than smoky.

"I don't like whisky that you have to let sit for a long time to air out and you sort of wince when you take your first sip. It should be a beautifully smooth whisky, from the first sip to the end of the drink," he said.

Patent 5 co-owner Brock Coutts at his distillery, which operates within the Dominion Express Co. building, completed in 1904. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Later in March, the distillery plans to open its tasting room, which incorporates wood and stained glass from the old Oak Room at the now-shuttered St. Regis Hotel.

The wood and glass were destined for a landfill before Heritage Winnipeg found it a new home at Patent 5.

"We've had lots of people walk in and say, 'are you ever lucky,' " said Coutts, noting the Dominion Express Co. building and the St. Regis were completed two years apart.

"It looks like it's original. It fits," Coutts said. "We've essentially married the Oak Room with an old warehouse and they've turned it into a tasting room."

The wood from the Oak Room was destined for the landfill before Heritage Winnipeg found a home for it at the distillery. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The tasting room will serve cocktails using Patent 5 spirits as well as bitters produced by Coutts' wife, Dinah Santos, a pharmacist. She's developed made-in-Manitoba flavours such as chokecherry, sour cherry and rhubarb.

The cocktail menu is in the hands of Brendan O'Shaughnessy, a Saskatoon native who spent five years mixing drinks at Cuchillo, a pan-Latin restaurant in Vancouver.

The room has sourced vintage crystal glassware for the beverages and old chairs from a Presbyterian church in Melita to match the vintage wood and stained glass.

"To work in a room that feels like the era when cocktails started is really nice," said O'Shaugnessy, standing in his future workspace.

The distillery has started producing vodka and gin. Whisky will follow within months. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The Patent 5 tasting room on Alexander Avenue is located 80 metres from the front door of Nonsuch Brewing, which operates a tasting room on Lily Street.

​"The more the merrier down here. We feel we're building a bit of a district," said Nonsuch vice-president and co-founder Ben Myers.

To Coutts, making whisky is a lot like making beer, albeit with a major step added at the end.

"Most beer guys would argue that's not the case," he laughs. "Whisky is just another beer-like product."

It also happens to be a product no one else in Winnipeg is making, despite the city's boozy, boomtown past.

Whisky distillery in downtown Winnipeg

5 years ago
Duration 2:13
Featured VideoThis bubbling mash of wheat and barley marks the start of something downtown Winnipeg hasn't seen for 139 years.