This gin made from Newfoundland seaweed is winning worldwide awards

The Newfoundland Distillery is expanding to other provinces and products as it quenches the thirst to "drink local" for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.

The Newfoundland Distillery expected seaweed gin to be a novelty

Peter Wilkins, co-founder of the Newfoundland Distillery, tries a gin and tonic made with the company's popular seaweed gin (Peter Cowan/CBC)

When you walk into the Newfoundland Distillery, the first thing that hits you is the sweet smell of grain being turned into alcohol, in three big copper stills in the back room.

 "I never really goes away," Peter Wilkins tells me with a smile.

He's exactly the sort of person you might expect to sell gin for a living. The co-founder of the distillery, with his British accent and bright floral shirts, stands out in Clarke's Beach, 80 kilometres outside St. John's on the Avalon Peninsula.

How he ended up in Newfoundland is a common tale. He met a Newfoundlander in Prague, married her and they moved back with their daughters.

Wilkins is a professional artist — his digital artwork adorns every free wall in the distillery.

He's also been a self-professed "professional drinker." When a friend, Dom Joly, hosted a comedic British TV show devoted to travelling the world trying local booze, Wilkins tagged along.

"I stood next to him sampling all the drinks and nodding wisely," he recounts.

The seaweed gin has proven to be the most popular, outselling the distillery's regular gin two to one. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

Sourcing local ingredients

Initially, a friend approached Wilkins about starting a distillery to make whisky.

It was Wilkins who suggested gin, and it's gin from Newfoundland Distillery that is now receiving international recognition, growing sales and showing that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have a thirst to "drink local," Wilkins said.

"We wanted to ensure we could do everything within the province and source everything that we conceivably could here," he said.

The savory comes from St. John's, the juniper picked all over the Avalon Peninsula, the seaweed plucked by divers off the ocean floor just off the Burin Peninsula.

To make the spirits 100 per cent local, the distillery uses barley from a provincial government test program. (Peter Cowan/CBC)

It was the most basic ingredient that proved to be the most difficult. Barley hasn't been grown in Newfoundland for brewing and distilling, it has always been imported.

A provincial government test program teamed the distillery up with a farmer in Cormac, who this year is growing 20 acres of barley just to keep the stills full.

Wilkins says it's the first full distillery to open in more than a century in the province, so it was important to him to be able to sell the very first 100 per cent Newfoundland spirit.

The company has barely been able to keep up with demand.

Worldwide attention

After two years, the Newfoundland Distillery is the fourth most popular gin brand at the Newfoundland and Labrador Liquor Corporation.

It sells much less vodka, a product Wilkins says drinkers aren't as willing to pay a premium price for. The aquavit, a type of unaged, flavoured whisky popular in Scandinavia, has also been surprisingly popular.

The distillery was pleasantly surprised when the seaweed gin received a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition this year (Peter Cowan/CBC)

It's the seaweed gin that's become the biggest star at the distillery.

But it wasn't supposed to be that way.

"I thought this was going to be the obscure foodie drink and we would would sell a couple cases," said Wilkins. It outsells their other gin two to one.

It's not just Newfoundland and Labrador drinkers that have noticed. The distillery sent its two gins off to the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

"We entered the competition really for a lark, thinking, you know, this is the big competition. We'll send it in and give it a go," said Wilkins.

The regular gin, flavoured with bakeapples and savory, got a silver. The seaweed gin came away with a double gold medal.

"We were absolutely stunned and delighted," he said.

The Newfoundland distillery says it's the first in the province in over 100 years to distill alcohol, all the way from raw grain, to finished product (Peter Cowan/CBC)

The award has attracted attention from other provinces. Nova Scotia has put in an order for the seaweed gin and there's interest from New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Quebec.

The distillery is adding new products. A rhubarb vodka is out in early July, a gunpowder and wild rose rum will follow soon after.

The company needs a big new still to keep up with demand. But all the success has had one casualty. That whisky that was part of the original plan still hasn't happened.

"We haven't quite got ahead of ourselves enough to have enough spare capacity to lay down whisky for three years. Which is what we really wanted to do," Wilkins said.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Peter Cowan

CBC News

Peter Cowan is a St. John's-based reporter with CBC News.