A unique establishment has arisen near Kitchener: the Willibald Farm Distillery, Brewery & Restaurant. It’s a triple threat — the only place in Ontario, and probably in Canada, that combines its own spirits, beers, and delicious farm-to-table cuisine.
But there’s much more. It’s run by two brothers (Nolan and Jordan Van der Heyden) and two school friends (Cam Formica and Joe Freund) on a family farm in a patchwork of agricultural fields. Instead of leaving for careers in Toronto or another big city after they finished their education, they stayed on the land by adjusting the farm’s persona to the modern trends of craft beer, spirits, and cuisine. What makes it work so well, and gained it a huge following, is that almost all the natural products come from the Willibald farm or its neighbours. So, not only do the entrepreneurs support the local area, but the quality of their servings is outstanding.
The distillery opened in 2017, the farm-to-table restaurant in 2018, and the brewery in 2019. The 100-acre farm is central to everything. Set in the lush agricultural area of Ayr, just south of Kitchener, it hosted more than 20,000 guests in 2019 (pre-COVID-19). They savoured food and drink while surrounded by fields of grain with cows grazing placidly.
The farm grows the grain for its spirits; the chickens produce eggs; the Galloway cattle provide beef; the bees produce honey; and the garden grows herbs and vegetables for the restaurant. The Willibald team keeps as much as they can in-house, a philosophy that yields superb quality.
In 2000, the Van der Heyden parents bought a 100-acre farm, an ailing dairy acreage, as a hobby farm. With their blessing, their sons, Jordan, a graduate in environment and business, and Nolan, a mechanical engineering student, and their childhood friend, Formica, launched the operation to restore the farm.
Once the barn had been rebuilt and rezoned for distilling, everything followed an environmental path. A geothermal loop was installed under the parking lot to cool the stills and reduce water consumption. Solar panels were erected to reduce energy costs. When it came to farming, the young team chose to turn back the clock. Their cattle grazes in the fields under the watchful eye of a neighbour. The waste from distilling became their fertilizer. Another friend built an apiary on the property allowing bees to pollinate the plants. After just a couple of years, the farm started to bounce back.
A gleaming Kothe hybrid copper still from Germany with a pot and a column is the centrepiece of the distillery. Its specialty is a gin with a unique amber colour and smooth floral notes. “It took us eight months and over 100 iterations to get the gin the way we want it,” said Nolan Van der Heyden, who has taken on the role of head distiller. Barrel-aged, the gin straddles the traditional and contemporary styles. After a taste, I was a convert.
Two-thirds of the Willibald production capacity is going to whisky, the first of which may be ready this winter. In addition, a new product will be released in early September that consists of unaged whisky, apples, cinnamon, and other spices. This “mulled whisky-esque” spirit will be aged in ex-bourbon casks and will fit into the “fall on the farm” theme nicely.
Inside Joke Turns Into a Family Business
The partners have a sense of humour. Willibald is the middle name of the two brothers’ grandfather, who has tried all his life to keep his middle name secret — even going so far as to restrict it from appearing on his driver’s license. “For years, we’ve playfully teased our grandfather about his middle name,” says Jordan Van der Heyden.
Nolan adds: “It became an ongoing family joke, but was always done out of love. He’d tell us not to call him by his middle name. We’d do it anyways. And we’d all end up laughing together.” Now the grandfather’s middle name is known all over the region!
The restaurant’s dining room is an intimate gathering space with a vaulted ceiling and room for up to 40 guests. Head chef Byron Hallet creates a seasonal menu that has a strong farm-to-table focus. With the installation of a wood-fired oven, pizza is definitely on the menu. I tried a spectacular charcuterie board with cured pork belly, coppa, lonza, pork rillettes, grainy mustard, pickled beans, and natural dill pickles. This was accompanied by Willibald gin-pickled apples and plum, habanero jam, and artisanal crackers.
Willibald’s bar is a great place to sample cocktails, made with Willibald’s fantastic gin. (Try the Twice Removed, which features gin, blanco vermouth, dill, and lemon.)
When coronavirus hit, Willibald had to dramatically transform its business model. An online store was opened where beer, spirits, and also food could be ordered. During the pandemic, the leisurely visits to Willibald were replaced by bright yellow shipping boxes arriving at home. At the farm, a huge tent was erected for patio dining when indoor dining was restricted.
The barn’s distilling area also contains the vats and tanks where head brewer, Joe Freund, works passionately. He has already released some headliners — including Willibald’s distinctive and very impressive Party House Special IPA and Brick Tour Coconut Stout. The brewery’s Export Lager is a best-seller.
Business partner Formica summed it up well: “I enjoy the creativity at Willibald best of all. Nothing beats dreaming up and assembling a good product and then watching people enjoy it.”
MORE WILLIBAND FARM DISTILLERY, BREWERY & RESTAURANT
Address: 1271 Reidsville Rd, Ayr
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