SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
The world renowned wineries of the Niagara Region in Southern Ontario have made quite a name for the grape that bears its name. With more than 90 plantations and vineyards – many of which predate Confederation – it’s understandable that visitors and even residents are shocked when they hear that a handful of Canadian distillers are making a name for spirits in the land of Jackson-Triggs. But did you know that it isn’t all about the grape in Ontario? When Adam and Patricia Szymkow, the owners of Polonée Distillery in St. Catharines, Ontario spoke with Spotlight on Business in August, I left with grain on the brain. “It’s a $9 billion industry in this province,” Adam said. “People always assume that all Canadian grains come from the Prairie Provinces, but that isn’t so. We ferment and distill off Ontario-grown grain using our state-of- the-art GENIO still and, along with our Director of Creativity Arkadiusz Andrzejewski, fill and seal each bottle of Kannuk vodka by hand.”
SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE • SEPTEMBER 2017
By David MacDonald B efore we get into specifics about the craft spirits industry in Canada and your growth as a fami- ly-run business in a relatively new market, I’m sure there are readers who are already trying to guess the meaning behind the Polonée name. Care to quench their curiosity? AS: We’d love to, David. Polonais is the French word for Polish and we basically mixed that with the word soirée, which is also French and means a party in the evening. I’m originally from Poland, so basically our vodka is Polish – and we don’t know of too many other Polish distilleries in Canada, let alone Ontario. Vodka, it can be argued, origi- nated in Poland. Some say Russia, but it really comes down to who can provide the better reference and that seems to change all the time. We can confidently say it comes from Eastern Europe, but Kannuk is really Canadian-inspired Polish vodka. Why the distinction between the name of the distillery and your feature product?
SEPTEMBER 2017 • SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
PS: Well, there is Polonée the distillery and then there is the vodka that we make, Kannuk. From the beginning in 2013, we wanted Polonée to be a house of brands as opposed to what we distill becoming a house brand. We don’t want to develop products under one umbrella like Polonée gin, Polonée rum, Polonée rye, etcetera. AS: Products, spirits, don’t naturally have to share the name of their distillery. It’s certainly an easier strategy but we feel that we will get more activity with each new product because it will have a life of its own. Rum, for instance, that doesn’t carry the Polonée name would have no limitations, no anchor. There’s so much more of the nation you can use with your branding when you have basically no limitations. You’re not selling the previous brand that you’ve distilled with some- thing new. AS: That’s a good eye. A lot of people ask about the symbol, the logo, and what it means. It’s called the Pheagle: part eagle, part phoenix. The eagle portion represents the Polish coast of arms. Canada has the maple leaf symbol; Poland has the White Eagle emblem, which represents power, strength. That’s our roots, our heritage. The Phoenix is a Greek mythological bird which represents rebirth, rec- reation, and redirection. We thought combining the two would perfectly represent what we’re trying to do at Polonée Distillery: we’re trying to reinvent and realign spirits. Vodka is one of the oldest spirits in the world and we’ve made it our goal, our mission to give it an overhaul in our image. The red sticker that acts as a seal for the handcrafted roasted maple wood cover is full of symbols, too. The toque represents the cold Canadian climate; the inuksuk represents Canada’s heritage; the hockey stick represents Canada’s love of winter sports; and the moose represents Canada’s wildlife. I was just about to ask you about the bottle design. The Kannuk bottle itself definitely helps in your mission to recreate and reinvent vodka. AS: It does, there’s no question. We never wanted our pack- aging to be like anybody else’s. Patricia and I are both artis- tically-minded people, although her artistic background is a lot more formal, a lot more sophisticated, I’d say. She did a combined degree in university in fine arts and psycholo- gy. The fine arts component of it was actually all painting and study. As for myself, all throughout high school, I would Speaking of something new, your logo looks to me to be a new take on something quite old.
win art contests – and I thought I was pretty good. I was also very strong in math and it’s no secret that it’s hard for pure artists to find success in today’s world, so I leaned towards math and business. PS: So, at the end of the day, Adam and I knew exactly what we wanted on paper for the bottle design and logo but we needed someone with the software expertise to make it all happen. That’s where our Director of Creativity came in. Adam has known Arkadiusz since high school and he went on to become a graphic designer, so he was a natural fit for us. Did either of you have experience with distilling craft spirits prior to opening Polonée Distillery? Was it a family tradition in Poland, Adam? AS : Not at all. I am self-taught, so to speak. I for one had no background in distilling whatsoever; I didn’;t know anything about the process. How it happened was simple: In the winter of 2012, I was buying a gift for my father for Christmas before a family dinner. We usually bring something with us, so we bought a little vodka. At the time, craft spirits were nearly impossible to find – at least at your regular liquor store. I went for one of the big brands, one in a tall-necked bottle, we’ll say that, and I couldn’t help but think that it and the others next to it on the shelf were way overpriced consider- ing what you get. I knew we could offer something better. A few days later, I was watching an old Polish movie based in the 1940s shortly after World War II and in the movie these guys would go into a war-torn bar and they would make moonshine, basically homemade vodka. I said to myself, ‘Hey, back then there wasn’t a Home Hardware or a Home Depot around the corner – how are they able to construct a machine or device to actually be able to make vodka?’ I figured if they could do it back then, why can’t I do it now? Funny enough, that was my ‘Ah ha’ moment. I recognized that there was a need for something better and I found the inspiration I needed to make that happen. What advice would you give to anyone with similar aspi- rations, Adam? AS: Like anything else in life, know the rules! Because it became an obsession of mine back in 2013, I’ve read more on the topic than you can imagine. I’ve read as many books on every aspect of the industry as I could. There is so much you need to know before you can even think of applying for a permit – and that’s how it should be. The seminars I attended really make sure that people who hold a license are top-notch. And what about the vodka itself? What’s it been like breaking into the relatively new world of craft distilling in Canada? AS: I’ve heard a lot of people claim that you can’t make a good craft vodka, but most of those people don’t know that when they’re drinking a big brand that they’re ultimately just drinking vodka made from neutral grain spirits leftover
in mash tanks from other recipes. A lot of vodkas out there that you’ll see on the provincial liquor store shelves are made from purchased ethanol; these companies are basi- cally pretending that they make vodka. That’s why you get that rubbing alcohol taste because so much of it is basically repackaged ethanol. My recipe is vodka from the start and it has a nice neutral taste that’s all its own. All the grain, all the flour in my recipe is separated before it goes in the fermenter so that I’m getting nothing but the clear, sugary liquid at that stage. (Whisky, for instance, is distilled and fermented on the grain because you want those distinct, complex flavours). Once Kannuk is fermented without any of the flour involved, the neutrality of the spirit really comes out. We distill and ferment off the grain and it makes all the difference, especially for discerning vodka drinkers. Kannuk is also cold-filtered and I really think the whole process, the whole vodka-only process, makes it Canada’s nicest vodka, which is our slogan. PS: We’re growing every week and we’re very interested in exploring the Canadian theme as time goes on. Like Adam said, there are a lot of Canadian provinces and cultures that lend themselves to the theme of reinvention and redesign in the world of craft distilling. The Polonée Distillery at 380 Vansickle Road in St. Catha- rines is open to the public for tours and tastings on Satur- days from noon to 5 pm.
many thanks to our advertisers
Polonée Distillery Inc. 380 Vansickle Rd, Unit 450 St. Catharines, ON L2S 0B5 Canada
as spotlighted in the SEPTEMBER 2017 issue of SPOTLIGHT ON BUSINESS MAGAZINE
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