Craftier ‘Jack Daniels of Canada’ sets up new distillery in Hawkesbury

An artist rendition of the of the finished Hawkesbury site.

Pierre Mantha really gets a rush from his work — but not the kind you might imagine for a purveyor of craft spirits.

Instead, Mantha is motivated by his plans to grow his business. He’s currently building a 160,000 square foot distillery in Hawkesbury in a bid to help quench a growing thirst among consumers for spirits. “My goal is to be up and running by August 2023 or maybe September,” he says.

The construction of the Artiste in Residence Distillerie will be the first phase of an eight-phase project that Mantha hopes will culminate in a destination store, restaurant and lounge in the next five years.

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“It was certainly wonderful news to hear,” says Hawkesbury Mayor Robert Alain Lefebvre in reference to Mantha’s plans. “It’s something different, which is great, and when something is different like that it becomes an attraction at the same time. It has multi-functions in terms of economic development across the board.”

The Hawkesbury location is Mantha’s second distillery. His first was a 40,000 square foot operation in Gatineau tucked in between Autoroute 50 and Gatineau’s executive airport. The name Artiste in Residence Distillerie, which abbreviates to AiR Distillerie, is a play on the proximity to the airport and the distillery’s craft identity. Launched in 2016, AiR Gatineau’s products quickly became one of the top sellers in Quebec’s crowded craft gin market.  

“I have 50 brands in Quebec,” says Mantha. “The problem is our gin in Quebec is going down in sales a little, but I believe I’m going to bring Quebecers to drinking whiskey!”

He could have his work cut out for him. Quebec is not a whiskey-drinking province. In 2021, whiskey held a 16 per cent market share of liquor sales in Quebec, compared to 34 per cent in Ontario, according to Statistics Canada. 

Mantha intends to change that, starting in Hawkesbury. He is counting on his fellow Quebecers’ desire to support their own.

“They supported me with the gin and so I think they will support me again,” says Mantha, who says he wants to become the “Jack Daniels of Canada,” but more craft.

Paramount to his plan is keeping prices reasonable. “I want to sell volume,” Mantha says.

He’s already bought 500,000 empty bottles for his spirits, partly to secure the best price, and says the new Hawkesbury AiR’s bottling line could produce one million bottles a year with just four or five employees.

“We are an urban community of 10,000 population that services a large agricultural community. Mr. Mantha will be able to buy a lot of his raw materials locally because it’s always cheaper when it doesn’t have to travel far,” says Mayor Lefebvre.

Still, it will be a while before his whiskey hits the market since it has to age for three years, explains Mantha. The Hawkesbury facility will get started on the whiskey right away, but will also produce the tried and tested gin and vodka to bring in immediate revenue, assuming that AiR Distillerie breaks into the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Meanwhile, Mantha has plans for another eight distilleries: one in Vancouver; five in the U.S., starting in Erie, Pa.; one in Colombia to produce rum; and one in Mexico to distill tequila. He’s already bought the land in Pennsylvania and is working on site plan approvals, even as the Hawkesbury facility is under construction.

“Every three years I’m building a distillery. But a shovel won’t go in the ground in Pennsylvania until Hawkesbury becomes profitable,” says Mantha, who admits that he’s not much of a drinker and knew nothing about alcohol production until about five years ago.

He says he’ll keep the Gatineau distillery partly out of sentiment — it was his first and where he says he made all the mistakes that taught him how to solve the “tough, tough business” of liquor sales. It may eventually become his research and development hub, he adds, while the Hawkesbury location offers significantly more storage and production space. 

It all adds up to a lot of pressure, but it fits with this high energy, fast-talking, expressive, self-proclaimed workaholic.

“He is a visionary with no limits and is always positive. He will make everything work.  He is a spontaneous person but very organized at the same time. He doesn’t have an office, he has his schedule on his phone and is always working on something,” says Genevieve Parent Berriault, who’s in charge of development and commercialization at AiR Distillerie. 

Half French and half English, Mantha identifies strongly as a bilingual Quebecer, making Hawkesbury a natural fit.

“In Hawkesbury, we never made language an issue; English, French, bilingual, it’s never been an issue,” says Mayor Lefebvre.

A truck mechanic by trade, Mantha started out by creating Mantha Corp., which includes three Hino truck dealerships, a leasing company and a holding company, all within the Ottawa area.

The distribution potential of using his trucking resources to benefit his distilleries is very much on his radar. “Distribution is easy, I have the trucks,” he shrugs.

So far, Mantha has financed his expansions with loans and his own money, but says that he will start seeking investors once the Hawkesbury facility becomes profitable.  With investors, he says he’ll be able to realize the full potential of the Hawkesbury site and expand more quickly.

“I love the adrenaline rush. It’s not work, I enjoy this too much to call it work. I’m here at five in the morning.”

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