Perth distillery turns to online fundraising campaign to support expansion plans

Perth distillery whisky

A Perth distillery is seeing proof of a loyal following with an innovative campaign to raise $20,000 in whisky pre-orders and qualify for a number of industry grants. 

Top Shelf Distillers in Perth wants to ramp up whisky production, but to do so its team must look to enthusiastic whisky-lovers across the country.

Unlike clear spirits such as gin and vodka, whisky production requires lots of equipment and, most importantly, time, says Stuart Thornley, communications manager at Top Shelf. 

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In order to keep up with increasing demand for the whisky as well as what Thornley calls a “cult following,” Top Shelf has lined up equipment update grants from Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters (CME).

But there’s a catch: to qualify, the distillery must have spent a certain amount on equipment before the application period closes. For the CME grant, Top Shelf would receive up to $50,000 matched 50/50 with funds spent. 

So Top Shelf has taken to crowdfunding in the form of pre-sale vouchers to reach its $20,000 goal.

“We crowdfunded in 2021, when we wanted to include hand sanitizer in our production, to urgently raise funds,” said Thornley. “It worked. So we thought, ‘Why not do the same thing to grow whisky?’”

The funds raised aren’t donations, Thornley explained, because customers are essentially pre-ordering whisky from the batches they’re helping to fund. Participants can purchase single bottles or packages of three bottles of Top Shelf Rideau Whisky or invest in an entire barrel, which retails for US$7,500. 

With the funds raised through its Indiegogo campaign, as well as any grants, Top Shelf plans to purchase additional fermentors, a grain silo, a milling machine and other equipment. Several new fermentors are currently on order with Niagara Falls manufacturer Criveller Group, which will add 6,000 litres of capacity at the distillery — triple the current capacity. 

The distillery also plans to upgrade its bottling line with a t-corker machine, turntable and other modern equipment and expand the distillery itself.

These additions and improvements will help Top Shelf “give the people what they want” and keep up with demand by producing 10 times more whisky than it can with its current operations, Thornley said.

Right now, Top Shelf mashes, distills and puts away about two barrels a month for aging, Thornley said. Each barrel makes about 255 bottles of whisky. Then, everybody waits a few years for the barrels to age. 

“To have a successful whisky program, we need (10 times that) to have whisky set aside. People want to see five-year, 10-year, 12-year-old whisky, but when it’s sitting in a barrel, it’s just costing you money and you can’t sell it,” explained Thornley. “We want to be putting more of it away and be able to have small batches, launch parties and lots more. 

“If we can grow our whisky program, we can do a lot more fun stuff, keep up with demand and have more on hand to sell.”

In just over a week since the launch of the online campaign, Top Shelf has raised 30 per cent of its goal, Thornley said, a testament to the “strong backing” for the Perth whisky. And while the local community has rallied behind Top Shelf, the distillery also has a strong consumer base through its online store, which ships to customers in places such as Prince Edward Island, British Columbia and Iqaluit, Thornley said.

“There are not many craft distilleries in Ontario, so people are keen to get a taste of it,” he explained. 

By purchasing pre-order vouchers, buyers are investing in a “storied whisky region” and can “get themselves a piece of history,” Thornley added. 

“In (the) late 18th, early 19th centuries, there were a lot of Irish people and Scots who settled in Perth and there were three big distilleries in the Perth area and we’re continuing to add on to Perth’s whisky story,” said Thornley. “The Lanark region produced a lot of whisky up until 1916. The streets in Perth are lined with empty whisky barrels. Then, 100 years later in 2016, we started aging whisky again.

“Where it might have ended in 1916, Perth gets a second chance at the story,” said Thornley. “We’re proud to bring that back and we want to make a whisky that reflects that story from our area.”

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