If you have any strawberry picking day trips on your list this summer, I highly recommend making a stop at Dillon’s Small Batch Distillery near Grimsby, Ontario. It’s right off of the highway, if your journey takes you along the QEW, but it’s a destination in itself. Line up your visit with one of their classes, and you can make a day of it.

A Visit to Dillon’s Small Batch Distillery

I was recently on a trip to Dillon’s for a tour and tasting, and from the many unique offerings in their shop to the gorgeous gardens outside, it was very much my kind of playground. You can sample and stock up on unique spirits like their Melon gin made with locally grown cantaloupe (highly recommended), their annual limited edition releases (Navy Strength barrel-aged gin, also highly recommended), their ready to drink offerings, their cocktail kits, and their many flavours of bitters and syrups.

Dillon's playground
Dillon’s is my kind of playground

Dillon’s shop, tasting bar, bottling, distilling and warehouse are all on the same site, and they have done so well that they will soon be relocating to bigger premises. As a long-time fan of their Rose gin, I am thrilled to hear of the success they have made of craft distilling. Dillon’s was one of the first in Ontario, and eleven years later, they are at the forefront of promoting local craft distilling.

The Magic of Happenstance

One of the things that struck me most forcefully was the wonderful way serendipity and the willingness to be open to chance and to experiment have shaped the offerings there. Geoff Dillon works closely with local farmers and producers to create his amazing range of spirits. Sometimes that connection is around food rescue. An entire year’s crop of peaches damaged by a hail storm? He’s turned them into brandy and bitters. Truckloads of strawberries turned away by the grocery store because they won’t last five days on the shelf? He turns them into strawberry gin. It’s the cocktail lover’s equivalent of spinning gold from straw. What a happy chance for us all that Geoff and his team can create award-winning spirits from produce that would otherwise go to waste.

A Cocktail Competition

Dillon's Garden
The herb garden at Dillon’s

During our visit we were invited to experiment with some of Dillon’s spirits, syrups and bitters in a friendly competition to make the best cocktail. The only rule was that we had to use a strawberry. This was no hardship! Ontario strawberries are in season and bursting with flavour. I definitely ate more than I used in the cocktail….

Inspired by the herb garden that grows alongside the distillery, I decided to give the traditional fruity combination of strawberry and rhubarb an herbal twist. I combined them with earthy black tea and bergamot (what gives Earl Grey tea its flavour) and with basil for a green lift. Lemon and egg white make the cocktail a riff on a traditional sour. This drink evokes the aromas of working in the garden and the reward of finishing that work to enjoy a drink at the end of the day.

I’m very pleased to report that my cocktail won the cocktail competition! I’m even happier to say that I felt I had tapped into the magic of being inspired by the abundance that lay to hand: flats of gorgeous strawberries, a bee-loud garden of herbs, and spirits that invite playful creation.

Afternoon Reward

Afternoon Reward
Afternoon Reward

2 oz Dillon’s Rhubarb Gin

1/4 oz Dillon’s Black Tea and Bergamot Syrup or an Earl Grey Tea Syrup

1 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice

2-3 dashes Dillon’s Rhubarb Bitters

2 fresh strawberries

2 fresh basil leaves

1 egg white

a herbal garnish (thyme, basil, sage)

Muddle all the ingredients except the egg white in the top of a Boston shaker. Strain the liquid through a sieve into the bottom of the shaker and add the egg white. (You can save the solids to make a strawberry basil syrup. Recipe below.) Dry shake the cocktail to create an airy foam (30 seconds). Add ice and shake again until well chilled. Double strain into a chilled Nick & Nora and garnish with an aromatic sprig of thyme or a basil leaf.

Note: Don’t over-sweeten the cocktail. The strawberry will add sweetness, and you can always add more syrup if it’s not sweet enough for you.

To make your own earl grey syrup, steep two teabags in one cup of boiling water for three minutes. This will make a double-strength tea. Don’t oversteep the tea because that will make it bitter. Remove the teabags and add one cup of sugar. Stir to dissolve. Add the juice of half a lemon. Makes 8 oz of syrup, which will keep in the fridge for two weeks. This makes a great syrup for an Old Fashioned, too.

To make the strawberry and basil go further, collect the solids from all the cocktails you make in a bowl. You can throw in any overripe strawberries, too. Cover with 1/2 to 1 cup of sugar and toss. Let this sit covered on the counter for a few hours. The sugar will pull out the flavours. Add an equal amount of boiling water as sugar, stir to dissolve the sugar and strain. Enjoy the syrup over ice cream, in salad dressing, or in your next cocktail!

See more tips on how to make the perfect Old Fashioned here.