Credit: Mark Brennan

PERFECT MIX | John McLellan and Kelly Ann Woods have found a welcoming home in Squamish for their distillery, Gillespie's Fine Spirits

Squamish, with its fast-growing population, rising incomes and outdoor lifestyle, reached No. 1 in BCBusiness’s 2017 ranking of Best Cities for Work. One young couple also discovered an energetic startup community that supports its own

The lounge at Gillespie’s Fine Spirits in Squamish, where patrons stop in for tastings by day and cocktails by night, feels like the living room of your long-time best friend’s apartment. Fat leather couches line the deep-purple walls, and houseplants are slung from the ceilings in macramé hangers. A small window behind the bar at the back reveals the stainless-steel machines that perform the processes—mashing, fermenting, boiling and distilling—of making vodka, gin and whisky.

Located at the end of a long industrial building near a forest, the distillery has the atmosphere of a speakeasy. “People come in and they say, ‘Is this legal?’” says Kelly Ann Woods, who owns Gillespie’s with her partner, John McLellan. Picking up on that vibe, an enlarged 1917 photo in the lounge shows a group of moustached Vancouver police officers standing among a collection of copper stills, equipment confiscated from spirits makers during the days of Prohibition.

The photo hints at the difficulties the couple faced when they tried to launch their business in nearby Vancouver. The idea seemed perfect: McLellan grew up in Glasgow and frequently sailed the Scottish coast with his parents, visiting whisky distilleries. Woods, who grew up near Ottawa, had worked in restaurants for more than a decade as a sommelier and mixologist. When they started dating in late 2012, McLellan told her he didn’t think he had time for a girlfriend because he was opening a distillery. “Don’t you see?” Woods replied. “I’m the other part of this.”

They devised a business plan, got funding from family and took a course in making and marketing spirits. McLellan, a mechanic, found used industrial equipment and modified it for a fraction of the cost of new stills. But after they rented a space in Marpole under the Oak Street Bridge, reality set in. McLellan and Woods worked for six months with an architect and engineers to meet the requirements of various permits and burned through about $40,000 of their $250,000 startup capital. When city officials told them in March 2013 that they still needed to submit four different engineering reports before their fire permit would even be considered, they gave up and decided to move.

A friend suggested Squamish. “That place you drive through?” Woods asked. But then the two entrepreneurs looked closer. They loved the mountainside setting but also the first conversation they had with the city’s economic development officer, who was eager to help them. They sailed through the licensing process (including a variance permit to allow the lounge) and opened their shop in September 2014.

“From a business perspective, our experience here [compared to Vancouver] has been night and day,” Woods says. “I feel like we are wildly supported. We still have to deal with fire codes, building codes, inspections, but there’s this underlying feeling that people want you to succeed. That makes a real difference.”

The pair now produce vodka, gin and flavoured spirits including an award-winning limoncello. These are available in restaurants (including Vancouver’s Campagnolo, The Cascade Room and Chambar), at private liquor stores and online. When Woods was pregnant (their son, Callum, was born in January 2016), she developed a line of non-alcoholic sipping vinegars, for mixing in drinks or as a secret ingredient in salad dressing, with inventive flavours like rhubarb, angelica and ginger. Gillespie’s first whisky barrels—paid for up front by aficionados willing to wait three years for their own personal cask—sold out.

It’s no surprise to Woods that Squamish reached the top of BCBusiness’s 2017 Best Cities for Work ranking. She and McLellan discovered an energetic startup community and staunch support for local products. The city is becoming a specialty beverage hub, with the veteran Howe Sound Brewing, newcomers Frostbites Syrup Co., Spark Kombucha, Squamish Water Kefir Co., and, within walking distance of their distillery, a soon-to-open meadery and three craft breweries.

Although Squamish is struggling with its own housing problems, the Gillespie’s proprietors found a good place to rent just a short walk from work. Woods loves the wealth of parent-and-tot events, the exuberant local farmers’ market, community fundraisers and the popular downtown consignment store.

“It’s redneck hippie,” she says of her new home. “It’s the perfect cross between cultures. There’s still an old-time feel from the mining and the pulp and paper and logging, and yet at the same time there’s an amazing transition. I think we all share a similar love for the place we live, so there’s this general upliftment.”

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