It is hard to believe it happened to both our guests – but it did. They were both driving down the road, saw a sign posted on a wall, stopped, wrote down the number for more inquiries, and actually rang that number.
Thanks to great signage in Atlantic Canada, today on Lush Life, we head to Nova Scotia to speak with Alex Wrathell, the Head Distiller of Compass Distillers, and then we drive over the bridge to meet Steve Murphy, owner of the cocktail bar on Prince Edward Island, Slaymaker & Nichols.
We’re back with the second of the two episodes sponsored by Atlantic Canada – the eastern part of Canada that borders on the Atlantic Ocean and includes the four provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.
When I think of Nova Scotia, I think beautiful coastlines adorned with quaint lighthouses, succulent lobster dishes caught straight from the sea, and catching a glimpse of majestic whales, puffins, and seals. The province has an amazing wine scene and some of the world’s most beautiful vineyards, but we are here to talk about their spirits and who better to guide us but Alex.
As we drive over one of the longest bridges in the world, we come to Prince Edward Island, or PEI as the locals call it. Known for its red beaches, beautiful farmland, and charming towns, PEI is also famed for its shellfish, lobsters, and oysters. To accompany that amazing food, the island is home to incredible cocktails, created by Steve Murphy, owner of Slaymaker and Nichols.
This episode originally aired on January 26, 2021.
You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Alex and Steve. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
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Susan: I’m looking at you with a still behind you. When I see copper, I’m all excited. We’re here to talk about you and Compass Distillers. I want to hear everything. I want to hear how you got to be head distiller. Why don’t we start a little at the beginning and go back to where you from and how you got here.
Alex: All right. I grew up in Nova Scotia in a really small town in Cape Breton, which is about five hours away from here. When I left Cape Breton, I actually moved straight to Toronto, which is the most populous city in Canada. I went to film school actually and studied film production for a few years.
In that time period. I lived in Sweden. I traveled all the way across Canada to plant trees. Eventually, after a period of time, I found myself settled in Halifax, which even in itself, wasn’t really my intention. I’ve been here for 10 years now, so I guess it fell into place in that way.
When it came to starting to work at Compass, like anything in life, it is just a series of patterns and circumstances that lead you into different situations. The skill set of a distiller really is incredibly varied. There’s a lot of mechanical and troubleshooting skills required even beyond the understanding of the fermentation and the actual distillation process.
I had been doing jobs in electronics and construction and wiring and then I got sick of that industry and shifted to working for this company here in Halifax that just did beer draft installs. I really liked the beverage industry.
I had been, all throughout that period of time, working on home ferments, whether it was with cider kits or brewing beer from grain and making kimchi, sauerkraut, or whatever, fermenting tons of different stuff and experimenting, making ginger beer.
Susan: And was that just for fun?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Just for fun. I had a couple of friends who were also really into brewing. It was pretty interesting to experiment and get familiar with that process, so at some point, in the middle of a working construction, I thought I’m going to go pursue a job in the beverage industry.
I started working for this company that just did beer maintenance and drafts installs. That was fun for a little bit, but not really particularly rewarding. Then, at one point, I was driving down Agricola Street, which is the street that we’re on, and I saw this building being constructed and along the fencing on the outside was just a banner that said, “Coming soon Compass Distillers.”
And I thought maybe I should send an email to those guys and see if they want someone to come and work, just do whatever they need to do basically. After a bit of time, I ended up getting an email from one of the owners and shortly thereafter, standing in the early construction phase of this distillery, where there was no equipment, but just concrete floors and a couple of frames areas.
After a decent conversation and dropping off a bottle of ginger beer that I made, I said. “Hey, I know what I’m doing, when it comes to fermenting and maybe you could use someone to clean tanks and stuff.” Fast forward a few months, the distillery was completed and operational, and I came on board as an assistant distiller and the head distiller at that time was a fellow named Ezra who was basically working with the construction crew.
He had a lot of interest in wine and spirits. He also had been experimenting with fermenting and distilling on his own and he came from like a chemical engineering background.
Susan: Well, let me stop you right there. Before we go more into the distillery. You said you were fermenting things at home and making kimchi. Had you tried your hand at distilling spirits? Was there a spirit that you loved?
Alex: I had never really tried distilling spirits in Canada. It’s pretty illegal to do that, living in the city, it’s hard to do that secretly.
Susan: Sorry. I didn’t know it was illegal.
Alex: Yeah. Everybody knows somebody who has probably got a still.
Susan: Oh my God. I love it. I have no idea.
Alex: Yeah. But I never actually done any like distilling prior to working here. Favorite spirit. That’s a really good question. I guess around that time, I was probably big into gin. I still am big into gin, but my specific interests change all the time, depending on what I’m working on.
Susan: Is that new because of your learning to be a distiller?
Alex: I’ve always really liked different kinds of whiskey. We just spent about a month or two, working on whiskey production for this year. Working on that just got me right back into a whiskey obsession for this time period.
And the same thing happened when I got into making rum. I just get really, really focused and interested and obsessed with trying different kinds of rum. The same goes for gin too, but we make more gin than anything else here. I spend a lot of time working with gin.
Susan: I guess that makes you a good distiller then, because you’re getting obsessed by the spirits. Let’s come back to your getting the job Was distilling something that you thought that you wanted to do in the beverage industry when you saw the sign on the wall?
Alex: I wouldn’t even say specifically that I wanted to be a distiller, but I just wanted to be in a creative industry. There’s something that’s rewarding about producing something from raw ingredients or from nearly nothing. I was more drawn to distilling versus beer brewing, because of the fact that it was a smaller industry and it was also less familiar to me.
I tend to be the person who pursues intense challenges very frequently. I like to do things really intensely whenever I do them. Distilling was something I knew the least about and that was interesting to me.
Susan: You were there right at the beginning, which must’ve been really exciting. What was everyone thinking at that time? The progression of different spirits that you would make and where you would be and how you would get there in the future.
Alex: I think, in the case of starting any new business, you have an idea of what you want to accomplish, then it really fluidly adapts to what works and what doesn’t work with the, within the community and also the environment that you operate in. So our distillery here is very, very small.
And in the sense of like craft production. That’s not on the larger size as we do have a fairly large, still as a 500 gallon or 18, or roughly 1900 liters still we’ve got like 12,000 liters of fermentation tanks, basically fairly large scale. We’re not running 200 liter distillates, but.
The space, the physical space we have, it’s filled up very quickly as we bring in tons of grain and stuff like that I think, we became fairly well known for producing really interesting gin very quickly. That’s something that we really focused on a lot in the beginning.
We did make a lot of whiskey to put in barrels. As that has a long aging period prior to actually being able to sell things, I think that the current craft distillery model is – everyone wants to make whiskey, but you gotta pay the bills with gin or vodka or something for a significant length of time.
And yeah, we really got lucky. We hit the mark on gin pretty well from the start. G gin’s not really easy to make and it’s, it’s very difficult to craft a recipe and then also replicate it over and over again consistently, especially because ingredients are changing all the time.
Susan: That recipe – to go on from that – how did you even figure out with the head distiller, then, at that time, what that recipe could entail? How did you figure it out?
Alex: We were both really lucky to work with a consultant from the West coast of the USA, who had done a lot of startups with beer and distilling, who was a good early educator. He told us this is how you take your 20 liter homebrewing knowledge and turn it into 4,000 liter, like commercial production.
There’s a lot of things that are obviously drastically different, but even drastically different from the beer brewing industry versus distilling, it’s quite different in terms of production. But In terms of gin recipe formulation, there’s some standard ingredients. Of course, juniper is the main one and then supplemented by coriander and citrus in most cases. And then everything else is little flavor flares.
Susan: It’s the everything else that makes your gin different. Of course.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely. That’s the difficult part. Then there’s a ton of other factors about how you prepare and the types of ingredients you use if you’re using fresh versus dried, if you’re buying dried ingredients versus drying them on your own. I’m three years in here learning that it’s probably more worth our time for us to dry our own citrus rather than buy it just because it’s better.
I’s freshly dry and has a lot more flavor character. The handling of maceration versus vapor distillation. There’s so many different variables that have huge effects on the flavor. I, at this point, play with all of those variables to create. We have more than one gin in our lineup right now. In order to make one that’s more juniper forward. I’ll use the juniper in a different way or treat it differently in relation to its interaction with the alcohol. If I want to make something that’s a little bit lighter, I might put some juniper in a vapor path which is how Bombay Sapphire is done traditionally – a big vapor, distilled gin.
And not everybody likes juniper. I personally love it, but the reason why gin like Hendricks is so popular is because as far as I know, they were one of the first to branch off from these really juniper, heavy London, dry styles, the people who don’t like that character are, Hey, that’s the gin I want to drink. And I find that interesting, very interesting.
Susan: Yeah, well, you’ve won so many awards for your gin, and there’s so many gins that your distillery makes. Of course the ones that peak my interest out of all of them, specifically, is when you decided, let’s just use stuff from Nova Scotia because we have everything here. About how many gins down the road, did you think that, or was that in the original mix?
Alex: It’s actually a really great story. It’s a bit of an accident. Where we were sourcing juniper from basically, a local botanical supplier, we were looking to make a batch of gin and realize that we couldn’t actually get enough juniper to meet our recipe.
And so Ezra and I were, okay, well, what do we do and I remember on a hike. I had seen juniper just growing wild and I thought, I know where there’s juniper. I’ll just drive out and I’ll spend a couple hours picking it and we’ll see if I can get like enough to top up the batch.”
And from there, that worked really well. Picking juniper is not my favorite thing to do. It’s really hard on the hands. But it is really nice. I remember specifically that afternoon in the summer, just being, “Hey, this is a cool job. I’m out here in the woods, picking juniper berries for work.”
It’s really quite fun. I think, from there, we started to realize that given the fact that what we do here is we produce everything from scratch, we focused on doing everything as local as possible. Nova Scotia is a really unique place in the fact that we do grow lots of grain here.
We grow lots of grapes. There’s apples as well, so there are cideries that exist in the city here which make cider from all Nova Scotian apples. There’s like lots of wine producers. We benefit from having that distinctive climate and environment that allows or that.
One of the big intentions of Compass was to do everything for real, from scratch and not be buying alcohol and not be rebottling or just blending. From my biased opinion as a craft distiller happens way too frequently in the industry, even in the craft industry. So yeah, we realized that because we were making our base alcohol, the alcohol that we produced the gin from straight from grain and not buying it, we thought we can get the main ingredient in producing gin here in the province too.
There’s gotta be tons of other really interesting flowers, plants, herbs, the things that are either wild or cultivated here in Nova Scotia that we can bring in and supplement all of the other standard botanicals that you would expect in a gin and create something that’s uniquely 100% Nova Scotian.
And on top of that, we also benefit from the fact that we get our yeast from a local producer here in Nova Scotia too. So it was the perfect scenario to be doing everything from scratch. We can really say this is uniquely 100% Nova Scotia, that’s where it all came from.
Susan: When you put it all in a pot and then tasted it did you think that it was good. This is what it was meant to be?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. Nova Scotian wild juniper has an interesting characteristic that is different from juniper that we can get imported from other countries. There’s obviously different varieties that grow here in the province, but the ones that are suitable for making gin have this almost interesting, oceanside salinity of sorts.
It just reminds me of being close to the ocean that might just be because of the way that I think about flavors and stuff. So, a lot of times, with producing spirits, you just make a lot of educated guesses, you taste things and you say okay, that should work. You fire it in the still and hope for the best.
As long as you have a pretty good idea of what things are going to taste like, it should work. We haven’t created anything too disastrous or actually created anything disastrous. I’ve definitely made some very bizarre macerations or infusions here that I wouldn’t use on a larger scale. That’s part of it – if I don’t know what something’s going to taste like in the still, or in a gin, I’ll, soak it in alcohol and taste that.
And it’s not going to be an exact replica of the flavor through distillation, but it gives me a bit of an idea based on how the alcohol and this and the flavors are soluble in that in that medium.
Susan: One of the things that you just created was gin from a tree, your Boston tree, right. That you send to Boston every year.
Alex: For sure. Yeah. That’s a really easy one where I just use one of our standard gin recipes and then take the needles from the tree and just soak it in the alcohol. Alcohol is a pretty awesome medium for pulling flavor. It’s really cool yeah; you try things and you see how the flavor turns out and then figure it out how usable it is. It’s really, really interesting and fun.
Susan: Now that the gin was going along fine. People were buying it; you’re doing the right thing. Compass Distillers has made the right choice to open. People are drinking your gins, while the whiskey is being made, should we say you’ve created a lot of other spirits.
So where did you think you were going to go after the gin and between the whiskey starting.
Alex: I think a lot of that just came from Ezra and I hanging out and talking and we made an Aquavit, I think two years ago or a year ago, that was an interesting one. I was just reading about spirits and then stumbled upon Aquavit, which I shamefully admit, I should have known better given that I did live in Sweden.
Susan: I was going to say was that because when your time in Sweden, you had to make an Aquavit.
Alex: Not actually directly, cause I didn’t really drink a whole lot when I lived in Sweden. It was just a one of those time periods. The whole idea of the flavors were really interesting to me. I was doing a tasting event somewhere and I just happened to stop in at a one of our local liquor stores and found a bottle of like Brennan Aquavit.
And I said I gotta try this then I’m a big fan of anise flavors, which I know is super divisive. I love it, so Ezra and I were, okay, let’s figure out how to make an Aquavit. We put together a couple of test recipes and right here behind me is a little tiny still that’s about 25 gallons.
So maybe just to drive a hundred liters that one, we ended up doing seven or eight test batches on that before we settled on a recipe that we were comfortable to scale up. So that’s the other thing we do here a lot is if we’re going to make a big batch, you really run it.
If you don’t have things fairly well put together, you can maybe not do a great representation of what you’re trying to create. It’s way easier to look at 15 liters of distillate and say that sucks versus 500 liters of this distillate.
Susan: What did you o with it?
Alex: So we did a bunch of little test batches and we settled on a recipe and then scaled it up. We were really, really happy with the way it turned out. Aquavit is a weird one for our region. A lot of people just don’t really know what to do with it or what it is for. The people who do are super into it. I think it’s a fun way that craft distillers can open up people’s interests and just expose them to other products and other styles of spirit be. A lot of times when you go to the liquor store. You think I want gin or, Hey, I want whiskey or rum and you’re going right for that. Alcohol isn’t super cheap. It’s not like spending a couple of dollars and it’s often times a little bit difficult to justify spending a bunch of money on something you’ve never tried before.
I think seeing craft distillers pop up with these different ideas, even offer them in small bottles is a great way to bring different kinds of spirits into different cultures, essentially just the fact that we are making it gives us a lot of flexibility in being able to be creative.
Another one of the more obscure spirits that we produced was a Genever, which Is a gin predecessor. if you made gin with whiskey essentially instead of vodka, well the whole history of that is very, very interesting. I probably shouldn’t really dive too deeply into it in the interest of time, but it’s a really cool read. So I recommend it. Putting juniper berries in grain distillate is the beginning of what we have now as gin It seemed perfect for us to say, we’re making whiskey, we’re making gin, why don’t we play on this whole idea too, and represent the historical part of gin production. Here we are in Nova Scotia and making gin, which is a product, obviously that you know, is probably most popular and most well appreciated in the UK, but it’s a huge global phenomenon. Everybody loves gin. It’s really cool.
Susan: Yeah, supposedly they drink more gin in Spain than they do anywhere in the world. So it’s definitely now not just for us Brits. With your smaller spirits, you’re making rum as well as you said, and the whiskey and the gin, how did you feel that the local Nova Scotians took to your products. Were they willing to try the new funky ones? The ones that they might not have heard of before.
Alex: To a certain degree. Yeah. There’s always going to be people who are more adventurous and try things than others. Some people just want to go for the vodka gold standard where they’re think – this is what I like that’s totally cool. You know, it’s just as much fun for us to make interesting things ,as it is for us to put it out into the community for other people to try.
I think this year was a weird one. We started off with the intention of producing a lot of smaller batch products and to do these really limited releases and make maybe a hundred bottles or something very similar to what we did with the Boston Tree Gin. But with the pandemic and the couple of months that we spent just making hand sanitizer, a lot of that got pushed heavily to the Fall and leading into next year.
But it’s been really fun to create these little spirits and just even received extremely well. We made a little tiny gin using stuff that I foraged myself from the coastlines there – wild rose and bayberry and beach pea and all these really cool little forage, edible plants.
It had this really great characteristic that just what I was aiming for. It was something that just reminded me of getting hit with a sea breeze on a hot summer day. I think we produced something like 80 bottles and they sold out instantly and we got lots of great feedback about it.
I really enjoy being able to make those little things that remind me of characteristics of Nova Scotia and turn it into something you can drink.
Susan: How wonderful that you were there when the sign was up. Y ou have actually not only grown with the company, but seen the company grow.
Susan: People are buying the bottles, even the small ones, it’s not just the regular gin, London Dry Gin, the rum, the vodka, but they also want a piece of Nova Scotia, as well. The fact that you are in a position to be able to create those now ,must be very fulfilling.
Alex: Yeah. I think I’ve always been really drawn towards creative endeavors in all sorts of different ways. There’s a lot of work that goes into distilling, and there’s a lot of paperwork that goes into this industry too, but it is really, really fun to play with flavor and put together these interesting combinations of tastes. I’ve got a notepad full of really, really weird ideas.
I go back to them and think should I actually do that? Is that going to be good? I’m going to just try it anyway if it doesn’t taste good. I am really interested in the whole idea of breaking away a little bit from the very standard spirit products.
We’ve got flavored vodkas, we’ve got gin, whiskey, rum, there’s tequila, which obviously we aren’t going to make here. There’s just a lot of really, really cool stuff, but it all fits into these neat little categories. I push a little bit outside of those from time to time. That’s where, I think, there’s a lot of potential and a lot of fun to be had – just to give people different experiences with alcohol that, maybe will work great in a cocktail, or maybe it would be just great on its own.
Susan: Can you tell me some top tips for the home bartender?
Alex: I would just become as familiar as possible with the spirit that you’re working with. Maybe that’s understanding where it’s made or how it’s made. Just learn to drink things straight is a really, really great skill. It’s almost like savoring dark chocolate and it’s really, really cool.
It gives you a really interesting idea of just all the flavors that are there. I am a craft distiller, so I’m biased, but your craft distillery is going to be the person who’s working with really interesting stuff, don’t forget about them.
Give them a look and see what they’re playing with because there’s a lot of cool creativity in the industry.
Susan: That’s a great one.
Alex: I honestly drink almost everything straight all the time. I’ve been to tons of trade shows and craft shows and everyone says what no mix? I say, just listen, it will change your life on how you approach spirits. When I was drinking age, I was drinking spirits as fast as possible and trying to grimace through the burn and not taste any of it, because it tastes horrible. That is the case for like bad spirits.
With really good spirits, it’s completely not necessary. There’s so much cool flavor and it’s a great way to experience it. I go to bars and just ask for neat gin – why would I just want to taste the only tonic? We have bad tonic, and it just like ruins a good gin in my opinion.
Susan: No, no, I totally understand. Now, if you could be drinking anywhere right now, where would that be?
Alex: That’s a really hard question. I’m just going to connect it to the place that I really want to go to. It’s Japan actually. I would really love to go to Japan. Obviously, there’s a really cool, very interesting Japanese whiskey scene and just the mastery of blending. They’re doing their own thing that’s totally different from Scotch whiskey or American whiskey. I find that really interesting, but I’m also really inspired by the in tentful craftsmanship of Japanese culture.
Susan: Fabulous. So hopefully, I’ll be able to come to Nova Scotia and all of us will be able to come to Nova Scotia one of these days after the pandemic is over. It was great to hear about Compass Distillers and you and your journey.
Alex: Thank you so much.
As we drive over one of the longest bridges in the world, we come to Prince Edward Island or PEI as the locals call it. Known for its red beaches, beautiful farmland and charming towns, PEI is also famed for its shellfish, lobsters and oysters, and to accompany that amazing food, the island is home to the incredible bar that is Slaymaker and Nichols.
One fateful day, our guest, Steve Murphy, owner of that said bar, also saw a sign – this time it was for a restaurant for sale and just as he was about to move to Honduras! Guess where he settled?
Susan: Well, I am so happy to have you on the show. Steve. I don’t really know that much about Prince Edward Island. I’ve never been there. let’s start at the beginning of your journey to Prince Edward Island. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you got there.
Steve: Yeah, it’s a long story. This is not a conventional and normal story you may have heard before, but there’s lots of twists and turns ago along the way. I am happy to be here too. I’m a big fan. I gotta gush for a second. I do follow it and I love it. I think you’re doing a great job and I’m just so happy to be on it with you today. if I’m a little nervous, that’s why.
My wife and I lived in Toronto, Ontario. We were both born and raised in Ontario city, and it’s a busy city of about 7 million people.
We lived just in east end of the city – downtown Toronto people. We had corporate lives. We were so into the corporate world, it wasn’t funny. My background was with 20th century Fox for a long time, and I was based in Toronto, but traveling back and forth to the West Coast.
I got two kids. I have a daughter that’s still in Toronto, still in Ontario. She’s a paramedic. I have a son who’s with me in the restaurant world now today. I traveled 25 weeks a year, probably back and forth to LA every other week, I loved the job. I loved everything about it.
Selling movies and being in a movie world. When we’d go to LA, we’d be on the movie set, we’d be on the studio set. Our building was right next to where they filmed Modern Family and to see those core characters and people walking around and get to know them – it was a neat life.
It was every Monday out of Toronto, work all day in the office, fly back. You leave Toronto in the afternoon, you arrived early evening in LA and we spent Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday in the office in LA, and then it’s a red eye home every other Friday morning.
We arrived back in around nine o’clock in the morning. You start your day in, Friday back in Toronto. I did that every week, 25 weeks a year. It started to get a little tiring, to be honest.
Susan: How many years did you do this?
Steve: That was roughly about five years. Yeah, the thing is, I loved it. I loved the work. I mean, to be honest, I was probably working more hours now than I did then It wasn’t the hours. Then Christine traveled about 45 weeks a year. My wife was in the medical field. She would go into a hospital after they sold some equipment and she would get the equipment up and running in the lab.
As a lab technologist, she would have to be there for a week. She would get the equipment running to a government standard, and then she had to do a train the trainer approach to get people trained on it, make sure it works by the time she leaves at the end of the week. She was doing this 45 weeks and seven days a week.
We had two kids and two dogs. We has an Excel spreadsheet that we would trade back and forth that overlapped when we were not going to be home at the same time. We can get a family member, like a dad or a sister to come in and watch the kids and they let the dog out and that kind of thing.
We traveled a ton. So we got to the point where my kids moved out, they went to school, they got to the age that they were leaving. We were sitting on the couch one Saturday night, exhausted and sitting thinking, What are we doing? We’re killing ourselves. No, we don’t even live at home anymore. Nobody lives here.
We’re traveling all over the world. What are we doing? We decided to make a change and it took a long time to get that decision. We’ll fast forward through that part, but eventually we decided let’s do this. What do we want to do? What could you be and live anywhere in the world?
Where would you go? Right. What would you do? The worst case scenario is it fails. It fails miserably. That’s the worst case scenario. I would go back and get our jobs back, that was our follow-up plan. We put a number on the house and said, what do we think we can get for it?
If it sells at that price, so we make a decision. If it doesn’t sell, we don’t make a decision. So it sold. It was about a month. In Toronto, at the time, that was a long time. If it didn’t sell in a couple of days, it would be a bidding war. If it didn’t happen, then we were overpriced. The next day, once we had the closing, we would then quit our jobs. I’ll be honest, our bosses were shocked. It wasn’t like they saw this coming, or we even saw a whole lot of this coming to be honest with you.
Susan: Did you know where you were going to go yet? Or you still had no idea you were selling it without knowing anything?
Steve: Yeah, we didn’t really know for sure. We had envisioned moving to Honduras. We had our eye on a little Island called Roatán. We’d been down to visit it. We had a game plan of owning some businesses down there and doing a business down there. But moving to Roatan, Honduras full-time was going to be our main idea. You can live anywhere in the world. Why wouldn’t you go to the Caribbean? Right.
Susan: Did you have a plan to work in Honduras or you just were going to play?
Steve: No, no, we were too young to play and that’s not our style. We had ideas. We had looked at a few businesses to buy and maybe some businesses to start were really green. We really had no idea. Yeah. To be honest, we were traveling too much and working too hard to spend time figuring it out. We just knew we wanted something totally different. We had an eye on a bakery down there and I remember looking at it. But these are things we had no experience in running.
We thought we’d go spend some time figuring it out. We quit our jobs so then we had to have a yard sales. We don’t own a house anymore. We had a yard sale and sold everything we owned. We probably had one day, one Saturday morning, we put a sticker, a price tag on everything like some clothes, the spoons and pots and pans, artwork, everything.
If it didn’t fit in the back of a pickup truck, we couldn’t use it. It’s sold out in about two hours. We had, it was honestly, it was chaos and we sold everything in two hours, got rid of everything except for our TV set and a couch that we could sit on for the next couple of days.
Susan: No one can see my face, but my mouth is dropped. My jaw. Should I say is dropping and dropping. You are such risk takers.
Steve: Well, we’re not see, the funny part is we’re not. Christine’s a lab technologist. Very process-driven, very structured. I’ve been working in corporate since I was 20 and that was our lives. This is really completely out of character. We just knew we were we were too young to stay in a corporate world.
I was looking to change jobs and it just became, what are we doing? Right. If I just change the job, that’s going to be the same issues with a different brand. Let’s just try something totally. We’re young enough or we’re competent enough. Or we thought we were anyway that we would give it a shot, and again, like I say, our thought was Christine could get a job anywhere as a lab technologist, she’s certified, she could do it. They’re in high demand. The worst case scenario should get us a job somewhere else.
I mean, we have a good story to tell one day. Yeah, so we decided we had a plane ticket for Roatán in December, but our house sold quicker than we thought. It’d be very closed in September. We had a couple of months to kill.
Here comes the tie to Prince Edward Island. Christine’s dad and mom are both from PEI, even though they live in Ontario now, and they have an old farmhouse. It’s been around for 150 years , but they use as a vacation home know. It’s still the family name place. Potato farmers, go figure, from PEI that is their history.
Christine’s dad said, why don’t you go use the farm? You bought yourself some time. Take a couple of months and golf. It’s beautiful down here in the fall. It’s really known for its golf in the fall. We did.
Susan: Famous last words!
Steve: That’s just a faster, right. We’re going to come here for a couple of months and we’re going to go move to Roatan. The longer we were there, the more we looked around, we thought, if I could live anywhere in the world, why not PEI? Especially in the summer, it’s got the best beaches. It’s got the best golf. It’s got the best seafood. It’s got the best people. it’s underpopulated. The price is right.
It’s everything you ever want; the temperature is perfect. The water is great, we started looking around, we thought, let’s see if there’s something here that we could do. We looked at everything, like we looked at gas stations and we looked at inns and some B&Bs. We looked at this one weird one way out in the middle of nowhere and we fell in love with it, but nothing really suited.
It was late November and we were supposed to leave December and we just gave up on the, idea. I guess it’s not for us. I went for a drive one day to try to find a national park up at the North Shore. It’s massive wooded beachy, a national park. I got lost and went down the wrong street in the street.
I went down one that happened to have the Blue Mussel Cafe on it. It’s way at the end of this long road, it’s way in a little tiny harbor, right beside the lighthouse, right at the end of the whole, this little, tiny village, the middle of nowhere. We pulled around to turn around to get our bearings. I saw this for sale sign on the window.
I don’t know, we kicked it around. We’d talked about it a lot. We thought we got nothing, but time on my hands, let’s call the number. So we called the number and the real estate agent answered, and he gave us a price and we’re though, I could do that. It’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lifetime of money.
We could probably make this work. Then we went and had a drink and had a beer at one of the local places here at our favorite place here in town called Gahan. We went to this place and we talked ourselves out of it. Like, what are we doing? I know nothing about
Susan: That was my next question. Did anything about the industry? Had you ever talked to any restauranters before this?
Steve: The joke is when you travel 25 weeks a year, 45 weeks a year and three meals a day, we ate out a lot. That was our training. We knew what we would want the restaurant to be from the table. We didn’t know anything else, but I knew what we’d want. Right. We talked about it for a while and we said, we’ll kick ourselves if we don’t do it. I know it’s hard. I know they all fail. I know most restaurants don’t make it, but just give it a shot.
We went and negotiated with the owner. We got the business. That closed in December 1st, I spent a winter in Roatan waiting out the weather because we had no other place to live. Why not live where there’s no snow? We came back in April and got it going with a lot of scrubbing and a lot of work. We launched our first restaurant.
Susan: What kind of restaurant did you conceive of having?
Steve: Blue Mussel’s up in a North shore. That’s in a resort community as we’re Anna Green Gables. You know that novel? Lucy Maud Montgomery. It’s all based in this area – Cavendish We’re right in the next town over called North Rustico. Everything you read in Anne is actually happening up there today, even though that was written a hundred years ago, the lifestyle is exactly the same.
Susan: I read it about a hundred years ago.
Steve: You look good for your age. We got it started and then we realized I’m not a chef, Christine’s not a chef. We have no chef. We probably need to get something. Here’s this building, it’s an old deck. It’s like a couple of fishing shanties put together as basically what the space is. Literally is right on the water.
Water comes underneath the deck in the morning. It’s all fresh seafood. The fishermen come right up to the dock, whatever they bring in lots of halibut, haddock, good lobster and mussels and oysters are right outside our water. Picked up that morning. We’re going, “I don’t know how to cook any of this.” I don’t know any of this. Right?
We put it out for a chef and nobody applied. No one, no good chef wants to work a seasonal two or three month gig. They were real chefs. They have a year round gig. Jamie, our head chef to this day, eight years later, he walked in. He came in unannounced and he thought we were crazy. Two idiots from Ontario come down and start a restaurant.
Susan: These city folk, right?
Steve: Yeah. The terminology here is Upper Canadian. We’re Upper Canadians. These two Upper Canadians that come down here and try to start a restaurant. I’ll, I’ll do that. I’ll pay attention for a summer. he started, so the problem we have is a took off. It’s an old rustic building and we shined it up.
For whatever reason, probably because Jamie does a really good job with the menu, we bought the restaurant and they did about 4,000 people a summer. After about two and a half months, we did 65,002 at our height and it doubled every year over year, and just kept growing faster than we could ever handle.
Christine and I are in the kitchen learning how to cook on the fly right with Jamie. I think that’s where I got the inspiration for flavoring and mixing flavoring and getting us into cocktails. It was the time spent understanding the difference that when you add acid and when you have to add a bitter, you have to add a sweetener.
How you balance the flavor and why does Jamie do what he does? That’s how I fell into it. Then I got into cocktailing from there because the line up at the door started to get longer and the hours spent in line started to get longer. There’s a two hour wait sometimes to get into the restaurant.
We had to have a great product and we had to have everything. We couldn’t just serve Pepsi and beer. You had to have a full range and a full bar. It couldn’t just be a Rye and Coke or Rum and Coke. We built a bar on the side of the building to make it big enough to house a real true cocktail bar.
But then the issue was, how do you get a proper bartender? You can’t get a mixologist to work for two months a year, but you have to have a good menu. We worked and studied cocktails forever. We had lots of winters off. We’d spend the time reading and researching, understanding, maybe drinking a few down in Roatan.
Then we just started to develop a menu for cocktails that had speed variety but tasted good and were really different than anything else out there.
Susan: Let me go back a little while you were traveling and drinking out and eating out, what things did you like? Were you an old fashioned drinker? Were you a cosmopolitan drinker? What things were you drawn to.
Steve: I knew nothing about cocktails. You know, daiquiri was my cocktail. Beer was my cocktail. I think they added vodka to it. That’s my diary of a cocktail. I really got into scotch and whiskeys and old fashioned. That’s how I started for sure. Simple, a little more really booze forward drinks.
Then Christine was really on the opposite end of the scale. She started out being a little less booze forward and it’s actually amazing the transformation that she’s now a little more booze forward, and there’s a whole trend on the island of becoming way more booze forward than ever before.
I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere else, but the idea that is really trending .
Susan: In Honduras, you were and, I’m assuming, you were drinking more rum, Caribbean flavors. Did you bring that feeling to your summer restaurant?
Steve: I started to and I really didn’t want to. Even if I’m a big rum drinker. There’s a Florida Cana Rum from Guatemala. That’s huge, cheaper than water down there. We drank a ton of it. It’s a really great amber rum. We love it. It’s just a very easy to mix. A very easy to drink kind of rum and we really got into that and they used to have it available here on the island.
We were probably one of the first restaurants to bring that into a regular Mojito style drink. PEI so pristine. We really wanted to have a true PEI experience when you’re eating there. I really didn’t want to go to Caribbean with the flavoring.
I wanted to stay true to the local scene and I really wanted to make it all about Prince Edward Island while you’re here versus trying to take you away from here to some other magical place. PEI so beautiful. You really want to immerse yourself in PEI.
Susan: is there a lot going on as far as making spirits, distilleries, things that you could draw on, at least in, in the vicinity to make that happen.
Steve: There is, and it’s really starting to come alive in the last five years. There’s some distilleries now just coming online and they make really great product. We use one of our cocktails here, our biggest cocktail right now, it uses local absinthe. Absinthe is such a hard one to play with.
They’ve done such a good job with this local distillery that it’s easy for us to use. It’s really becoming a scene here, but it’s really super early days. We’re in a remote spot of Canada. We’re way off the East coast. It takes a lot longer for trends to catch up here, but it’s really starting to catch on.
Susan: Well, it sounds like you already inherently knew the trends and went with it. Back to your back to your first cocktail menu at your first restaurant.
Steve: We kind of cheated the system. We spent a lot of time thinking about it and we thought if we could take the same flavor profiles and cheat it, and we still use this methodology today, we cheat a lot of the drinks with prep. You have a lot of time at six in the morning that you can spend time to make the drink, right? You can make lots of infusions, syrups, betters, that kind of thing. But when you want speed, when it comes to execution, so let’s spend the time up front, let’s get a flavors there though. It’s easy to put together later. We actually created eight drinks for a menu of our cocktail menu, but all of them had the same ingredients, but with alcohol or without alcohol.
I’ll give you an example. One of the ones that we had was a drink that was an infusion of, probably my ties to the Caribbean, but had a little peach and mango flavoring and ticked it combined with some vodka and some blueberry syrup that we make in house.
Without alcohol, it’s a Cinderella and it’s targeted towards young girls coming in with their moms for lunch during the day. Then if you wanted, we have the same, exact drink with vodka added and that’s the Evil Stepmother, right?
Susan: Were you making all these, personally?
Steve: Yeah. For the first couple of years I spent all my time in the bar, it was a hundred percent of my time, especially in the Fall. That was my chance to really get to know what is it all about how the flavors come together?
How do you make sure you can service the customer, maintain contact with people that are sitting there, but come up with really good drinks. It took a lot of a lot of trial and error in that little, tiny bar.
Susan: This was only a summer place, right?
Steve: Right. About five years into this, we had a really good staff. We had Jamie, our Head Chef. We have Donnie, our full-time bartender. Donnie is your career, long-term, old fashioned guy. You come in and he’ll have the dish rag in one hand, polish the taps and talk to you for hours and really make sure you have a great time.
He can really execute whatever you give him for cocktails perfectly, so we have all this talent that we lay off every summer. Every year you let them go and do this. There’s no jobs here for them. Then you hope they come back and they did. We were getting really nervous the longer that went on.
We thought if we start another restaurant in Charlottetown, the capitol here of the province, then we keep them employed. We don’t lose them. Let’s build something where we can keep the staff year round. Let’s make sure it’s small, but really, really good food and drinks. Then that way we’d make it start up easier. That’s how we launched Slaymaker & Nichols here in Charlottetown.
Susan: How long was that from you selling your house to deciding to open Slaymaker & Nichols.
Steve: Great question. It’s probably was a little over five years.
Susan: Five years.
Steve: Yeah. The first couple of years we spent our summers here and we took off and went to Honduras. Jamie came down to Honduras. We opened a restaurant there that we partnered with. We helped them get started and opened a restaurant in Honduras.
We were spending our winters in a way. Then our summers here for the first couple of years, and as Blue Mussel got bigger and got more of a real restaurant, as we joke about all the time we, it became a full-time job. We needed to be here anyway.
Susan: Five years is quite, it’s a significant amount of time. Was there ever a time when you thought we made the wrong decision?
Steve: You know, we talk about that a lot. Christina and I, and so we have some tough days, 65,000 people through a building in two and a half months, three months at a time. We do 75 seats. We turn it 10 times to do 750 people a day in a restaurant that seats 75. It’s a hard, hard business.
Anybody in this business can only appreciate it. Yeah, we talk about that and we will have a chat and we’ll still say this is way better than we were doing before. We loved our jobs. It wasn’t like we hated our jobs at all, but here’s such satisfaction in doing this job.
You make a drink; you spend hours agonizing over the ratios. Which is stupid. Right? Cause , no one else cares as much as you do. Then you serve it to somebody and you get that instant gratification or instant response either love it or they don’t. When they do it, it’s just, there’s nothing better than that.
Susan: They do care as much as you do. I’m just going to say that they do care.
Steve: Most people do, you’re right. Yeah. It must be. I’m learning that about cocktails. That’s something I’m doing. You’re right. I thought you just had to have cocktails cause you had to have it, but people really do care. They really know their stuff. The at-home bartender is getting way more sophisticated than ever before, and they really know what they’re doing and they really do care.
Susan: Other than being a permanent place. What was different between what you wanted out of Slaymaker & Nichols and your other place?
Steve: Everything. Right. We took Blue Mussel Cafe, which is say, is this rustic fishermen, shanty on the dock, worn out woods, picnic table style benches with really good food. Then come down here and we created this Art Deco, looks like it really just rolled right out of early 1900s – lots of dark colors and velvet and golds.
The food and the cocktail scene we brought here was completely different than what was here before, but it’s the place. It’s an old, old house built in early 1900’s. We gutted the whole thing and in the main floor, as you walk in the door, there is this massive white bar.
It’s got this white marble countertop, big gold brass taps. This place is all about the bar. It’s all about cocktails. It’s all about the social aspect of it. It is completely different than what we did at Blue Mussel by design. We really wanted to make this all about gathering and cocktails. We actually designed it around cocktails and really, really good food, but like tapas style originally – lots of strong flavoring, lots of small dishes, and then balance that with some really great booze forward. Really, really good cocktail.
Susan: No, I’ve never been to Charlottetown. Give me an idea of what the cocktail scene and restaurant scene is like there right now. I mean, not right now in COVID time, but in general, what it’s like there, the selection and what people are serving and the things that they want.
Steve: Yeah, for sure. Again, you have to understand the location. Prince Edward Island is an island and it’s only accessible by one super long bridge. It’s one of the longest bridges in the world, 15 kilometers long, roughly and or by air or ferry.
It’s remote out there and it’s a real summer destination. All this whole Island is fishing, farming and tourism. In winter, there’s not a whole lot that goes on here, although that’s growing in the last couple of years, for sure. It has an inordinate amount of really great restaurants.
It’s really focused on the summer getting people here, but those restaurants are open all year, all through the summer, especially all through the winter, especially in Charlottetown. It’s becoming known as Canada’s food Island. It has such a diverse range of food.
It’s all local. It’s not like it has a lot of ethnic food. Even though that’s growing. The Indian scene is growing here for the first time in a long time. It’s all about – I know the farmer. It’s all about fresh. It’s about literally knowing the guy who pulls the potatoes. I know the people that make our lettuce.
I know the fishermen. There’s a lot that restaurants can do with that. It’s all about fresh food here. It’s all about in season fresh food. The only thing that works PEI is in the spectrum of time compared to everybody else, is it’s a real beer capital. I think there’s seven going on eight craft breweries or local breweries on the Island.
There’s a population of 160,000 and there’s going on eight different breweries that came out. This has been a beer town for a long time and craft beer. Each one of these beer companies now are big, they’re big in the East Coast and they have many different varieties. It was really all about what’s your beer selection for a long time.
That’s still our identity. It’s still who we are and still a reason people come to the island. We saw that as a real opportunity to bring cocktails to the front, as well as beer and not, I would say not that was not going on here before we came to Charlottetown. It was just not what people thought would go over very well because they thought you had to have beer, right?
You had to have the beer selection. We’ve learned instantly that people are, like we talked about earlier, they really are all about cocktails and that’s becoming a real thing and they really are really passionate about it.
Susan: What cocktails were they drawn to originally, or what did you have on your menu or things that you had to change? Because people liked it or didn’t like them.
Steve: We started with two things. We had wanted to have a good wine selection and a good cocktail selection. Then we also wanted a good mocktail selection. We’re right in the heart of the city here. There’s a lots of government buildings, federal and provincial government buildings.
There’s a lot of wealth in the city – a big lunch crowd. We wanted to make sure we had a mocktail scene, so they didn’t have to feel like they’re going strictly after cocktails. We were really started with that in mind. By being naive about the cocktail world at the time, I thought they had to be a little sweeter and I thought they had to be a little more mixed and then truly booze forward or about the spirit shining through. So our first menu, it looked totally different than what we have out there now, which is our second menu.
Now it’s a lot more booze forward. It’s a lot more creative of flavoring and the layering of flavoring than before. I was really amazed when we have this one drink, it’s our take on an Old Fashioned. We just make a different syrup with it, where we infuse it with some cinnamon and cardamom and cloves and allspice and added some orange bitters to it.
That became our number one seller. It was the strongest, most simple drink we had. I started to realize it wasn’t just the typical male coming in to have a Martini, Old Fashioned, Manhattan style drink. Girls are really drawn to bourbon. My eyes opened up that wow, the scene, I was completely wrong with what was going on.
I thought I had to have a lot of gin drinks and really, no, it’s really just a lot of bourbon, a lot of whiskey. There are gin drinkers as well of course, but I was really amazed how the sophistication of the other guests went way beyond what I thought it would be.
Susan: I’m a bourbon lover. Yes, I think things definitely have changed. People are starting to change their mind about what women and men drink. You know, I think just maybe tastes have changed. There’s a lot more out there. We can try a lot more stuff. It’s also about the sweet versus bitter or sweet versus less sweet thing.
Steve: I think the quality of the spirits have really gone up a lot in the last little while. I think they’re a little easier to drink. I think, back in the early days, you had to mix it to get rid of that harshness of the spirit. I think you don’t need to do that as much anymore. I think it’s much more enjoyable to drink that way, but yeah, the more I learn about this cocktail world, the more I realized I got a lot to learn.
Susan: Well, I have a question again about the spirits and about using local PEI stuff. What ingredients are you using that are specific to PEI or the rest of Canada or the provinces that are close by.
Steve: It’s still a very new scene here in Atlantic Canada. Right now, we’re within our Atlantic bubble, we’re allowed to travel within the Atlantic region. Inside that Atlantic bubble there, it’s really just coming online. There’s really not a ton of variety yet, but the products that are coming out are great. Vodka is as a clear one with all the potatoes grown in the area.
There’s these local vodkas. I love when people come from away. That’s what we call people that are not from the islands. You know, people come from away. They have their favorite vodka and, you can know the brands that everyone loves, and then we have this local stuff and in an instant, the normal reaction is that it’s not going to be good as that vodka, like in France, and then they try it and it’s right up there.
It’s really, really good vodka, There’s two distilleries that are battling out for the best vodka that I’ve seen in a long time. I think that just being local and being potato driven. There’s other people on the Island that are doing Mead and that’s who we get our absinthe from.
They’re doing other styles of mixing, of liqueurs and they do a lot of flavoring of maple whiskeys and that kind of stuff, because they have maple trees and everything else that’s local to the area. There’s a lot of that going on. The challenge we have is volume. The challenge is it’s expensive per ounce. That’s the challenge we have here on the island is when you start mixing a cocktail with it, you can’t really charge enough to make up the cost of per ounce.
The product is really coming along. There are tours. You can come to PEI and go and see these distilleries. They’re really becoming award-winning, world-renowned and they really are starting to make a scene, but they’re still new. It’s still very, very new.
Susan: Are you behind the bar making drinks still or creating drinks?
Steve: You know, I am! We joke a lot, my whole role here. I don’t really do a lot here, to be honest with you. Christine’s more of the back of the house. That’s why she’s not on this today. She’s more in the kitchen and she’s more a lab technologist. She’s more process driven.
She’s more about making sure quality control, everyone’s working the way they should. This is what I do. I’m on the bar every Friday, Saturday night. I’m definitely there and that’s where I love to be. You know, as I say, I love the hospitality.
I didn’t realize that I loved the hospitality world. You know, I really like serving. I really like the gratification of getting to do this and getting to know people and see them come back again and hear their story, and then make them some drinks and food that they like. There’s no better place to do that. There’s no better place to be in life than when you have that thing going on, in my opinion,
Susan: Steve, can you tell me your top tips for the home bartender?
Steve: Here’s my advice that I think I could offer being a new at-home bartender and now a restaurant bartender, I think the big first thing is you have to start somewhere. What you want to do is you really want to show off to your friends really at the end of the day, you want to make a really good drink at home that you could share with people.
That’s really what it’s all about. Right? I would always suggest starting with a traditional drink and then layer in flavor to make it your own. That’s really my advice. Start with something simple, start with what’s out there and then put your own stamp on it. That’s really the way that you could really show off your friends and really make a drink that’s unique to you and to them.
My advice when doing that is you gotta balance everything. What you have to understand when you add one thing, It creates an off-balance. If you’re adding a, a little sweetener because you want to reduce the harshness of the booze or the spirit, if you add too much sweetener, you should add a bitter or you should add an acid to help cut that out. It’s not just about adding one thing. It’s about adding balance to each drink. I think if you strive for that, you can’t go wrong. You have to be keep exploring new ways of balancing out and trying to the flavors.
Susan: I think that’s great. Now if you could be anywhere in the world drinking anything right now, where would that be?
Steve: See, that’s a hard one. We’ve been locked in this island for over a year now. I want to be anywhere else necessarily. You’re probably going to figure that I’m going to go back to Honduras. I’m going to say that I want to be in the Caribbean somewhere, but I’ll be honest, when I think about this question, There’s this bar in Toronto, this little local bar where we used to live and it’s an old building and it’s been around since the late 1800’s.
It’s on this prominent intersection, right in downtown Toronto, where the North/South streetcar and the East/West streetcar meet. It’s this beautiful building. For about a hundred years, it’s been a strip joint and it’s been this place called Jilly’s and it’s has this gaudy exterior.
A couple of years ago, somebody bought that building, ripped it apart, put it back together in this beautiful way. Now just it’s such a gorgeous building in the middle of the city. On the rooftop is a glass dome and you can see the 360 view of the whole city in four seasons and it’s called a Broad View Hotel.
I think if I would be anywhere, I would love to go back there right now with Christine , just because that’s where it started for us. You know, that’s how we got here. It’d be interesting to go back into our old hood there again and have a cocktail up there and see the city and see what’s changed since we’ve been here.
Susan: That very romantic.
Steve: I didn’t mean it to be.
Susan: If someone wants to come to Slaymaker & Nichols and meet you, you’re there Friday, Saturday, and Sunday,
Steve: I’m here every day. Every I’m here every day and usually at night. It’s hard to be here every day, all day, but I’m here now. That’s the running joke – is Steve’s going to be in the building when you come in. But yeah, but I’m always on the bar Friday, Saturday and the Thursday, Friday, Saturday night. I’m always on the floor.
Susan: All right. Well, I cannot wait to meet you and have one of the drinks. They sound amazing. Let’s cheers to that time when we can all travel again.
Steve: Yes, cheers to that, for sure. Looking forward to that happening soon.
Susan: Well, thank you so much for being on the show. Now I feel like I know PEI so much better.
Steve: . You have to come check this place out. You gotta be careful when you come to check out PEI, you fall in love with it and ended up staying just like we did, but that happens. You hear that story a lot. I hope you do come you. I know. You’d love it.
Susan: I’m sure I will. .
Steve: Thank you.