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.