Two well-known drivers of New Brunswick’s innovation sector are celebrating a win for their own recently founded startup by taking home international recognition for their Devil’s Keep vodka.
Ray Fitzpatrick and Joe Allen have won a platinum award from the International Spirits Competition in San Francisco for the vodka they distill at their Devil’s Keep Distillery just outside Fredericton.
The award is the highest in its class and is judged on a blind taste test.
“Our vodka doesn’t have a pucker factor — our vodka is smooth and sippable,” said Allen, who is head distiller at Devil’s Keep and, during the day, managing director of accelerator programs at University of New Brunswick. “Our vodka doesn’t need to be hidden in your favourite mix. It can be poured on the rocks and enjoyed.”
Allen said the smooth taste is achieved through lengthy distilling of locally sourced ingredients. “All our corn, rye, and barley is grown in the Saint John Valley to produce a New Brunswick flavour,” he said, adding that Devil’s Keep vodka is one of only two Canadian vodkas to achieve this award.
The pair has been quick to get to market and make an impact.
It took only about 18 months from finalizing their recipes to winning the award, and their product is now in most New Brunswick liquor stores.
Fitzpatrick said their day jobs — he is director of investments at New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) — help enormously.
“Our day jobs remind us to keep going and try to think big, to diversify and start exporting, to keep thinking and going hard,” he said.
Devil’s Keep grew from the pair’s shared work in the sector.
“When we were both at NBIF, we often travelled together,” Allen said. “We were inspired by the entrepreneurs we see every day. There are so many wonderful Maritime stories, it was a case of why not us? We asked, ‘What can we do?’ They say, ‘Do what you love,’ but we couldn’t be professional drinkers, so we decided to supply a fine alcohol.”
At first, they thought they would build a craft brewery but the province already had many impressive brewers.
“We realized we would be at the tail end of that wave and it would be uphill to get market share,” Allen said. “There were only four distilleries in New Brunswick — now there are nine or 10. We thought that would be the next wave.”
The partners chose vodka as their first offering as it is relatively fast to produce and is the most consumed spirit in the world. Now, they are expanding into whiskey.
They have produced 16 barrels of their first whisky, which are quietly aging. The whisky will have to wait at least three years to be considered Canadian standard but they intend to export their whisky as soon as it is ready.
They are planning to get their vodka into liquor stores in Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island, possibly both at the same time.
They have already gone through one expansion of their premises and are planning the next growth phase, which they intend to include larger facilities, a tasting room, and bigger equipment.
They say it is hard juggling full-time jobs with entrepreneurship, and they owe a great deal to others. The vodka was created with research chemist Mike Doucette of the Community College of New Brunswick. They now have a staff member, distiller Shaun Nadeau. And their wives are invaluable, with Monica Fitzpatrick overseeing social media and designing, and Lana Thompson managing shipping and receiving.
The project has been self-funded, with assistance from Opportunities New Brunswick and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Allen said the award provides great recognition from a third-party body.
“Far too often we hear, especially in our day jobs, ‘Go out into the world and get validation.’
"Then the world asks if we have validation in our own backyard. We are working on gaining validation through gaining sales in the province and internationally.”
Carol Moreira is a principal of Entrevestor, which provides news and data on Atlantic Canadian startups.