Distilling the Dalhousie spirit

- January 15, 2016

Student entrepreneur Riley Giffen. (Nick Pearce photos)
Student entrepreneur Riley Giffen. (Nick Pearce photos)

An organic chemistry class, an entrepreneurial spirit and a family history of innovation helped Engineering student Riley Giffen distil his passion for the business of beverages.

A young entrepreneur and a Chemical Engineering student, Riley owns and operates Coldstream Clear Distillery with his parents Elaine and Robert (Agriculture class of ‘89).

Riley hails from West St. Andrews, near Stewiacke, N.S.. He started his engineering studies at another university before deciding to make a change and study at Dalhousie’s Agricultural Campus, pursuing his Diploma in Engineering.

“It was the closest place to home to study Engineering, so in my first year I was able to work part time for my dad's bottled water business while I went to school,” he says. “I knew the class sizes at the AC were small, which was appealing to me after attending a larger university.”

Inspiration in the classroom

He is quick to acknowledge that what he learned at the AC started the chain of events leading to Coldstream Clear. He learned about distillation in an organic chemistry class, and says this studies have taught him the science and mindset to help get his business going.

“I vividly remember day-dreaming in class and having this vision of how awesome it would be to start and run a real liquor company. I knew it had potential, but I had no idea how much. The possibility of creating something that people recognized and genuinely enjoyed was what inspired it all.”

Now, Coldstream Clear Distillery is growing in both consumer popularity and its variety of products.  Coldstream Clear officially launched on September 5 last year and hasn’t looked back.

Its current products include four liqueurs (apple pie, coconut, salted caramel and coffee), a candy cane-flavoured liqueur for the holiday season, two different vodkas, and rum that is presently aging in the barrel.  Considering fermentation, distillation, bottling, labelling, sealing and checking — all which happen on-site — the products can take upwards of three weeks to make from start to finish. With strong community presence through events and food galas almost every weekend and a retail store, the Giffens are busy working as a family to build their brand.

“We support the vision Riley has,” explains Robert. Together, the family tackles different facets of the business. Elaine works with the finances and product packaging, Robert is involved in developing and making the products, and Riley’s brother and sister are involved in developing recipes and helping out around the distillery wherever possible.

The Giffen family even has a unique historical link to distilling: the first Giffen to settle Nova Scotia was Simon Giffen, also a distiller, and keepsakes to his memory are featured at the on-site retail outlet.

“Unlike most things in this world, making rum hasn’t changed a whole lot from way back then,” says Riley. “When we found out the first member of our family to settle in Nova Scotia was a distiller, it seemed that starting a distillery was meant to be.”

Getting going

Riley and his family also recognize present-day challenges.

“You have to be ready to adapt in the agrifood industry. If things aren’t working out, you have to be ready to change,” shares Robert.

Social media has played a significant role in launching Coldstream Clear’s products.

“Social media was and is a key way of creating brand awareness for us,” explains Riley. “We try to be personal and let people know what we’re up to.  It’s great for spreading the word but also for sharing the excitement.” explains Riley.

Now studying in Halifax, Riley stays busy busy balancing school and business responsibilities. And he still tries to give back to the AC as well, recently launched his products in the campus pub, The Barn.

When asked about the best part of Coldstream Clear’s journey so far, Riley says “making a product that people associate with celebration and bringing people together is what it’s all about. People are happy and excited to purchase the products, which is awesome.”

Riley plans to finish his engineering degree in spring 2016 and has big dreams for the future direction of Coldstream Clear Distillery.

“I’d like to give my full attention to Coldstream Clear after graduation and see where we can go with this business, because it’s only the beginning.”


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