On a hot August day in 1997, Arla Johnson leaves her home in Fort Myers, Florida, and heads north. Tuckered out from her job as a school counselor, she yearns for a spot by the sea where she can wind down. Reaching the border crossing into New Brunswick, she asks, “How far is PEI?”
“About four or five hours,” is the reply.
By days end she’s “down East” (as islanders say) at a campsite overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence. By week’s end she’s decided to buy a big hunk of land on the coast in Hermanville. Only she’ll have to convince her partner, Julie Shore, a dental hygienist, to pull up stakes and move to PEI. It wasn’t a hard sell. Sixteen months later, Arla and Julie opened the newly constructed Johnson Shore Inn—a four-star accommodation overlooking the ocean.
But the tourist season is short, and the income from the inn wasn’t enough to carry them 12 months. So for a few years they sallied back to Florida for the winter, returning in the spring. “It was a lot of work to close everything up, pack, drive, find a job then turn around and come back,” Arla says. Then the penny dropped. PEI was their home; it’s where they wanted to be all year. They decided to find a way to stay.
Julie’s thoughts turned to her relatives, makers of corn whiskey in the early 1900’s who operated I.C. Shore & Co. in North Carolina. “During the prohibition they raced ahead of the law from state to state—likely spawning future generations of NASCAR drivers,” Julie surmises. Recalling these stories, an idea started to ferment. What if she, too, could make whisky? She said to her partner, “Why don’t we open a distillery? Why don’t we distill the agriculture of PEI?”
Although it took some convincing, once Arla agreed, in less time than it takes to guzzle a glass of water Julie plunged into planning. She signed up for distilling courses, built a building to house the still and found second-hand stainless steel dairy tanks to ferment the mash.
But there’s one thing Julie would not compromise on: the still. She found the best in the market (in Markdorf Germany) and ordered one. When the crates carrying hundreds of pounds of shiny tubes and columns arrived, the manual was missing. Julie called the company.
“You forgot to put the manual in the crates.”
“The manual. You know—Step 1, Step 2…”
“Sorry, no manual.”
After that sank in, she inquired about the torque.
“The torque. How much torque should I put on the fittings?”
“Tight, but not too tight,” was the reply.
Mercifully the person on the other end of the line agreed to send a photo of what the still should look like. Over the next eight days, with some head scratching and lots of help from friends and neighbors, everything came together.
Once all the bits and pieces were in place, Julie decided to do a test run with water. Alas, it squirted and sprayed every which way. But, before long, they were bottling Canada’s first potato vodka. They also added a second line, wild blueberry vodka.
Since then, international awards have been rolling in. Their spirits are sold at several local restaurants, bars and pubs. They also give tours and sell what they make on site.
While Julie heads the operations at Prince Edward Distillery, Arla runs the Inn. For breakfasts, she serves her guests home-smoked bacon and sausages—from the pigs they raise. These pigs are fed scraps from the inn and mash from the distillery and without a doubt, are the happiest pigs in PEI. And very much in demand at high end restaurants.
Don’t you love stories like this? Sure is inspiring.
All photos Sandra Phinney