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What Two Potato Vodka Distillers Taught Me about Client Engagement

(L to R) Julie Shore, Doreen Ashton Wagner
and Arla Johnson
On a recent trip to PEI I had the pleasure of visiting the Prince Edward Distillery in the tiny hamlet of Hermanville, on the Northeastern tip of the Island.

There I met partners Julie Shore and Arla Johnson, and not only tasted their vodka (as well as their rye, whiskey, rum and gin!) but I also gleaned a few insights about what it takes to engage a client.

I had first driven to visit their tiny hotel, the Johnson Shore Inn, for a project I am working on for Meetings & Conventions PEI.  The Inn, it turns out, has now been leased to another couple to run so Julie and Arla can focus on the distillery.

It was on a whim that I decided to stop in at the distillery. After all, my site inspections focused on accommodation and meeting venues, and the distillery wasn't on my list since they don't have event space.

Before I knew it, I got a crash course in distilling, purchased a bottle of gin (which I never drink  I'm a scotch drinker!), and I was one hour behind schedule.

Lest you think I simply succumbed to their products, allow me to outline how they engaged me to the point I decided to write this post:

They have a story: I learned about Julie's North Carolina roots, where generations of Shores distilled moonshine.  Until Prohibition, that is.  Four generations later, Julie is reviving the family tradition, 2000 km North, on an island where her and Julie (who is from Florida) vacationed years ago.  They loved PEI so much they moved here..  

They are truly passionate about what they are doing:  While touring the production area, I listened intently as Arla described the six weeks during which she and Julie toured German schnapps distilleries, and met with manufacturers for the perfect still.  Julie ended up designing her own contraption, with an extra "column" because she had the hunch it would make a smoother-tasting product.

Their product is not unique but the way they are producing is:  Julie and Arla believe in partnering with local farmers.  The distillery began with potato vodka, but they soon added blueberry vodka because wild blueberries are an abundant crop on the Island.  And since farmers grow grains to let their land rest every few years, they got into the other spirits as well.  

They are having fun: Passion can turn some into fastidious, know-it-all bores.  Not the case with these ladies.  As I toured the facility, it was clear that these women know how to have fun.  I learned about how they feed the waste potato mash to the farmer's pigs next door ("There's often a bit of alcohol left in the mash... that makes for very happy pigs!").  How they joke around with male visitors who don't always think that two women should be in the distilling business (the still columns do have a phallic appearance...).  

They invited me to try their product the way host would invite a guest:  A big part of the experience of course is the tasting. The spirits are kept in the freezer, and only a tiny quantity is poured in a shot glass.  Just a little sip  really!  But I felt uniquely "pulled in," charmed, to give it a try (I had be careful, I was driving!).  Yet there absolutely was no pressure to buy.  Arla wisely asked for my drink preferences.  She correctly guessed that I would enjoy the rye (the taste resembled brandy). When she nudged me to try the gin, I thought she'd be wrong.  Not at all  I loved the light taste of juniper, and the hint of lemongrass.  I walked out with a bottle!

So there you have it!  The story of two American woman who braved the odds, moved North and are successfully running a business that attracts locals and tourists to their out-of-the-way part of PEI. Their success, in my humble opinion, is due to their outgoing, personable demeanor and they way they tell their story, one customer at a time.  

Julie and Arla's company does not have a great online presence. Their website doesn't even list their new products  rye, whiskey, rum and gin  and they do not seem to be on ANY social media. Yet their product is now available at the LCBO, available to Canada's largest provincial market.

Their philosophy is to engage, one person at a time.  Good luck Julie & Arla!