The Authentic Glynn Williams
by Grant Heckman
How one man breathed new life into a small coastal town.
Guysborough is a lazy little coastal hamlet, a clutch of mostly century-old frame buildings strung along Highway 16, which snakes southward and along the Nova Scotia coast from east of Antigonish. In the summer of 1987 Glynn Williams and his wife Charlene arrived at the village on a biking trip through the province and fell in love with the place. Born in Montreal and raised in Quebec and Ontario, he was working on Bay Street for an investment dealer but would move into other business areas in which he would prosper.
A year after the biking trip Glynn saw an ad for a 100-acre oceanfront property with an old farmhouse near Guysborough. He bought it, beginning his now decades-long involvement in the life of the community. Spending summer vacation time at his new property, he began to learn about the history of the area and to ponder its state of economic decline. As in many places in Atlantic Canada the population of Guysborough and the surrounding area was shrinking, and the inevitable downward spiral of closing businesses and emptying schools was under way.
Glynn thought he saw a way to help start reversing this trajectory and began buying derelict and underused properties around the town. First was the DesBarres Manor Inn, an 1837 mansion on the edge of the village that had belonged to Supreme Court Justice W.F. DesBarres, grandson of J.F.W. DesBarres, the legendary cartographer and aide-decamp to General James Wolfe. A total restoration and reconstruction turned the house into an elegant 10-room country inn with a tastefully appointed bar and lounge, a cozy dining room, 600-thread-count bedsheets and a view of unblemished green countryside off the back deck. The former general store, circa 1929, became the Rare Bird Pub, an oceanside brew pub and restaurant whose rear deck overlooks tranquil Guysborough Harbour, where Glynn sometimes lands his plane when he flies in from Toronto. A 1917 former dry-goods store adjacent to the pub became the Skipping Stone Café & Store, later to be an outlet for the products of the coming bakery and coffee roastery. Up the road a piece, Glynn purchased what is now the Osprey Shores Golf Resort and the motel beside it.
But Nova Scotia’s summer tourist season is short, and the pub proved difficult to keep open during the surrounding months. Glynn began to move toward enterprises that took Guysborough and its products to the world rather than trying to bring the world there.
His small-batch Full Steam Coffee — organic, fair trade and kosher! — began in 2012 as a local product on a humble scale. Glynn hawked it himself up at the Antigonish Farmers’ Market on weekends. The coffee is now for sale online and throughout Ontario and Atlantic Canada, and a newly arrived roaster is boosting possible production tenfold. Rare Bird Craft Beer, which started with a couple of styles produced in a small room on the side of the pub, now includes five year-round brews and multiple seasonal offerings that are sold across Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. And the Harbour Belle Bakery’s popular rum cakes, made with Fortress Rum, can be purchased online, along with other Authentic Seacoast products.
Glynn entered the liquor business in late 2014 and early 2015 with Sea Fever and Fortress Rums. Distilled in the Caribbean and matured by Glynn’s Authentic Seacoast Distilling Company, Sea Fever Rums come in Amber, Spiced and Coffee Maple — made with his own coffee, of course, and local maple syrup. Fortress Rum gets its name from its aging process. He had the idea to mature it on Cape Breton Island, in the Fortress of Louisbourg’s magasin du roi, the very building where members of the French garrison aged their own grog in the 1700s. Fortress Rum won a bronze medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in its first year and again in 2016 and 2017.
The latest addition is the new $10 million Authentic Seacoast Distillery & Brewery — the only such combination in the country as far as Glynn knows. The facility greets visitors with a soaring atrium constructed of pegged beams. There are no nails in the superstructure, only wooden dowels, four of which were signed by Glynn, Charlene and their two children. The atrium houses a lounge area with a fireplace of local fieldstone, a gift shop, an adjacent boardroom and a bar offering Rare Bird beers, Authentic Seacoast spirits and the company’s Glanbùrn Artesian Water. Beyond a glass wall is the main distilling room, which holds three copper stills from Louisville, Kentucky: a shapely pot still and two 30-foot-high continuous column stills. A single malt whisky is in production, gins are on the way and triple-distilled Virga vodka has just been released, adding to the current roster of four rums and three rye whiskies. The ryes are called Glynnevan, an elision of the proprietor’s name and his son’s.
Also on the horizon is some viticulture. The golf course property now houses a few experimental vineyard plots with rows of different grape varieties and clones, with expansion of the vineyards under way. “I can make and bottle wine with the same equipment I use for spirits and beer,” Glynn says. “It might be the first single facility making all three in the world.”
The August day I arrived in Guysborough I found Glynn on the bottling line, overseeing the first batch of Rocket Lager, named after the highly anticipated rocket-launching facility scheduled to be built in nearby Canso. He pulled a couple of bottles off the rattling line and opened them. “You get to be the first person to try it,” he said.
Glynn is almost always in action. Extraordinarily, even dangerously hands-on, he is trained in handling hazardous materials and has his forklift operator’s licence. He is there at the distillery when spirits are blended, tasted and bottled. He sometimes roasts the coffee himself and he cleans the bottles. And only he knows all the recipes — another kind of danger.
Somehow Glynn still runs multiple businesses out of Toronto, but his life is not all work. He is the first non- American ever to hold the position of Chair of the Board of Trustees of the 90-year-old Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, which offers programs to thousands of students and adults every year. He composes on the piano and plays the saxophone, and coffee-table books of his nature photography are available for purchase online at the Authentic Seacoast store.
Thirty years ago a chance encounter with Guysborough, Nova Scotia changed Glynn Williams’s life and the life of the town. Local support for his initiatives is not unanimous, but he has adopted the place with the passion and tenacity he has brought to everything he has ever done. “I’m a social investor,” he says. “There are easier things to do, but I get a lot of satisfaction from the quality of our products and the experiences of our guests. In a town of a few hundred people we have a team of 35 employees making 52 products — and counting. There are lots of challenges but there are also lots of opportunities.”
Author’s note: Saint John, New Brunswick musician and author Grant Heckman is a childhood friend of Glynn Williams. They have played music together for 45 years.