How Dave Brimacombe went from building military airplanes to running a distillery

The Courtenay entrepreneur has run Wayward Distillery since 2014.

Dave Brimacombe (right) works with pollinators to run Wayward Distillery

The Courtenay entrepreneur has run Wayward Distillery since 2014 

Everyone talks about pivots these days, but Dave Brimacombe probably has most of them beat. Brimacombe served in the Canadian military for 14 years—six as a combat engineer pulling mines out of the ground in cities across the world and eight as an aircraft structures technician (“everything that’s not electronics and engines,” he says).  

Stationed in Comox, B.C., in 2013, he decided to enrol in Prince’s Trust Canada, a charity founded by the Prince of Wales that focuses on creating opportunities for young people and members of the military and veteran communities.  

That included an intensive period in which Brimacombe and his colleagues got paired up with MBA instructors and students. 

Luckily, Brimacombe already knew what he wanted to do once out he left military life. “I always intended to open an alcohol business when I retired,” he says, noting how there were around a dozen distilleries in the province at the time.

“I saw the market changing; there was a shift in how people interacted with spirits,” Brimacombe adds. “They already embraced craft beer and wine, but a lot of B.C. residents at the time, they would drink craft beer and craft wine and Smirnoff vodka.” 

Brimacombe thought that eventually the market would change, and people would start caring about drinking local spirits, too. So he got to work on Wayward Distillery, officially launching the Courtenay-based business in December 2014. “And I was right—it’s fucking wonderful,” he laughs, pointing out that B.C. is now home to 90 distilleries.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. “Starting a distillery is very hard,” argues Brimacombe, citing barriers to entry, regulatory issues, zoning, equipment requirements, marketing and branding as factors he had to consider, among others.

READ MORE: A distillery and a grain cleaning co-op work together across B.C.

“The course helped me create a business plan, focus my vision and flesh out the idea,” he says. “At the same time, I was still working my full-time job. You have to lease a property before you apply for a liquor license. You don’t know that you’re going to get one, but have to have at least a three-year lease. So I put all those pieces together.” 

Today, Wayward has some 14 employees, and Brimacombe describes business as chaotic. We have six years of historical data, and it’s all useless now,” he says, referring to how the COVID-19 pandemic threw things for a loop. “We are continually surprised about the ways people decide to come in and shop. It feels like we’re in the first year again, trying to learn about what people want and how they behave today—not how they used to behave two years ago.” 

One of the changes post-COVID was the shift from an all-honey distilling process (in collaboration with Tomslake, B.C., apiary Golden Clover) to one that also involved using the more traditional method of grain. But Brimacombe still wanted to make sure the company had a commitment to pollinators and food security. So in 2020, Wayward struck a deal with Pollinator Partnership Canada to donate 1 percent of all spirits sales to the nonprofit organization.  

“We’re passionate about food sovereignty and our food chain and system,” Brimacombe says. “We saw that we could do better, so we’re supporting pollinator health through bee population.” 

Through it all, Brimacombe credits his experience in the Armed Forces as a bit contributor to building the company. He calls Wayward a “military company,” given that his head bartender and her assistant also served, along with some military spouses. “A lot of employers are hesitant to hire military spouses because they move,” he says. “So what? Everyone moves.”  

But you won’t find camouflage on Wayward’s bottles. “There’s more people who never served that work here. The main thing is that you can’t be here if you’re a dick. We’re a company that’s engaged in the community, accepting of people around us, welcoming. One of the things I’ve learned is that that stuff isn’t universal. But it is here.”