Victoria Spirits Gin
If the family that plays together stays together, it might stand to reason that the family that works together doesn’t, but that hasn’t been the case in Peter Hunt’s experience.
Hunt’s family owns and operates Victoria Spirits, a distillery located on an old organic farm in West Saanich on Vancouver Island, BC. Their flagship gin has won praise and awards across the country since it appeared in BC liquor stores in 2008, even though, as Hunt says, gin appreciation is a relatively new thing among Canadians.“Many of the traditional cocktails used gin as a base because there was no vodka,” Hunt says, pointing to a resurgence in cocktail culture to explain his brand’s quick rise to popularity. “People are just starting to realize the amount of character and complexity a good gin can have.” Hunt, 32, includes himself among those people. While he always enjoyed a good G&T, he was never the type to drink it straight. Until now. If you’d asked him five years ago, he certainly wouldn’t have imagined himself in the role of master distiller in 2010.
In 2005, Hunt, a molecular biologist, had just returned to Victoria from a community development trip to Uganda. At the time, his stepfather, Bryan Murray (a family doctor) had recently entered a part-time partnership with local winery, Winchester Cellars, who wanted to add distilled wine and gin to their roster of products. Instantly curious about the machinery behind the making — the gleaming copper still looked like something out of a Dr Seuss book — Hunt started helping out with the distillation process. This placed him in the perfect position to step up as master distiller when Winchester Cellars folded in 2008.
In 2009, Hunt’s skills earned him a nod from Western Living, which named him one of the top foodies under 40. It’s true, his touch is responsible for the full-flavoured taste of Victoria Spirits’ gin, but the business is ultimately a family affair — from siblings in their 20s to parents in their 60s. Hunt’s mother, Valerie, delivers local orders by bicycle every week. His sister, Mia, manages PR and planning from her office in Toronto. His fiancée, Natalie, and brother, Max, help with bottling.
“No one imagines their family going into the gin-making business,” Hunt laughs. “But it was a very natural process. Every time we needed something done, we looked around the family and there was someone who could do it.”
Since the Hunt family started making gin in 2006, much has changed. Where Victoria Spirits used to put out a few hundred bottles over as many months, they’re now producing more than 2,000 bottles monthly to supply demand in BC and Ontario, with an eye to finding representatives in Alberta and Quebec.
They also dropped the name Winchester Cellars in favour of a label that more accurately reflects their proud locality as well as their new spirit-centric focus. Offerings have expanded beyond their signature distilled wine and gin. Craigdarroch Whiskey — named for the opulent castle where a wealthy Victorian coal baron lived in the 1890s — was released in 2009. As of 2010, fans of the brand have been able to test their tastebuds with hemp vodka and oaked gin. The bottles carry a premium price tag, but buyers are willing to pay a little extra for something they know has been handmade from start to finish.
Hunt spends a couple hours each morning chopping kindling and fanning the flames in his wood-fired still before blending a precise mix of the 10 organic herbs and botanicals (including cinnamon, anise and coriander) that give the gin its distinct flavour. It takes six hours to distil 120 bottles. It’s a tough game, ensuring the ingredients meet the same standard each time, particularly when changing seasons mean this month’s juniper berries are slightly stronger than last month’s crop, but Hunt’s mastery of the balancing act is part of the reason people are paying attention. His gin doesn’t taste like any other gin on the market. At the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in April 2009, it tied for a silver medal with a trio of European gins, including Scotland’s premium heavyweight, Hendrick’s.
This kind of acknowledgement is nice, but it doesn’t tell Hunt and his family anything they don’t already know. Victoria Spirits doesn’t pour a lot of money into traditional advertising, preferring instead to pour gin into glasses by way of what Hunt calls “boots on the ground” promotion. “A print ad isn’t going to change the mind of a non-gin drinker,” he says. “But tasting the gin often does.” As such, he spends his evenings pouring at gallery openings. He devotes his weekends to food and wine festivals like Feast of Fields and Taste Vancouver.
The latest bottle to pique public interest at these events is Victoria Spirits’ Twisted & Bitter Aromatic Bitters. To craft the recipe, Hunt and his sister Anna (a chef at Victoria’s Paprika Bistro) talked to local bartenders about what they wanted bitters to be. The unanimous answer? Complex. Bartenders wanted to work with bitters more daring than the standard fare. Hence the orange flavour of Twisted & Bitter.
“There are lots of bitters out there, but not a lot of orange ones,” Hunt says. “It’s nice to be able to show you can approach a market where there is already so much out there and your product can stand up to the competition right away.”
In five short years, Hunt and his family have done just that.
gin-kissed salmon gravlax
1 cup coarse salt
1 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup juniper berries
Zest of 1 lemon, 1 lime, 1 grapefruit, 1 orange
1 side salmon (without bones)
2 oz Victoria Gin
1. In a bowl, combine coarse salt and brown sugar. Grind together juniper and citrus zest (a coffee grinder works best). Add your juniper mix to your salt and sugar and combine well.
2. Lay your salmon skin-side down on a cooling rack over a sheet pan (to catch the drips). Pack the flesh of the fish in your salt mixture, so no pink is exposed. Sprinkle the Victoria Gin over the whole fish.
3. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave refrigerated for 2 to 3 days, until the flesh feels firm. Then wipe fish clean of all the salt, slice thinly and serve with crème fraiche or sour cream. Goes well with a fresh Limonatta Bianco (recipe below).
2 oz Victoria Gin
San Pellegrino Limonata
Pour Victoria Gin into a short glass. Top glass with San Pellegrino Limonata, add a splash of Martini Bianco, and garnish with a twist of lemon.
victoria gin scallop gibson
1 sweet pickled onion
1 oz dry vermouth
2 oz Victoria Gin
1. Skewer the scallop and onion on a bamboo skewer. Sear your skewer in a hot pan until caramelized.
2. Deglaze your pan with dry vermouth and reduce it just a little. Shake Victoria Gin with ice. Place skewer in martini glass, pour in vermouth and cover with the gin.