New era unfolds in British Columbia distilleries

By Tim Pawsey
Hornby Island British Columbia
There’s a new breed of distiller in town — or rather make that out of town. With a definite rejoinder of “everything old is new again,” the (never really extinct) rural still is making a significant comeback.

With the easing of the once draconian regulations that made it impossible for anyone other than international giants to legally distil, a new era is unfolding in British Columbia distilleries. While the blossoming of urban distilling over the last few years has been well documented, now comes the emergence of the rural distiller, which is especially apparent across the province.

Overall, some 41 distilleries are now in full operation in B.C., with, at last count, another 17 either about to open or in the wings for late 2017 or early 2018. They’re in every corner and all across the province, often in far-flung outposts. And sometimes embracing and recreating the culture of years gone by.

In a way, there’s very much a connection with the notion of locally grown food. And much like craft brewers have proved before them, there exists a serious appetite for producing well-made spirits, using local and sustainable ingredients, as well as for their consumption.

It took a while for Jason MacIsaac’s dream to come to fruition. The co-owner of BC’s westernmost distillery was a successful professional chef before he and his wife, Alayne, launched Sheringham Distillery at Shirley, near Jordan River, 68 kilometres northwest of Victoria.

Even by B.C. standards, Shirley (pop. c. 430) is an impossibly beautiful and remote spot on the shores of the Pacific, looking across Juan de Fuca Strait, near equally scenic French Beach. Shirley used to be known as Sheringham until the name was abruptly shortened in 1893 so it would fit on the area’s first postage stamp.

MacIsaac was working at nearby Point No Point Resort, and living in Jordan River, when he unearthed a stash of old moonshine bottles in a shed behind his house. He cleaned them up to show to the resort’s owner, who told him there used to be a still in the basement of the Jordan River Hotel — which had a well-earned reputation as a party place until it burned down in 1984.

“I obviously had a passion for food and drink but was also curious about the mystery of distillation,” says MacIsaac, whose interest was further piqued.



Especially in Prohibition-era B.C., stills were not uncommon, particularly in rural communities where luxuries were few and far between. They were also subject to evangelical prosecution by the authorities. It was an attitude that prevailed and continued to shape puritanical mores in government and society that have only recently begun to change. It was precisely that lure of history and sense of place that helped spark MacIsaac’s original interest.

When his initial ideas didn’t pan out, he moved to the Lower Mainland to pursue his cooking career. But in his heart, he always planned to go back. Eventually, he overheard a conversation at a dinner he was catering about imminent changes to liquor laws and realized it was time.

“The next day, I really hit the ground running and I haven’t stopped,” he laughs. “We opened two years ago and I haven’t cooked since. It’s a complete career change.”

Jason is the distiller while Alayne runs the business and handles marketing. Together they’ve shaped one of Vancouver Island’s most distinct distilleries by working sustainably, using all B.C. grain and incorporating local ingredients whenever they can.

One day when out walking on French Beach, they were intoxicated by the scent of the wild Nootka roses in bloom and the freshness of the sea air off the water.

“We thought, ‘how can we get this into the bottle?’” and went to work to figure it out.

Today, Sheringham Seaside Gin is the only one in the country known to contain seaweed.

“We experimented with bull kelp at first but it didn’t have as bright and clear flavours as the winged kelp. Wild rose petals also came into the recipe,” says Jason. From his chef’s perspective, “The seaweed brings some umami. It also balances out the botanicals and adds a lovely, salty brininess to the palate.”

The packaging is exquisite. Each label is applied by hand and individually numbered, with neck tickets hand-tied with string. Everything is locally sourced and recycled, including the spent mash, which goes to local farmers to feed to their livestock.

British Columbia distilleries: Sheringham Distillery
David McIlvride from Sheringham Distillery

Working in such a remote locale brings its own set of challenges, such as shipping and planning for raw materials (like grain) to arrive on schedule. Plus, if anything does go wrong in the distillery, you just can’t call someone to come and help you, says Jason.

“You learn how to overcome it — whether it’s electrical, plumbing or mechanical. You just have to learn to be self-sufficient, because people are usually at least a couple of days away. Most of the time, you just do it,” he says. “Besides, my heart is in this place. That’s why I’ve been out this way for 17 years. Having my work here makes sense as well.”

That level of self-sufficiency is what you’ll find in spades at Island Spirits, in the forest, down a back road on tranquil Hornby Island. Then again, Pete Kimmerly doesn’t do anything by half-measure, especially when it comes to his distillery. An engineer and retired ice breaker captain (who took the CCGS Terry Fox through the Northwest Passage), Kimmerly teamed up with business partner Naz Abdurahman (a professor of Organic Chemistry). They built their distillery almost a decade ago on this secluded northern Gulf Island, in the Salish Sea, about 100 kilometres north of Vancouver. As it turns out, despite being “in the wilds,” they were at the leading edge of BC’s distilling revolution.

Their original name was pHROG — an idiosyncratic salute to the nearby amphibian chorus, with the pH thrown in for scientific good measure. In recent years, they’ve adopted the slightly more sober Island Spirits moniker — although there’s still no shortage of froggy icons around. And the chorus still reigns supreme.

They also designed and built their own first five stills during an experimental period that lasted a couple of decades. Eventually they added a state-of-the-art German-built Eduard Holstein still.

Their pure and double-distilled gin has won awards across the continent. The recipe, which took four years to develop and uses 14 different herbs and berries, is a hands-down winner. It may have definite juniper on the nose but its beguiling and complex palate reveals hints of cardamom, fennel and cumin, along with a host of other herbs and berries. If you let it sit long enough in the glass (I’d suggest a snifter) the components evolve considerably, without even a hint of harshness.

The Island Spirits lineup has grown to include inventive vodkas (such as black jelly bean Szechuan), an aquavit, an array of impressive eaux de vie and plenty more.

Wood for the distillery’s building was logged and milled right on the property and Kimmerly uses the same wood-fired boiler that heats his adjacent home to supply the distillery. Here, too, are a flock of very productive chickens and an ornamental carp pond — both well protected from hungry eagles.

The demand for Island Spirits’ products (both on the island and well beyond) has soared. So much so, almost the entire production is sold out of the distillery, much of it to summer visitors who have made it one of the island’s most popular attractions. Needless to say, Kimmerly has no more interest in selling to the government, which he regards as a losing proposition.

Over the winter, he received shipment of his newest still, another gleaming German beauty, custom built with a stack to fit precisely into a recessed area necessarily cut into the ceiling to allow for maximum height. Its arrival will allow Island Spirits to increase production considerably.



the key to it all

These far-flung distillers may be remote but they’re not alone: a tour around the room at this year’s B.C. Distilled Main Tasting (held every spring in Vancouver) revealed an astonishing array of tastes. In Grand Forks, True North makes Jamaican-inspired Hulda rum, while Kimberley’s Bohemian Spirits is making a range of good drops, such as Vagabond Vodka and Colossal Pink Gin. Venture a few kilometres up the road from Whistler and you’ll discover Pemberton Distillery, making organic spirits, including Absinthe, Hemp Vodka and traditional German-style Kartoffelschnaps.

Isolated by geography from the mainstream market, these small distillers are also more inclined to take risks, sometimes coming up with more esoteric tastes that can prove very successful, such as Wayward Distillation House’ s Krupnik, a delicious, Polish-inspired spiced honey liqueur made with unpasteurized B.C. honey, lemon, orange and spices like clove, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.

The original B.C. modern-day distilling pioneer remains Frank Deiter, who founded Okanagan Spirits, in 2004 (since sold). At the time, he was one of the first in North America. Now, he notes, there are over 1,000 small distillers in the U.S. and Canada, and it’s becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

He says the secret to B.C.’s success is its craft distilling license, with a ceiling of 50,000 litres, which the industry worked hard to convince the government to establish.

“It’s one of the finest craft distilling licenses that we have in the whole country,” he says.

“They always think that we are taking something away. But you can see just by what’s happening in B.C. how it’s adding to the economy of the province itself, even just in terms of agriculture.

“For a small business that has integrated into a community and built something of a tourist destination, it’s very attractive.”

The key, however, is quality, says Deiter, who entered his spirits (very successfully) into Europe’s toughest competitions, to gauge them on a worldwide stage.

“What I see is the knowledge of distilling is not yet widespread. They don’t have the experience and that has to change.

“It has to be top shelf to survive,” he cautions.

“Now comes the emergence of the rural distiller, which is especially apparent across the province.”

Some 500 kilometres to the east, on the other side of the province, it was a twist of fate that ultimately led Josh and Jenn McLafferty to mountain-ringed Revelstoke, where, this spring they launched Monashee Spirits (named for the nearby range).

Josh had spent much of his working life as a specialized deep-sea diver until disaster struck: “I had a gnarly motocross accident, which shattered both my legs and effectively ended my dive career.”

Josh says he was in a conundrum, and not at all certain what to do next. Josh is from rural Saskatchewan and Jenn is from Salmon Arm. “We decided to go back to our small-town roots,” he says.

“We had a few friends who were looking at opening a distillery (now Sons of Vancouver) in North Vancouver, next door to my old office. We looked at the market and saw the growth — how almost every small town now has its own brewery and distillers.”

Josh says he knew that in towns like Revy (pop. 7,547), there aren’t a whole lot of other opportunities for work beyond the railway and logging. Also, he says the accident had left him “crippled, for lack of a better word.”

Without the ability to go after a conventional 9-to-5 job he felt no longer able to handle, the search turned elsewhere.

When they looked closer at what was happening with craft beer, distilling started to make sense. Now Jenn, a former nurse, is on her way to becoming a master distiller.

“We saw a demand for it and thought just how cool it is to be able to buy your own local craft brew, and shake the hand of the guy who’s making it.”

Their plan took shape and eventually came to fruition, opening a tasting room that shares space with the distillery, with comfy, big leather couches and 1901 piano, right beside the production area.

“We sell out of our store as well through local bars and restaurants, and online,” says Josh. “We’re in a downtown location on the main drag. We have night life and bars close by, with people walking in the door …”

Monashee makes vodka with sustainably farmed grains from Salmon Arm, as well as Big Mountain Creamer, an unabashed nod to Bailey’s (“It just disappears when we’re sampling”) made with Revelstoke honey and dairy products from D Dutchmen Dairy (also near Salmon Arm). Vulcan Fire, made with cinnamon, apple, honey and maple syrup, is also proving popular, with a barrel-aged version also planned.

Like most other rural distillers, they’re following a mantra of local lore and ingredients. “We’re trying to 100-mile source as much as we can; and stay 100 percent organic. All the products we use are certified. At times, it’s a nightmare, but it all paid off in the end,” says Josh, who says the plan is to keep it small and simple.



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