How one Okanagan man’s hobby became a serious business
Mike Urban had a booze habit. Making it, that is. After tinkering with homemade beer and wine, he felt that the next logical step could be distilling.
The big leap came in 2009 when, on a trip to France, he happened to visit a Cognac distillery. He immediately identified an opportunity in the Okanagan. At the time, there were plenty of wineries and breweries but no distilleries. Within eight months of returning, he had British Columbia’s first craft distillery up and running. The lightning speed timing was crucial. “If I figure out something good, I go for it quickly before can talk myself out of it,” Urban admits. The licensing only took a couple of months. Now it takes over a year.
Despite a fairly easy start, the challenges have come since. He has to deal with six different tax agents in Canada, and all the associated paperwork. He also has a lot more competition. While there are only 60 distilleries in Canada, two-thirds of these are in B.C.
Another game changer: the craft distillery license now stipulates that the base alcohol must be made exclusively with raw ingredients grown in B.C. That meant Urban had to drop producing his own favourite tipple—rum.
With plenty of local grains and fruit available in the Okanagan, Urban Distilleries offers a range of vodka, gin, whisky and fruit brandies. None are intended to be carbon copies of better-known brands, but to make their own mark. In particular, his infused vodkas, with natural flavourings such as vanilla bean, lemon grass and habanero pepper, are putting the distillery on the map. The Spirit Bear Gin is also a hot seller. It’s a unique combination of floral, citrus, lavender and apple. “I wanted to make a gin that was very much the flavours and aromas of the Okanagan.”
The Urban Single Malt Whisky is especially novel. It’s actually bottled with a chunk of oak barrel to encourage further development of the spirit in the bottle. “Being a craft distiller we can do things that you can’t do at a big commercial distillery.”
As if making the stuff isn’t enough, Urban Distilleries also offers five-day workshops for people who want to open their own distillery. They just received a winery license as well and have plans to produce mead, the original honey wine. Based on Urban’s track record, it’ll be ready for sale in no time.
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