B.C.’s fledgling industry prepares for a bright future
After just five years in business, British Columbia’s distillers have already confronted some mighty challenges. For one, it takes years of practice to make a quality product. Plus, craft liquor is expensive—not only for consumers at the till but for makers at the still.
From the moment the barley seed is planted to the time it’s poured from the barrel and bottled, small batch spirits are time and labour intensive.
It’s especially tough in this province for craft distillers to make a buck. Government regulations use the “craft distillery” designation to add value to agricultural products; in this way, these liquors are no different from cottage-crafted cheese or farm-gate preserves. To employ the “craft” designation, provincial legislation requires distillers to use only local ingredients. “This creates some challenges,” says Matt Phillips, of Victoria’s Phillips Fermentorium Distilling Co. The upside, he’s quick to point out, is that accompanying tax breaks “give distillers the incentive to create an authentic local product.”
Whisky is one of the most revered and varied drinks in the world, but only a handful of local makers has had the opportunity to produce enough to bottle for the market.
Phillips has been receiving praise for his locally sourced craft beers for years, but less well known is that he’s also held a distilling licence since 2007. After some small-scale experiments, he’s put down a first batch of whisky, which raises yet another challenge: aging. Whisky is one of the most revered and varied drinks in the world, but only a handful of local makers has had the opportunity to produce enough to bottle for the market, or to age it long enough to capture high industry praise. (The handful of artisans making gin and vodka—first on Vancouver Island and in the Interior, now throughout the province—don’t experience quite the same time pressure.)
Phillips Fermentorium is now part of a larger country-wide trend. Small-production single malt and blended whiskies as a whole have surged in the last few years in Canada, thanks in part to forgiving rules such as having to age for only three years. Nonetheless, the whiskies made by some of the oldest distilleries in the province—among them Okanagan Spirits, Merridale Estate Cidery, Victoria Spirits and Urban Distilleries (the first to market)—are very good, varying in style from Pemberton’s Organic Single Malt, the lightest in B.C., through to the deep and nuanced Merridale Whisky Jack’s, finished in apple cider brandy casks.
The latter is made by Merridale Estate Cidery, which, despite having only been open since 2007, is one of the Island’s oldest distilleries—an advantage of time that has allowed proprietor Rick Pipes to experiment with a classic eau de vie, the colourless fruit brandy distilled from fruit other than grapes. He incorporated that experiment with organic barley—from B.C., of course—producing a small run (only 333 bottles) of Whisky Jack’s.
The direction of whisky coming from the Fermentorium in the next decade is going to be exciting. Exciting, too, will be the breadth and depth of its competition.
Malting grain has always been a major expense, and was a big reason behind Phillips recently installing a malting plant onsite in Victoria. “Well, it dovetails well into our whisky plans, as it allows us to use grains grown here on the island, giving us a real connection to place,” he says. Along with a wide assortment of barrels, the direction of whisky coming from the Fermentorium in the next decade is going to be exciting. Exciting, too, will be the breadth and depth of its competition.
From Sheringham in Sooke laying down a red fife whisky and Granville Island’s Liberty releasing its first aged whisky this year, to the yearly releases of Laird of Fintry from Okanagan Spirits and Pemberton Distillery’s Organic Single Malt, to Shelter Point’s upcoming releases, the British Columbian whisky trade is only gaining momentum. It won’t be long before the rest of Canada is tasting the full breadth of our terroir and style.
—by Shawn Soole