Through the grapevine

How a vintner became one of B.C.’s leading distillers

Room with a view: deVine’s distillery looks out at Mount Baker. Supplied photo

Though his reputation preceded him, I first met Ken Winchester, fittingly, in a winery. Back in 2005 he was growing grapes and making wine at Vancouver Island’s only certified organic vineyard, at Saanich Peninsula’s Barking Dog Winery. Welcoming, travelled, and unpretentiously smart, he became a quick and easy friend, and was an early advocate for drinking and supporting local.

It was on that site at Barking Dog that Winchester crafted Victoria Gin, by all accounts a game-changing spirit for not only B.C., but Canada. Eleven organic and wild botanicals went into the flagship spirit, highlighting not only the diversity of our region, but the high quality of what was possible. John and Catherine Windsor purchased the adjoining rundown farm that was to become deVine Vineyards in 2007, and turned to Winchester to help plant their first vines, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, and shortly thereafter, Grüner Veltliner (I remember well, as my family was involved in the backbreaking sloped planting). By the time the winery opened in 2010, Winchester was on board as consulting winemaker, and a couple of years later the discovery of a vintage German pot still lit the fire to begin a new distillery.

Ken Winchester is one of B.C.’s spirit pioneers. Supplied photo

We want a true farm distillery, sourcing as much from our farm and the Saanich Peninsula as we can.

In 2015, Winchester joined deVine full time, overseeing the estate’s organic vineyards and winemaking, as well as the operation of their gleaming workhorse still, restored and refitted by Winchester, and affectionately named Brunhilde.

Brunhilde has been busy keeping pace with Winchester’s active mind and creativity. “We want a true farm distillery, sourcing as much from our farm and the Saanich Peninsula as we can,” he explains. “We’ve started tapping our maple trees for sap for our whisky, and we’re installing hives on the property for our [rum-style] Honey Shine.

“Vineyard, orchard, field and hive: that is our philosophy for producing the finest of craft spirits.”

deVine’s Vin Gin is distilled from grapes. Supplied photo

Their Vin Gin was double distilled from estate and Saanich Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner grapes before undergoing a third distillation along with a dozen local and wild foraged botanicals. New Tom Barrel Aged Gin is barrel-rested in smaller bourbon barrels, amping the sweetness without dampening the herbal essence of the gin. Their newest release, Genever Original Dutch Style Gin looks back a few hundred years to early gin production, is distilled from malted grain and flavoured with more than 20 botanicals, some of them obscure, such as Mugwort and Blessed Thistle.

As far as Winchester knows, they are the only distillery in North America producing all three styles.

Vineyard, orchard, field and hive: that is our philosophy for producing the finest of craft spirits.

Honey Shine is deVine’s take on rum, utilizing local honey as a base for this rich, smooth spirit. The limited release Black Bear infuses potent dark spices into one barrel of Honey Shine. In November they will release their first single malt, Glen Saanich, made from local Saanich barley, floor-malted on the Peninsula, mashed, fermented
and distilled twice, then aged in bourbon barrels.

Winchester, who apprenticed at Islay’s Bruichladdich Distillery, was hesitant at first. “I wanted to be sure we could be a true farm distillery, using local grain, to make a pure Vancouver Island whisky.”

deVine is proud to use local and wild foraged botanicals. Supplied photo

In addition to what the farm itself can grow, deVine works with numerous local harvesters, foragers, farmers and producers for their diverse range of spirits, a trend Winchester predicts to skyrocket. “There are approximately 65 licensed operating micro distilleries in Canada, almost half of those in B.C., and there are 10 pending licenses due to open this year. Out of those 30-odd in B.C., 10 are on the Island,” Winchester notes.

“B.C. is the epicentre of the Canadian artisan spirits movement.”

And the humble Winchester is the kindred spirit leading the way.

BOTTLED BOUNTY: deVine’s small batch and seasonal products such as Black Ram (a lush wild blackberry brandy), Kiss (a local strawberry base vodka) and Pomme (an organic apple and pear brandy aged in whisky casks), use no back blending or sweetening, just pure, local fruit.

—By Treve Ring

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