A matter of taste

At Sheringham Distillery, Jason MacIsaac brings a chef’s palate to the still

David McIlvride photo

Twenty-three years in kitchens taught Jason MacIsaac all about balance. Bitter versus sweet, savoury versus salty, weight versus intensity—key principles in creating harmonious foods. Now, as founder, owner, operator, distiller and, along with his wife Alayne, every other possible role at Vancouver Island’s Sheringham Distillery, MacIssac has transposed those culinary skills to the still.

“As a chef, studying flavour profiles was my career,” he reflects. “Balancing flavours has been a passion. Every chef can start with the same ingredients but have vastly different outcomes. The same goes for distilling.”

That passion also finds deep roots in the principle of keeping local and seasonal at Sheringham, located in Shirley, approximately 20 km past Sooke, and near Sheringham Point. It’s also the cycle of life: they source products from the Island and B.C., and then distribute the byproduct of their spent grains back to local farmers as a healthy source of high protein livestock feed.

The seeds of distilling were planted when he was working as chef of Point No Point Resort. “I unearthed moonshine bottles in behind Jordan River house,” he explains. “Hearing stories about the still in the notorious Jordan River Hotel basement compelled me to build my own.”

A distillery was in my future no matter what, but the laws changing definitely worked in our favour.

Years of trial and error, self-tutelage and shadowing other local distillers followed. Ken Winchester, of nearby deVine, took MacIssaac “under his wing a bit after I would show up with venison or chanterelles.“ Meanwhile, the business plan was being developed at home.

“I had the distillery application form in my hands after producing my first batch three years ago,” he recalls. “I felt it was time and I was ready for a change. Alayne came on board as my partner and we hit the ground running.”

It was perfect timing. In 2013, the provincial government was establishing two categories of B.C. distilleries: commercial, and craft. The craft designation, mandating the use of 100 per cent B.C. agricultural products fit in perfectly with MacIsaac’s plans.

“A distillery was in my future no matter what, but the laws changing definitely worked in our favour.” Also very much in their favour was their on-site natural spring, originating from a crystalline rock aquifer. This aqua vitae is the water source for Sheringham spirits.

The winged kelp used in Sheringham’s Seaside Gin dries in the sun. Amanda Swiminer photo

Their very successful Seaside Gin is made from B.C.-grown organic white wheat and malted barley, natural botanicals and sustainable local winged kelp, hand-harvested by Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds.

Sheringham’s vodka allows the purity of the natural spring water that flows through the still to act as the base flavour, leaving an aroma and presence akin to pure, clear rainwater.

Their newest release, Akvavit, was created together with Shawn Soole, noted bartender and consultant. Angelica and caraway are present first, closely followed by fragrant, peppery star anise and a lingering marine saltiness. Watch for a barrel-aged version to make its appearance in the near future.

“It’s a whole new world,” MacIssac says of his distillery adventure. “But like anything, if you put your head down, work extremely hard and focus on quality, at the end of your long day, you have a smile on your face.”

ALL IN A NAME: Sheringham’s William’s White (moonshine) refers to the middle name shared by Jason and his father, Joseph. By coincidence, Sheringham Point was also named for a William: Commander William Louis Sheringham, a British surveying officer who created detailed, and now collectable, sailing charts.

—by Treve Ring

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