The South Okanagan is a fruitful playground for distillers to innovate and collaborate
“Smile, there’s gin,” says the chalked sign. Perched on the Naramata Bench, with a sleek tasting room and sunny patio overlooking Okanagan Lake, Legend Distilling could be mistaken for a hip winery. But a taste of its Doctors Orders gin puts me firmly in the spirit world as I begin my quest to discover what unites the South Okanagan Distillery Trail, a handful of stops mapped on a passport-style stamp card.
With aromas of mint, lavender and elderflower, Doctors Orders smells like wine country in a glass. Local ingredients infuse Legend’s products: tart sumac berries balance the Manitou orange liqueur, for instance, while its new whisky is partly aged in second-use fortified cherry wine barrels from Elephant Island. Called Wyatt, it’s named for the son of owners Dawn and Doug Lennie, who, as former proprietors of The Bench Market in Penticton, are pillars of local food and drinks culture. “We are right around all the wineries, we’re all using local fruit in some way, and that’s part of the story behind the bottle,” says our tasting-room host, Aldo Castagna.
Down the Bench at Maple Leaf Spirits, Jorg and Anette Engel recount how moving their distillery from a Penticton industrial area to a popular wine route attracted more fans to their Old World-style fruit spirits and liqueurs. “We drove from Vancouver just to come here,” says a group of three, who spill into the tasting room for bottles of Lady of the Cask, a grape brandy aged in French oak barrels from a nearby winery. Maple Leaf also has a hand in fortified wines such as Therapy’s Freudified and Hart from Stag’s Hollow. Wineries bring Jorg the grape pomace, which he distills into spirit that enriches their Port-style wines. “There’s a lot of collaboration,” says Anette, who educates visitors on how pleasurable sipping a complex spirit can be.
Sometimes people come here at the end of wine tours, and they’re really grateful to try something different.
“Sometimes people come here at the end of wine tours, and they’re really grateful to try something different,” says the beanied bartender in the cosy downtown Penticton tasting room of Old Order Distilling Co. He serves a tasting flight that includes gin kissed by dried apples from the family orchard of owner Graham Martens, as well as Blessed Bean and Wicked Brew liqueurs made from coffee from nearby Lonetree.
Local hotspots put craft cocktails on their drinks menus, which is “all a part of a referral network,” says Grant Stevely, the colourful (by character, and by the orange hue that brands his Noteworthy gin) proprietor of the Dubh Glas Distillery, a half-hour drive south. Wine-tourism research taught him that referrals could bring in more than a third of visitor traffic. “Our best customers are on the winery end of things,” he says of the bistro, patio and restaurant menus that feature Noteworthy gin cocktails, sending a steady stream of intrigued imbibers to his roadside tasting room.
Tumbleweed Spirits holds the southern frontier of the trail in desert cowboy style. A saloon-style tasting room serves cherry and maple moonshine, barrel-aged brandy and “esprit de vin” distilled from wine grapes. Local rye, fireweed honey, chilies and more find their way into other bottles. “We like to try new things and be creative,” says Mike Green, co-owner with his engineer wife Andrea Zaradic, who designed their copper stills. Inspiration is close at hand in an area this rich with possibility.
“The trail is only going to continue to grow,” says Stevely, with new area distilleries opening soon. The only downside to the Distillery Trail is that with spirits this good and characters this large, I forgot to have my “passport” stamped at each stop, forgoing a shot at the sweet annual draw for a bottle of spirit from each distillery.
Find the South Okanagan Distillery Trail passport at farmers’ markets, distilleries or liquor stores in the Okanagan Valley.
—by Charlene Rooke