Distant distilleries

The challenges and benefits of making spirits in rural regions

Because shipping to Hornby is so expensive, Island Spirits distiller Pete Kimmerly transported his shiny new still himself. Tim Pawsey photo

What’s the flip side of the urban winery? That’ll be the rural distillery. Artisan distilling in British Columbia is on a roll, with some 60 distilleries in full operation, and at least a dozen more to open within the year (according to BC Distilled). While the Lower Mainland is home to many distilleries, there’s no shortage of them popping up in far-flung spots, from Shirley and Ucluelet to Wynndel and Wycliffe.

It takes chutzpah to set up a legal still in a remote environment. B.C., it seems, has no shortage of people with that “go get it” attitude, or of rugged surroundings. Somehow, the two just seem to go hand in hand.

There is in North America a long tradition of rural stills, most of which vanished with Prohibition. Now, with the advent of (slightly) saner liquor laws, they’re resurfacing with a vengeance.

Just what motivates someone to head for the hills with still in tow? Well, quality of life, for one thing. But rural distillers tend to be even more passionate than their urban counterparts (if that’s possible), driven by local lore and with a marked independent streak.

One of the first out of the gate was Island Spirits (formerly Phrog) on picturesque Hornby Island. It takes two ferries to reach Hornby from Vancouver Island (or three from Vancouver), but plenty of people are willing to make the trip. Island Spirits is part of the island’s appeal, ranking favourably on TripAdvisor with Hornby’s sandy beaches and idyllic parks.

A must-have for a remote distillery is a fork lift and a one-ton truck.

Most of what distiller Pete Kimmerly makes is sold right out the door. As far as remote challenges go, he says, “Freight is a big issue.” In fact, his newest still (his third, a Holstein) was going to cost more to ship from Vancouver to Hornby than from Germany to Vancouver. So Kimmerly went and got it himself. He says: “A must-have for a remote distillery is a fork lift and a one-ton truck.”

He produces gin and vodka as well as small-run items such as locally sourced elderflower liqueur and raspberry eau de vie. “When the cap comes off, you can smell it across the room,” he says. That rural streak is manifest in more esoteric tastes, such as the ever-popular Black Jelly Bean and Szechuan Pepper vodka. Possibly coming soon: a schizandra berry spirit, crème de cassis and cinnamon-pepper “fireball.” Making good spirits isn’t a problem, explains Kimmerly. “The biggest challenge is registering them.”

We’ve blown our five-year expectations out of the water. The community support is unbelievable.

In Revelstoke, Jenn and Josh McLafferty’s tasting room is both tourist draw and local hangout. Marissa Tiel/Revelstoke Review photo

Josh and Jenn McLafferty moved to Revelstoke to establish Monashee Spirits following a serious motocross accident that ended Josh’s career as a commercial deep-sea diver. Both he and Jenn craved a return to their small-town roots and picked Revelstoke as the perfect place for their dream. Two years on, “It’s turned out better than we could have ever imagined,” says Josh. “We’ve blown our five-year expectations out of the water. The community support is unbelievable.”

Such validation is vital for any business, but even more so in a rural setting. The pair originally planned a purely commercial building. But they were drawn to downtown, where their combined distillery and tasting room has become a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. It’s already beyond capacity, so they will build that industrial-zoned distillery (which will also offer much-needed whisky-barrel storage) while maintaining the downtown bar.

“It’s become a huge tourist draw,” says Josh, adding, “Every bar and restaurant in town has our products and makes a cocktail to go along.” Another unexpected bonus: “In peak ski season there’s a lineup for every place in town, so, because we don’t compete, the restaurants send folks here and page them when the table’s ready. They can even look at the menu: We have them all,” he says.

Monashee is heavily involved in the community, says Josh, with always “a few things on the go,” such as garlic vodka, made with Korean Blue cloves (it “tastes like liquid garlic bread”), to mark the annual Revelstoke Garlic Festival. For Bear Aware Brandy, also part of the Local Food Initiative, volunteers harvest ripe fruit for those unable to pick it, which deters the bears. Monashee takes the reject cherries, plums, apples and grapes to make the brandy, aged in a Cabernet Franc wine barrel.

While urban distillers tend to follow more established recipes—albeit with occasional variations—their rural counterparts often opt for the path less traveled. Sometimes it’s taken by necessity, but often driven just by the pure joy of local inspiration.

Cases in point: Sheringham’s Seaside Gin, which uses winged kelp from nearby shores, or many of Pemberton Distillery’s organic spirits, which are based solely on local produce, such as Schramm Organic Potato Vodka, made from the Pemberton Valley’s most prized tuber.

It’s all part of embracing that rugged, truly rural spirit.

—by Tim Pawsey

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