“Terroir” spirits define B.C.’s flavours, culture and sense of place
Comparing B.C. craft spirits from a decade ago to today is like comparing 1970s drip coffee to artisanal, fair-trade Chemex pour-overs. While B.C. has a long distilling and even rum-running history, the first wave of local, small-batch distilleries debuted not even 20 years ago. The second wave happened when 2013 B.C. liquor laws defined “craft” spirits as those using 100 per cent B.C. agricultural raw materials.
Now, a third wave of modern distillers is bottling the flavour and culture of the province, defining the future of B.C. spirits. Follow their progress through distillery newsletters and social media feeds.
DEVINE Distillery’s Ancient Grains, a young whisky created by master distiller Ken Winchester from heritage varieties including barley, spelt, emmer, khorosan and einkorn, has won awards for its lively, spicy character. There was just one tiny challenge: the tiny local production of the grains.
Einkorn, in particular, was in short supply, so Kevin and Kirsten Titcomb, the distillery’s distiller and general manager respectively, planted some on their own four-acre Saanich property near the distillery. “We got a great crop,” Kevin Titcomb says. “What we’re actually working toward is growing all the grains for that whisky, between our property and DEVINE.” (Other B.C. distillers, including Okanagan Spirits and Shelter Point, have also done important grain research and development.)
So successful—and bountiful—was the farming experiment that Titcomb distilled a new spirit showcasing einkorn; now aging in quarter-size casks, it should be bottled as whisky in 2023. “These ancient grains are all derivatives of wheat, but they have their unique flavour. Einkorn has a little bit of spice, a little bit of caramel—to me, it’s one of the most interesting.” Next up: growing and distilling grain for a khorosan-forward whisky.
The Odds Against Peat
Smoky peated Scotch is a gold standard of global whisky; the challenge of making it in B.C. is “not finding it—there is a huge amount of peat in B.C.—but having access to it,” says distiller Gordon Glanz, the founder of Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver. Although pioneering distiller Tyler Schramm of Pemberton Distillery made small-batch whisky using barley malted with local peat a decade ago, “B.C. malting companies aren’t working with local peat,” says Glanz.
Glanz sent some peat from Delta’s Burns Bog to Skagit Valley Malting near Seattle, and came up with an ingenious distillers’ hack that allows him to add the U.S.-peated B.C. malt flavouring to whisky, much the way global botanicals can be added to B.C. craft gin. (Other B.C. distillers are maturing whisky in casks that previously held Scottish peated malt.)
The peated spirit Glanz distilled tastes deeply roasted and almost vegetal, with ashy and briny beach-fire notes. “You don’t get those crazy heavy, oily phenols that you would from an Islay peat,” says Glanz, who hopes to release the whisky in 2024. “Our peat is different.”
In December, smokeheads can buy Odd Society whiskies flavoured with Scottish and Washington State peat. Glanz has also experimented with single malts smoked with local garryana oak, beech, bigleaf maple and arbutus wood. “You are not going to get more local than that,” he says.
The Bees Knees
Wayward Distillery in Courtenay was the first in B.C. to distill exclusively from local honey, and although it now makes some grain-based spirits, its values are still bee-loved. Three recent ultra-local recent releases—Cortes Island Apple Brandy, Juneberry Amaro and Rose Petal Bee’s Knees Gin Liqueur—explore coastal flavours kissed with B.C. honey; even better, one per cent of their proceeds are donated to Pollinator Partnership Canada (P2C), which promotes and protects pollinators and their ecosystems.
“We’re excited to … help raise funding and awareness of conservation initiatives that can turn the dial for pollinators everywhere,” says founder and CEO Dave Brimacombe. “Our goal is to raise $20,000 this year.”
Lora Morandin, conservation director of P2C, says, “The support from Wayward Distillery will help us create more pollinator habitats on Vancouver Island.” That means more healthy ecosystems supporting aromatic and delicious B.C. grains, flowers and botanicals to inspire B.C. distillers.
Call of the Wild
As a fourth-generation distiller, Luke Erridge, founder of Pacific Rim Distilling in Ucluelet, takes the “craft distillery” designation seriously, combining “my family’s craftsmanship with traditional methods.” That means he goes the extra mile to capture the terroir of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast, “because that is what I want when I try spirits—I want to taste the area I am visiting.”
For instance, all of Pacific Rim’s spirits begin in fermentations that use a strain of “wild” yeast from Barkley Sound, which Erridge isolated and cultured for use at the distillery. He says the flavours and aromas the yeast develops are responsible for the “uniquely floral finish” of his Humpback Vodka; similarly, flavourings for Lighthouse Gin are hand-foraged near the distillery, including shorepine and salal berry, one of the botanicals that gives the gin its vivid, rosy colour.
He’s not emulating London Dry gin, or any other global style.
“I want the Barkley Sound style to showcase Barkley Sound, and be truly original,” says Erridge. “Making spirits is an art, and you will never produce a great piece of art while trying to copy someone else.”
—by Charlene Rooke