Zero-sum game

Don’t call them mocktails: #spiritfree and #placebo drinks are a growing wellness trend

Lumette! alt-gin from Sheringham Distilleries.

It gathered speed last year with Sober October before the holiday rush. After ringing in 2020, the trend was undeniable: #Dryuary was in full swing on social media and in the bars and living rooms of the nation, as the so-called sober curious or mindful drinking movement reached a new level of maturity.

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Female spirit

Meet some of B.C.’s women distillers, a group so small it begs the question: Why are there still so few?

Shelly Heppner, founder and distiller of Bespoke Spirit House in Parksville. Photo by Dayman-Langen Photography

March 8, 2020, likely passed in a blur for Shelly Heppner. Around International Women’s Day, she was firing up her brand-new stills to produce Virtue Vodka and Jezebel Gin at Bespoke Spirit House in Parksville, which received its distilling green light in February. “Gin is such a vixen! I do want to have a couple of different gins that will have female-oriented names,” says Heppner, who also plans to make small-batch eaux-de-vie from Vancouver Island fruit.

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A Scotch like no other

As an independent bottler, Andrew Laing is “bringing something else to the party”—unique bottlings of rare whiskies and other spirits

Andrew Laing is the export director of Hunter Laing, one of Scotland’s finest independent bottlers. Supplied photo

Take an Islay journey with Andrew Laing.

The glass of Scotch he pours has a vegetal, almost mezcal-like scent, with whiffs of salty, mineral sea and fishy kelp and a distinctly ashy after taste. It’s a blended malt representing the vivid flavours of five of the finest distilleries what is perhaps the most coveted of Scotland’s whisky-producing regions. And it’s exactly the kind of exquisite, unique bottling in which his family’s company specializes.

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Island time

For the third year in a row a B.C. distillery has won the Canadian Artisan Spirit of the Year—and for the second time, it’s Sheringham Distillery on Vancouver Island.

Sheringham Distillery’s Kazuki Gin won 2020 Canadian Artisan Spirit of the Year. Supplied photo

The best artisan spirit in Canada for 2020 is a Japanese-inspired gin, delicately flavoured with cherry blossom and yuzu, which was also awarded Best in Class spirit in the Contemporary Gin category. Though its name and inspiration may sound exotic, Kazuki Gin, made in Sooke on Vancouver Island, won Excellence in Terroir for its use of local ingredients that evoke a stylistic sense of place, like the only grown-in-Canada green tea (and green tea blossoms), from at the Island’s Westholme Tea Company. The hat trick of CASC awards this year joins a growing list of accolades for the Sooke distillery founded by Jason and Alayne MacIsaac, which also won Canadian Artisan Spirit of the Year in 2018, for its Akvavit.

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A decade of great Canadian whisky

B.C. distillers scored big at the 10th annual Canadian Whisky Awards in Victoria last night.

The BC winners at the Canadian Whisky Awards included (from left to right): Grant Stevely of Dubh Glas Distillery, Kevin Titcomb and Ken Winchester of De Vine Spirits, Terence Fitzgerald and Jason MacIsaac of Sheringham Distillery, and Leon Webb and Jacob Wiebe from Shelter Point Distillery. Charlene Rooke photo

At a gala awards ceremony celebrating 10 years, the 2020 Canadian Whisky Awards recognized famous whiskies and big achievements of the past decade, while giving kudos to small-batch innovations from artisan distilleries, including four from B.C.

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Bitter & sweet

Why you should be drinking vermouth made in B.C.

At MARKET at the Shangri-la Hotel in Vancouver, head bartender Gianluigi Bosco makes his own house-aromatized and fortified wines. Leila Kwok photo

More than 200 years ago, wine drinkers in Turin and Marseille started adding bittering and flavouring botanicals to wine fortified with spirit, to make an entirely new drink. The styles they created—a sweeter, reddish-brown style in Italy and a drier white-wine version in France—are iconic today, and collectively known as vermouth, a term that comes from the root word for wormwood, which is synonymous in many languages with “bitter.”

Now enjoying a renaissance thanks to cocktail mixology and the Spanish-driven trend for sipping them solo or as a spritz, vermouths should have a place on your back bar. (Actually, in your fridge, where a red vermouth will stay fresh for several months, and white vermouth for several weeks after opening.) Here are three new and three favourite B.C. bottlings to try.

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Collaboration nation

B.C.’s small-batch distillers are getting crafty with their foodie, wine and beer neighbours

Shelter Point Distillery partnered with Vancouver Island Salt Co. to create this barrel-smoked sea salt. Supplied photo

It was about two years ago when my love for Odd Society’s Wallflower Barrel-Aged Gin was uniquely reciprocated: the Ode to Wallflower pale ale mated Powell Street Craft Brewery’s Ode to Citra beer with the distillery’s former gin-aging barrels, created a summer love child of a beer. It was so popular, Odd Society barrel-sharing collaborations with Storm Brewing, Strange Fellows, Coal Harbour Brewing and Steamworks followed. 

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The Phantom Distillery

One of the most coveted bottles in Saturday’s 2019 Premium Spirit Release comes from a non-existent distillery on Islay… or does it? Welcome to the world of Independent Bottlers, brokers of rare, exclusive and unique Scotch and other spirits.

Oliver Chilton, blender for Elixir Distillers. Supplied photo

Last year, one of the hottest items in the BC Liquor Stores Premium Spirit Release—selling out in 24 hours—was the Port Askaig 100 Proof Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Offered again this year, it’s the spirit of Islay in a bottle: a nose full of spicy oak spice, with sea spray, smoke and dark earthy, kelpy flavours, bottled at a robust 50% ABV for rich texture. Yet anyone who’s been to the town of Port Askaig, on Islay’s east coast, will be puzzled: there’s no distillery there.

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Return of the green fairy

The spirit that supposedly drove a generation of French artists mad is back in B.C., where distillers are reinventing absinthe

The traditional way to serve absinthe is by filling a fountain like this one at Botanist with ice water, then dripping it through a sugar cube on a spoon into the spirit, where it creates the cloudy effect known as the louche. Dan Toulgoet photo

It’s all fun and games until someone loses an ear. Vincent Van Gogh’s escapades might have delivered the final cut to the fashionable, anise-flavoured spirit absinthe, invented in Switzerland in the late 18th century and favoured by Belle Époque bohemians. Seen as highly addictive and dangerous, it was banned in the U.S. and much of Europe for nearly a century, until 2007.

Likely the poor quality or high-proof base spirit—not the relatively small amount of hallucogenic thujone, naturally found in absinthe’s bittering agent, wormwood (Artemesia absinthium)—was responsible for absinthe-attributed naughtiness. But its reputation as the bad boy of the spirits world persists, as does its role in cocktails, particularly of the French-influenced New Orleans school, such as the Sazerac, Corpse Reviver No. 2 and La Louisiane.

Here are five local absinthes to try, from newcomers to B.C.’s standard-bearers.

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Roll out the barrel

Where B.C. was once a major barrel producer, today distillers are scrambling to find casks

Whisky and barrels at Legend Distilling in Naramata. Jason Lehoux photo

There’s a spot on the Seawall of Vancouver’s northeast False Creek that should be a pilgrimage—or maybe mourning grounds—for B.C. whisky fans. Under the Cambie Bridge in Coopers’ Park, a plaque marks where the Sweeney Cooperage set up shop in 1889, becoming an important international manufacturer of wooden barrels. It closed in 1981, three decades too early for the current demand from B.C. distillers.

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