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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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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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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A barrel of fun

Private-cask whisky sales are a “futures” investment in B.C.’s small-batch distillers. Here’s how and why they do it.

istockphoto.com photo

They’re lined up like Papa, Mama and Baby Rye: 20-, 10- and five-litre mini-barrels, their ends embossed with the names of proud owners who, in eight weeks or so, get a crash course in craft spirits aging—and their own one-of-a-kind bottles of Custom Rye.

“We were kind of inspired by beer growlers,” says Brian Grant. He and Resurrection Spirits partner David Wolowidnyk charge customers once for the barrel ($150 to $350 depending on size), which they can pay the distillery to fill with white rye (or even gin) multiple times, at the bargain price of $37.50 a bottle. Vancouver’s Homer Street Grill and Unwind are among bar clients already serving their own private batches.

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It all comes out in the wash

Brewer-distillers have unique advantages over their still-only colleagues

Early visitors to Yaletown Distillery on Vancouver’s Hamilton Street may have tripped to—or rather, over—its connection to Yaletown Brewing, a block away. Originally, the fermented base for the spirits came through a hose in the sidewalk. “The wash comes through this pipe now,” says brewer-distiller Tariq Khan, pointing toward the ceiling.

That supply chain of fermented-grain wash is a key advantage of local businesses that make both beer and spirits, including relative newbies The 101 Brewhouse + Distillery in Gibsons and Moon Under Water in Victoria, as well as veterans like Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers in North Vancouver. Brewing on site guarantees a pipeline to so-called distiller’s beer, the essential raw material for making spirits.

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Spirit of wine country

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.

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Farm to Flask

Artisan distilling started a conversation about the terroir of spirits. But can you taste those uber-local ingredients in the bottle?

On the drive up to Saanichton from Victoria, hand-lettered signs for honey and free-range eggs compete with honour-system farm stands exchanging wildflowers, produce or jam for money stuffed in a can. When I arrive on an oceanside hilltop, Ken Winchester points out 25 acres of certified organic vineyards, maple and fruit trees and, farther in the distance, barley being farmed to his specs before it’s malted at Phillips Brewery in Victoria. “I’m also a beekeeper, among other things,” says the deVine winemaker and Bruichladdich-trained distiller, gesturing to the hives. He’s more than that: he’s a farm-to-flask disciple.

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Liquid Gold

It can take years before brown spirits get to market. Here’s how B.C. distilleries keep their businesses liquid in the meantime

Illustration by Tara Rafiq

Imagine you make widgets: finely crafted, artisan widgets. Customers pay more for vintage widgets, so there are laws around how old they have to be as well as their quality. You spend a couple of years building your factory with expensive, traditional widget-making equipment. You hire workers, pay for raw materials, power and utilities, and finally fill a warehouse with a bunch of bulky, heavy containers, then wait a few years before you can sell any of your exquisite stock at a premium price. In the meantime, you absorb labour and storage costs to maintain your inventory, which you lose a mysterious chunk of every year as some widgets slip through the cracks and just disappear into thin air.

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Still life

The lure of copper is strong. But if you want to be a distiller, you’d better start saving — or get your DIY on

Here’s the thing: It could all blow. Not just your meticulous business plan, your local-grain supply chain or your retro-cool logo.

I mean the actual still. It could blow. Distilling is a high-stakes poker game of chemistry and engineering. Add pressure, heat and wayward puffs of highly explosive ethanol vapour and — well, more than one local distiller can show you scars.

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