B.C. craft baijiu brands bring the ancient Chinese spirit to modern imbibers
It can taste of soy sauce and mushrooms, damp earth or overripe fruit. It’s fermented in earthen or stone pits, and even aged in baskets coated with pigs’ blood. Its styles are categorized by words like “strong,” “sauce” and “medicine” aromas.
But despite the challenges it might pose for western palates, baijiu (pronounced “by-joo” or “by-joe”) is the new bartender candy. Now two B.C.-made versions of the Chinese spirit—Canada’s only craft baijiu—are helping to bring an ancient spirit to the modern bar.
“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.
Whisky in just two weeks? Get a taste of the “synthetically aged spirits” world
It’s amber in the glass, with aromas of toasted bread, fresh-cut wood, apple and pear. It’s flavours of butterscotch with clove and pepper spice. I’d blind-taste it as a young but promising Canadian whisky from a craft distillery, somewhere on its three-year journey to the glass.
“It’s two weeks old,” says Steve Watts, distiller and founder of South Surrey’s Mainland Whisky, of his Time Machine Hungarian Oak bottling. One of the craft renegades experimenting with accelerated maturation and “synthetic” aged whisky, the Texas-trained distiller says, “There are so many people who are traditionalists in this industry—I don’t need to be a traditionalist.” While his Time Machine spirits can’t be labeled “Canadian whisky,” Watts says, “I see this as a product not to replace barrel-aged whisky, but as something totally different.” (He eventually plans to release traditional wood-matured whiskies, too.)
Meet some of B.C.’s women distillers, a group so small it begs the question: Why are there still so few?
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.
B.C.’s small-batch distillers are getting crafty with their foodie, wine and beer neighbours
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.
Where B.C. was once a major barrel producer, today distillers are scrambling to find casks
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.
Private-cask whisky sales are a “futures” investment in B.C.’s small-batch distillers. Here’s how and why they do it.
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.
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.
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.
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.