In the food and beverage world, “local” is the new black. We’re lucky here on the Island, because there is an abundance of premium locally sourced products to enjoy — from seafood to produce to craft beer and wine. You can add spirits to that growing list. Artisan distilleries are producing upscale options for the latest cocktail creations.
Distilleries are, in fact, a perfect complement to the Island’s agricultural richness. The fruits and grains used in the distilling process — whereby a fermented beverage is carefully heated to separate the alcoholic vapours used to make a spirit — can be grown locally. Everything from barley to grapes to blackberries can be utilized.
A now-defunct Saanich winery, Winchester Cellars, was the origin of this new wave of Island distilleries. Owner/winemaker Ken Winchester and business partner Bryan Murray tried their hand at brandy and eau de vie in the mid-’00s as a sideline to the wine business, before eventually pursuing it full-time. Winchester Cellars was closed and Victoria Spirits was born. Their first release (in 2008) as this new endeavour, Victoria Gin, was an immediate hit. They call it “Canada’s first premium gin” and to this day each small-production batch is bottled and labelled (and numbered) by hand at its Saanich farm facility. (Winchester is no longer part of Victoria Spirits, but it’s rumoured he’s looking to get back into making spirits.)
In addition to its flagship gin, Victoria Spirits makes an Oaken Gin (aged in oak barrels), Left Coast Hemp Vodka, several eau de vie — only available at its tasting room — and will soon be bottling its own whisky (tentatively called Craigdarroch Whisky), which was aged for three-plus years in oak barrels. The distillery also produces a popular line of bitters (“the salt and pepper of cocktails”) — Orange, Rosemary, Grapefruit and Black Pepper — marketed under the Twisted & Bitter label.
Another Island distillery is trying its hand at whisky, as well. Shelter Point Distillery, located in the Comox Valley, will soon release the Island’s first single malt whisky. To be classified as a single malt, it must be distilled entirely at Shelter Point from 100 per cent malted barley and aged at least three years in oak barrels. It’s tentatively set to be released this year; however, the distillery will go by the way it’s tasting, rather than what the calendar says. Shelter Point is currently selling its Still Master Vodka,made from 100 per cent B.C.-grown grain, in a wide variety of fun flavours.
An Expanding Renaissance
Getting into distilling in 2007 not only added a new line of spirits to Merridale Estate Cidery’s business, it allowed this Cowichan Valley farm to further diversify its cider selection, by utilizing those spirits (apple and blackberry brandies, specifically) to make fortified dessert wines. Its current selection of spirits includes the oak-aged Stair’s Pear Brandy and Cowichan Cider Brandy, Blackberry Oh de Vie and Apple Oh de Vie, as well as its lightly carbonated Frizz Vodka, made entirely from fruit.
Though not on Vancouver Island, there’s no way I can talk about the renaissance of Island distilling without mentioning the quirky Island Spirits Distillery located on the unlikely location of Hornby Island. Two of it premium spirits, Phrog Gin (made with 14 botanicals) and Phrog Vodka, are available at select private liquor stores on Hornby. Numerous other flavoured spirits, including brandies made from Hornby Island fruit, are also for sale from its tasting room.
In 2013 changes were made to B.C. liquor laws to help stimulate a burgeoning local industry that looks to continue to grow. Phillips Brewing will be one of the next to step into the fray in (according to details at press time) late 2014 or early 2015 with what founder Matt Phillips is calling “the Fermentorium.”
There’s nothing better than a meal made with the freshest local ingredients, complemented by an Island-made wine or beer. Now you can start it with a cocktail made with Island gin or vodka and end it with a dessert wine crafted with Island brandy. Local doesn’t get much cooler than that.
(Recipe from Cyle Serra, bar alchemist at Be Love)
• 3 oz Venturi-Schulze Maranello Pinot Noir Rosé
• 1 oz Victoria Gin
• 1/2 oz elderflower and rose cordial (see recipe below)
• 2 dashes Twisted & Bitter black pepper bitters
• Soda water
In a white wine glass, add all ingredients. Top with ice then add soda water. Stir gently to incorporate. Garnish with a rose petal.
Elderflower and Rose Cordial:
• 1 cup rose petals
• 1 cup elderflower blossoms
• 4 cups water
• 3 1/2 cups local honey
In a large pot, bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Add rose petals, elder blossoms and honey (mix well to integrate). Let it infuse overnight (12 hours). Strain and bottle.
By Adem Tepedelen