British Columbia Single Malt Whisky

Pemberton's Limited Batch Release Single Malt I was a lucky man on Tuesday: Tyler Shramm was in Vancouver and dropped off my order of his Limited Batch Release Single Malt Whisky.  Pemberton Distillery's whisky marks the latest -- but not the last -- we'll see of new single malts produced in British Columbia.  Already on the scene is Okanagan Spirits Laird of Fintry single malt, which had a very limited release last month (I wasn't one of the lucky ones to get my hands on a bottle).  Urban Distilleries also produces their own unique and award-winning take on a single malt.

But there's more on the way.

  • Odd Society Spirits has plans for an unaged/white whisky, and Master Distiller Gordon Glanz says he'll be putting some aside to age.  
  • Lisa Simpson at The Liberty Distillery has told me they will also produce a white whisky, with plans to barrel some for aging.
  • Victoria Spirits, mostly known for their great gin, reports on their site that they have whisky aging ... I think I need to make a trip to the Island to snoop some more.
  • The Dubh Glas, which I visited this summer, will be BC's second purpose-built single malt whisky distillery, after -
  • Shelter Point Distillery, on Vancouver Island.  Their whisky is "quietly aging in barrels" until 2014.

That's eight distilleries either planning, currently producing, or aging single malt whisky.  It's not quite up to Scotland's volume, but they do have a five century head start us.

While I'm a fan of many kinds of spirits, in my opinion single malt whisky is one of the great testaments to human creativity.  British Columbia has an opportunity, with our growing distilling industry, to become a serious whisky producing region.  It will take 10 or 20 years, but if we as consumers support our distillers and show them we're eager for these products, they will reward us.

Now back to that Pemberton Single Malt: it's just three years old, the minimum to be called a single malt.  Its time in ex-bourbon casks has given it a great mix of flavours -- for our first tasting my wife and I got vanilla, almonds, very light caramel, with some spices (we couldn't pinpoint more specifically) and fruity overtones.

At such a young age, it's not the smoothest whisky on the market, but the complex flavours more than make up for it.  I'd take it over many older single malts I've tried from around the world, including Scotland.  Tyler is letting some age longer, as well -- the latest I've heard is that he's planning his next release at five years.  The character of this whisky is sure to get even better with a couple of more years in the barrel.  If you're a whisky fan, I highly recommend getting your hands on a bottle of the the three-year-old, though.  This is a rare opportunity.


BC's Liquor Policy Review

There are some patterns emerging in the public feedback on John Yap's first blog post regarding modernizing BC's liquor laws. I spent some time reading through them so you wouldn't have to. In my entirely unscientific review, here's what I've found people want:

  • Allow drinking in public, especially in parks. This is definitely one of the top suggestions people are raising. If you've ever seen Edinburgh (where public drinking is allowed) on a Sunday morning, you might give this idea some sober second thought (so much broken glass ...). If you've even been harassed by Vancouver's finest at English Bay for your bottle of pinot, this idea makes sense.
  • The government should get out of liquor distribution. I think this idea needs some serious consideration.  It would be worthwhile to revisit why our government is in the distribution business at all. Is there a compelling reason besides a desire to hang on to all that revenue? Would other models result in similar net revenue for the province?  Would other models make better sense for consumers or business, or the economy as a whole?
  • Allow liquor to be sold in grocery stores. John Yap dedicated his second blog post on this topic, so clearly this idea is getting his attention.
  • Allow minors accompanies by adults into pubs. I was surprised by the number of comments asking for this. I don't have kids, but I do recall trying to go to a pub one Sunday afternoon with a friend and his toddler and being given the bum's rush. What the hell?

Other ideas I liked but not getting as much popular attention:

  • Reduce liquor taxes. I'll refine this to suggest reducing markups on spirits at least. Spirits in this province have an effective retail markup of 170% versus 123% for wine and beer. These should be equalized. There is a very good reason why many craft distilleries in BC choose not to sell their products through the Liquor Distribution Board: they can't afford to.
  • Give bars and restaurants wholesale pricing. It's kind of amazing that they don't already get that. It certainly helps to explain why we pay two or three times retail for that bottle of wine. Think about this the next time you buy a $60 bottle of BC wine at a restaurant -- the winery probably takes $10 to pay for their operating and production costs.
  • Allow home distilling. New Zealand decided enforcing this law wasn't worth the expense, so the legalized it. It can be done without dire consequences. This may be a giant leap when we can probably only expect the province to take baby steps, but it's worth mentioning.

Here's how you can express your ideas on this topic. Let's all keep our fingers crossed that this whole exercise leads to some positive and progressive changes in the province.

We Visited The Liberty Distillery for a Sneak Peek

TLD still door Another beautiful Tuesday afternoon, and another treat for us -- this time we visited The Liberty Distillery on Granville Island. We spent a good hour talking to Lisa Simpson, the Director of Operations, about their plans and journey towards becoming one of Vancouver's craft distilleries.

TLD is aiming to open in September (fingers crossed), joining Odd Society Spirits to make for a very good September for Vancouver's craft distillery scene.

They have a beautiful space on Granville Island, and will no doubt be an instant hit with tourists and those of us interested in local spirits.

Out of the gate, TLD plans on offering a wheat-based gin and vodka, as well as a white (un-aged) barley whisky. They also plan on casking some of their rye to age, so we can look forward to exciting future releases of aged whisky.

You can go by their location on Granville Island and peek in their big garage door windows if you want to check out their great still set up -- one for whisky and gin, and another for vodka.

TLD distillery space

TLD vodka still

TLD Towers

TLD both stills


Odd Society Sneak Peek

One of the great things about being a part of BC Distilled is taking a leisurely journey on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to get a sneak peak at one of Vancouver's imminently new distilleries this week: Odd Society. We found master Distiller Gordon Glanz hard at work putting some of the finishing touches on his impressive set up -- two stills, including one still for whisky and gin, and second still with a 15 foot column for vodka.

Gordon is hoping to open his doors to the public in September. Looking at where Gordon comes from, including an M.Sc. in Distilling from Hariot-Watt University in Scotland, we're excited to see what kind of magic he will have on offer for us.  All their spritis will be grain-to-table (ensuring that craft designation!): un-aged whisky, gin, and vodka, with plans to barrel age some of that whisky, and also bring some seasonal specialties.

The distillery is at Commercial and Powell, which is starting to take shape as a little bit of a hub for local alcohol production. For those of us who are familiar with Distillery Row in Portland, this is an exciting idea -- a concentration of microbreweries and distilleries within walking distance of each other could make for some fun Saturday afternoons (or Tuesdays, if you can manage it).

The Craft in Craft Distilling

Schramm'sRecently we enjoyed a little bit of a Twitter exchange regarding what constitutes "craft" in the world of craft distilling. This was spurned by a couple of articles - first, in The Atlantic, and then a response and a little more in-depth blog post at Liquidity Preference. There are a lot of terms being thrown around, like neutral grain spirits (NGS), non-distillery producers (NDPs), and even a new one to us, 'grain to glass'. The discussion revolves around how distilled spirits are made. At one end, a distillery can purchase in bulk high-proof (like, 190% ABV) alcohol from an industrial manufacturer, to be delivered to their door. They could then literally drop a cheese cloth full of botanicals like juniper berries and lemon peels, let it steep, add some water, bottle it and call it gin. At the other, you can have a farm growing their own grains, malting, fermenting, and distilling their own spirits. And there's a bunch of options in between.

Right now we probably run the gamut here in BC. At BC Distilled we have yet to try something from this province that we've thought was really poor quality, but of course we've tried things we like more or less, and there are definitely different grades of quality, as there is in any market.

As we mentioned in a previous post, though, the BC Government has largely taken care of this for us, at least for now, in defining a craft distillery as one which uses 100% BC agricultural inputs, and ferments and distills their product on-site. As we mentioned in our Twitter exchange, we expect there are distilleries in BC who are not very happy with this definition, as they use NGS. We also know from personal experience that you can get decent quality goods produced from NGS spirits.

We think that in some ways this very pure definition may constrain some creativity, or stop what might be some perfectly reasonable practices. For example, it might a good idea for a distillery to buy a batch of sub-par wine from down the road at their local BC winery, and use it to distill into a tasty vodka. Under the current rules we don't think that would be allowed unless the distillery was willing to give up the craft designation for that product (and in so doing hand the government its 163% markup). The 163% savings is also only available for on-site sales at the distillery, which will benefit urban producers, but isn't an incentive for something like a farm distillery unless it is still very close to an urban area.  Finally, we're aware that while this is a great idea in theory, it may not be entirely practical in the current BC agricultural market -- it's just not designed to support small batch distilling yet.

Our fledgeling industry is still finding it's feet, though. The recent changes from the government are a start, and if nothing else have got the discussion going and have clearly kickstarted the what we hope will become a craft distillery boom in British Columbia.

We think more progressive changes are ultimately needed, but in the mean time as consumers we look forward to seeing how this plays out.