craft distilling

Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo

AurbutusDistillery2 Now that's a big still! Arbutus Distillery, housed in its own custom-built facility in Nanaimo, is getting close to putting its new 1000L still into operation, bringing a welcome addition to the BC distillery scene, and establishing themselves as Nanaimo's first craft distillery.

I had a chance to visit them over the holidays and meet with distiller Michael Pizzitelli to find out a little more about their plans and also see their impressive facility. Like a few of our other craft distillers in BC, Mike trained at Hariot Watt in Scotland.

Last year Arbutus Distillery made a splash together with their creative team at Hired Guns Creative when they released label designs for their Coven Vodka and The Empiric Gin, both of which generated a lot of attention.

The Tasting Room

The stills are in, regulatory waters have been mostly navigated, and they're  hoping to be up and running this spring. Out of the gate we'll see a vodka and gin to go with those fancy labels. Mike also has plans for an absinthe (Baba Yaga -- love those names), which will be the third produced in BC.

With that great building he's in there'll be some room to put some barrels aside for aging whisky, which is good news for our young local single malt industry.

This is another one to watch -- I'm looking forward to seeing what Mike will come up with.


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.


An extra early peak at The Dubh Glas Distillery

The First Tasting at The Dubh Glass On an overcast but still beautiful day in the Okanagan I had the opportunity to meet Grant Stevely, soon-to-be-master-distiller at The Dubh Glass Distillery in Oliver, BC.  Located just a few minutes north of the Oliver town centre, right on Highway 97, work is just starting on their purpose-built distillery, with an expected completion date of December 2013.

Grant was a welcoming host and gave my wife and me the honour of being the first people to taste some spirits at the distillery -- we sampled some Still Waters Stalk & Barrel Single Malt from Concord, Ontario, Saskatoon's LB Distillers Gambit Gin, and some Masterson's Rye.

I was stuck by the strong vision and that Grant has for his distillery, as well as his forward thinking.  While he will produce other spirits which are sure to be a treat, his focus is on creating craft single malt whisky.  He is lucky to be just down the road from Canada's largest cooperage, Okanagan Barrel Works, so he will have the opportunity to explore different finishes and build a close relationship with a local barrel maker.  In addition, Grant has plans to explore the opportunities that come with being surrounded by wineries in every direction looking to offload their spent barrels, which have been soaked in all sorts of interesting flavours.  We're sure to see some innovative stuff come out of a it.

The Dubh Glass represents for us another example of the exciting future of BC distilleries -- passionate distillers who are helping BC to become a major source of innovative craft spirits. I can't wait to see them up and running.

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.

What's happening with distilleries in BC?

Our wonderful province has seen some significant changes in the distilling space in the last year or so. At BC Distilled we think this is good news - for everyone who cares about drinking locally produced spirits, about seeing the industry grow, about supporting the BC economy (including farmers, distillers, bars, restaurants), and most importantly about creating a market that can start to innovate and produce great products. So what's changed. Why are we so excited?

If distilleries:

1. Produce less than 50,000L a year, and 2. use 100% BC agricultural goods, which they 3. distill on site,

then they can call themselves a craft distillery.

The magic of the craft distiller label ...

In BC, our craft distilleries can sell their spirits on site and save on the big fat BC Liquor retail mark-up. This is the thing that's really important: BC Liquor Distribution Board charges 163% markup on liquor products sold in their retail locations. They used to charge the same markup even if the liquor was sold directly at the distillery. Now they don't for direct sales.

Let's put that another way: on a $45 bottle of gin, if you buy it direct from your local craft distillery, thats around an extra $20-25 in your local craft distiller's pocket.  It's not a small amount, and it's probably one of the main reasons why distilleries are starting to pop up everyone -- a lot of them in urban areas.

These kinds of changes can have a big impact on the amount of fun we as consumers have. In Washington State, where they made similar changes in 2008, they went from a couple of craft distillery to dozens today. Do you think their resident gin and whisky aficionados are having more fun or less now?

There are even more changes our government can make to promote this industry, just to level the playing field with our fine local wineries and breweries. But it's a good start.

Now let's celebrate with a martini.