If you love craft distilleries, the West Coast most certainly is the best coast. Vv Magazine’s Alexandra Gill investigates and samples some of the best in BC distilleries — all in the name of journalism, of course!
British Columbia’s craft distilling industry is booming. We’re not just talking about a trickle in the glass or a fleeting fad. We’re talking full-boil, pressure-cooker, mad-chemist boom.
Consider this: There are 29 micro-distilleries in BC. Across the rest of Canada, to the best of our knowledge, there are 28. That’s right: One province is home to half – 50 per cent — of the entire country’s boutique distilleries. Even if these numbers are off by a few distilleries here or there, that’s still an awful lot of small-batch spirits being made in BC.
The growth has been exponential over the last few years. In 2012, there were eight BC micro distilleries; last year, 18; and this year, 29 — with three more opening soon.
Why the sudden increase? Primarily because there has never been a major food or beverage trend emanating from Portland that we here in BC haven’t tried to emulate. (That’s only a partial joke.)
The US craft-spirits industry is huge in comparison to Canada’s, with more than 600 craft operations sprouting in the last decade. As with craft brewing before it, the small spirit renaissance was born on the West Coast, from California to Washington. It only makes sense that through proximity, the trend would start flowing here first in Canada.
The provincial government has also made some small concessions to help micro-distillers get off the ground. As part of a broader (lately contentious) mandate to update BC’s outdated liquor laws, recent changes in regulations have allowed distillers to expand their tasting rooms into lounges where they can serve cocktails made from their own products.
“There will be so many spirits available — not just vodka, but also cassis, shoju, grappa, and maple liqueur – even professional tasters will be hard-pressed to try everything (if they hope to remain standing).”
In 2013, the provincial government also created a new “craft” distillery designation, which allows some small producers the benefits of shipping direct to restaurants and selling to private stores. There are huge savings to be had by bypassing the regular sales route (and markups) through the provincial liquor board. With direct sales, the cost to customers is about $15.00 less per bottle.
Unfortunately, not all small producers get the craft designation. Some, such as Long Table Distillery or Victoria Spirits, choose – for very sound reasons — to use Neutral Grain Spirits produced outside BC. They’re able to reach a larger audience by selling to provincial liquor stores, but they don’t reap the tax benefits. (This is a much bigger issue best left for a separate story.)
And now there is BC Distilled, a fantastic showcase for 23 of the province’s micro distilleries – craft and commercial. Launched last year, the one-day event offers a single-stop opportunity for craft spirit lovers to taste a variety of regionally-sourced products. It will be held this year on April 18 at the CBC Studios in Vancouver, with two tastings (one afternoon, one evening). Tickets start at $49.00.
There will be so many spirits available — not just vodka, but also cassis, shoju, grappa, and maple liqueur – even professional tasters will be hard-pressed to try everything (if they hope to remain standing).
To preview the event, we gathered a collection of super tasters, star bartenders, and expert palates to blind-taste a large selection. To keep it fair, we only tasted straight-up vodka and gin from distillers who chose to participate. And to prevent any hard feelings, we have kept the comments anonymous. (Though there’s nothing to prevent you from trying to guess who said what – and which panel member has an odd fetish for Grimace, the vintage McDonald’s cartoon character. Perhaps we had too much gin by then…).
The illustrious panel included:
-Wendy McGuinness, bar manager at Chambar
-Arthur Wynne, bar manager at Blacktail
-Peter Van de Reep, barkeep at Campagnolo Upstairs
-Barrett Jones, two-time Canadian Coffee Tasting Champion
-Joie Alvaro Kent, food writer and cocktail zealot
-Alexandra Gill, Vv Magazine West Coast editor and restaurant critic
-Vicky Ainley, Vino Allegro Wine Imports (who poured the spirits in separate room and kept our answers honest)
The results were surprising. Some new, virtually unknown distillers mightily impressed the panel. Others, including some veteran and popular distillers, didn’t show so well. It was an eye-opening, educational, highly entertaining afternoon. We hope our tasting notes entice you to go to BC Distilled and sip for yourself.
Do you have a favourite BC craft distillery? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us @ViewTheVibe!