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BC Distilled sounded like a winner from the moment I heard about it - a gathering of twenty-seven distilleries from around the province as well as small-batch sodas, tonics, bitters, shrubs (try H.K. Kuhn's and also consider the great book Shrubs by Michael Dietsch) and other mixers and sympathetic foods. But the festival was more fun and more illuminating than I had imagined. It might look like a trade show but it attracted a lot of great characters. I can say without doubt that I tasted the finest gins (Odd Society, Arbutus, Legend) and vodkas (hemp seed from Victoria Distillers).
Changing liquor laws have allowed enthusiasts to forge into making craft spirits for sale rather than just brewed in sinks for friends. The people who own and operate these craft distilleries are from a wide variety of backgrounds such as chef (Sherigham), molecular biologist (Victoria), chemist, organic farmer (Pemberton) while others slid in sideways from other alcoholic ventures like wine (De Vine) or cider (Merridale) making.
I'm no purist when it comes to alcohols and maybe that's why I'm most attracted to unusual blends and ingredients. The very first spirit I tried, at The Woods Spirits, might have been my favourite - an amaro, which is a bitter herbal liqueur of Italian origin (try it with grapefruit juice). I didn't think I'd like it because "bitter" is not a taste I crave, but the bitterness is balanced by sweetness and a complex flavour which includes foraged grand fir from North Vancouver, where the distillery is located. I love a good foraging story. In fact, most of the best stories from BC Distilled involve happenstance and coincidence. Distillers are an excited and irreverent bunch and are pretty fun to chat with.
Victoria Distillers have an orange and sumac liqueur; the sumac berries are gathered locally. Sons of Vancouver, another North Van distillery, make a gorgeous amaretto and a very popular chili vodka - the hot Thai chilis are grown in Richmond and give the spirit a bright orange tint. Sherigham Distillery in Shirley (near Sooke) makes use of local spring water, organic wheat and barley and were partly inspired by discovering some old moonshine bottles at their house and learning about the local history of illegal spirits and runrunning. They really believe in using the purist ingredients and letting them come to the forefront, which results in really clean tastes. Their seaside gin is more floral than most and includes local kelp. Kelp!
I was very taken with Pemberton Distillery's products, especially the Kartoffelschnaps. They may be alone in making this German potato spirit on this side of the pond and the origin story was an unexpected challenge from a friend. Old Order Distilling started with an orchard, which is probably how they ended up making such a delicious raspberry liqueur. They also have a black vodka. De Vine Wines and Spirits in Saanich make uses of locally gathered berries for a very tasty blackberry brandy.
Gillespie uses organic lemon zest to make the sweet but tart and completely delicious lemoncello which is one of the few bottles I needed to buy. If you're looking for an even more unusual spirit, perhaps the best example is their chilli chocolate vodka - pretty good on its own and great for cocktails. Maple Leaf Spirits, one of the oldest distillers in BC, has a HUGE selection but the one I am still thinking about is their beautiful pear liqueur. Coming from Penticton they have access to some of the best fruit and their ideas mostly originate in fruit surpluses in the area and what growers just show up with. Now that they have their own land, grappa is in the works.
After two hours at BC Distilled, I was still just scratching the surface (I thought I'd be out of there in less than an hour) and there were many outfits I did not even get to visit. Pretty much all these establishments have tasting rooms where you can sample their offerings and where they often mix cocktails as well. If you didn't read my musings about drinks and literature in anticipation of this event, then find it here.