12/24/2012 10:06 EST | Updated 02/23/2013 05:12 EST

Visitors to find full flavours, many products at B.C. micro distilleries

VANCOUVER - During the cold winter months when snow falls even in southwestern British Columbia, members of the province's tiny distilling industry are offering a wee taste of their spirits.

From apricot eau de vie in the Okanagan, to potato schnapps in Pemberton, and elder-flower liquor on Hornby Island, the spirits — crafted to tickle the palates and warm the hearts and stomachs of weary travellers — are a departure from those produced by much larger companies, say their makers.

"We're not making commercial-grade alcohol," said Rodney Goodchild, a spokesman for Okanagan Spirits in Kelowna, B.C., a company that produces about 50 bottles a day and has been recognized as a Master Class distillery by an international organization based in Austria.

"We are capturing aroma. We're making a craft spirit."

Part of a relatively new industry, the ranks of B.C.'s micro-distillers are tiny. The province's Liquor Distribution Branch has pegged the total number of licenced distilleries at 13, with several licences pending.

In comparison, 62 licenses have been handed out by the Washington State Liquor Control Board south of the border, where another 17 permits are pending.

Vince Cournoyer of B.C.'s Liquor Distribution Branch said trends in the alcohol industry often start in the United States and migrate to Canada over time.

"Government liquor stores currently carry 15 products produced by small B.C. distilleries," he added in an email.

One of the industry's elders is Okanagan Spirits, which has been operating since 2004, producing 25 different spirits from local fruits.

Goodchild said the company's original master distiller was inspired while walking through a local orchard and seeing fruit going to waste, like small cherries, misshapen pears and bruised apples that went into a "graveyard," buried in actual pits.

The company's Kelowna and Vernon distilleries now fire 250-litre and 150-litre copper stills, machinery that plays a fundamental role in making and marketing the distilleries' products to visiting customers.

"You get to see it being made, so we have wonderful theatre," said Goodchild who has worked for the company for seven years.

Once inside the distilleries, customers can get a look at the mash used to make the spirits and even watch employees firing the stills and the resulting evaporation and condensation.

For those who want an educational experience, tours can last 45 minutes and can accommodate as many as 70 people in Kelowna and 40 people in Vernon.

Then it's off to the tasting bar.

According to the company's website, the distilleries produce a wide range of products that include liqueurs, fruit brandy, grappa, absinthe, aquavit and single-malt whisky.

Goodchild said the distillery will be closed Boxing Day but will be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the week and into the new year.

Hundreds of kilometres to the west on Hornby Island, located between Vancouver Island and the province's mainland, Peter Kimmerly and Naz Abdurahman have been producing 13 different spirits from local fruit and Rogers Sugar.

Kimmerly, distiller and proprietor of Island Spirits Distillery, said he was drawn to the craft in his late teens, after making wine as a youngster.

Distilling, he said, is a natural progression from wine making.

"Wine making you put in stuff and add yeast and you let it ferment, and if you put in the wrong things, you can do nothing about it," said Kimmerly.

"Distilling is the opposite. You can keep distilling and if you don't like what you've made you can run it through again. The process of distilling is taking out all the stuff that you don't want. It's far more satisfying than wine making."

He said he now produces raspberry eau de vie, grappa, apple, pear and plum brandy, vanilla vodka and elder-flower liqueur, and he said the company can sell 100 bottles a day and it runs out of product frequently.

But only two of his products are currently carried in government liquor stores.

"If they lower their taxes, that could perhaps change. The government is studying the issue now."

He said of every $100 in product he sells, he gets to keep only $24 and the rest goes to the government.

The distillery is only open Saturdays in the winter, when Kimmerly said tourists can visit his distillery and get a taste of his hard work.

"You can't taste everything we have and still walk," he said. "So we tell people to choose a little bit. They've got access to all the products that we make."

Back on the province's mainland just north Whistler is Pemberton Distillery Inc., which began operating in June 2009 under the supervision of master distiller Tyler Schramm, who is just 34 years old but was trained in the craft at a Scottish university.

"What we're sort of famous for is we use Pemberton potatoes as our raw material," he said. "I'd say we're somewhat unique among B.C. distillers.

"I guess our other unique factor is that we are certified organic, and we're one of the few distilleries in the world that offers a complete line of products that are all certified organic."

Schramm said the distillery was the idea of his older brother who had bought a potato farm in Pemberton with his wife.

Schramm said a potato farmer who had been leasing his brother's fields talked about the industry's challenges.

"It just got us thinking there's probably something else that can be done with the potato besides selling it at a grocery store and that led us down the route to doing a potato vodka."

Schramm said he then went to university, came home and helped get the distillery going.

Based in a steel building, the distillery produces about 4,000 litres of product a year, which Schramm said is about half as much product produced by some of the larger distilleries in an hour.

But their size allows them to focus on full-flavoured spirits and a niche market. According to its website, the distillery produces vodkas, gin, absinthe as well as apple brandy.

Vanilla vodka and German potato schnapps are also available in the winter.

Schramm said its first single-malt whisky should be available by September 2013.

While the distillery's shop is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays in the winter, tours only run at 4 p.m. Saturdays, unless a group of six or more people calls in advance to organize a visit, said Schramm.

Following a tour of the distillery, visitors are taken to the tasting room where they can choose from the company's full line of products.

Sample sizes are small under provincial rules and only three spirits are available for tasting at a volume of 10 millilitres per sample, said Schramm.

"For most people it will keep them well under the limit, but for sure, it's best to come with a designated driver if possible," he said.


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