Must-try Spirits From Some of B.C.’s Best Distilleries

With 29 distilleries already exhibiting their spirits, the recent 2015 BC Distilled festival proved our province is leading the explosion of small-batch spirit-making in Canada. Here are 10 worth trying

From hoppy to earthy to sweet, here are 10 spirits we discovered at BC Distilled, the province’s premier micro-distillery festival

Hops Drop Elixia Liqueur, Phillips Fermentorium Distilling Co.

Although I was making a beeline to sample to some honey gin, the medicinal-looking cobalt bottles at Phillips Fermentorium Distilling Co.’s table gave me pause. Hop Drop Elixia Liqueur? What’s this curious concoction? On closer inspection, it’s no surprise that the Phillip’s Brewing Co.’s spinoff distillery would be hawking a liqueur from the same hops it uses in its beer. Even if you’re not a hop head (I’m not), you’ll appreciate the sweet but citrusy and hoppy flavours in this potent liqueur (it’s 29% ABV). A bit gimmicky? Maybe. But it’s good.

How to drink it: Neat, with a touch of ice. Or go big with a boilermaker: drop a shot of Hop Drop into your beer.

Stump Coastal Forest Gin, Phillips Fermentorium Distilling Co.

If you’ve ever been walking in the woods and gulped a refreshing lungful of fragrant pine or fir after a torrential downpour, then you can practically smell and taste the essence of Stump Coastal Forest Gin, which Phillips Fermentorium Distilling Co. describes as “undomesticated as the rugged B.C. coastline, delicately balanced with the bright freshness of an old growth forest.” B.C.-grown Grand fir and bay laurel are the big, bold botanicals that come through most, in addition to the juniper. And coriander and lavender bring spice and floral flavours to the mix. Like walks in the wilds, however, this assertive gin is not to everyone’s taste. I love gin and I love the woods, so this gin has my name all over it.

How to drink it: Sip Stump Coastal Forest Gin solo to embrace its earthiness. Prefer a G&T? Fermentorium has got you covered with a quartet of its handcrafted tonics to choose from.

Unruly Vodka, Wayward Distillation House

Full disclosure: unless it’s in a Caesar, I generally avoid vodka. But Dave Brimacombe, the distiller (and foul-mouthed charmer) at Courtenay’s Wayward Distillation House, quickly had me convinced to sample the Unruly Vodka, made from 100 per cent B.C. honey. Six hundred and fifty pounds of it, in fact, gets made into mead, similar to how mash is made before being distilled into the clear spirit. That works out to about 2.5 lbs of honey per 750 ml bottle, says Brimacomb, who opened the Vancouver Island distillery on December 13 after leaving behind a career in the military (honourably, of course) and fixing planes. While I wouldn’t mix Unruly Vodka in a Caesar, I’d definitely drink the spirit, which wasn’t sweet but had pleasing notes of vanilla. I’m not alone here, either. Audiences at BC Distilled ranked Unruly Vodka in first place as favourite vodka.

How to drink it: Brimacombe offers a few recipes, such as a lighter take on a greyhound (vodka, soda, grapefruit juice) or a “Vodka-rac” – a sazerac with Unruly Vodka standing in for the rye.

Unruly Gin, Wayward Distillation House

Unlike vodka, which I have already admitted to shunning, gin is my go-to spirit. So when I heard that Wayward Distillation House, located in the Comox Valley, was making a honey gin, I knew it had to be one of my first stops at the event. Distiller Dave Brimacombe says after he makes his Unruly Vodka, half of it is then transformed into Unruly Gin, which he describes as a “big departure” from a London dry gin. Instead of juniper being the dominant botanical, the gin is all about coriander from Merville, plus cedar and citrus. Brimacombe says that they tested more than 38 botanicals to come up with the six that are the star of this refreshing take on gin. Audiences at BC Distilled ranked Unruly Gin in second place, as favourite gin.

How to drink it: If you really want to appreciate those 38 botanicals, drink it neat. Alternatively, a martini will let that cedar essence shine though.

Bittersweet Vermouth, Odd Society

At last year’s BC Distilled event, Gordon Glanz, founder and distiller at Odd Society, hinted that a vermouth was in the making. The complex aromas and flavours of this fortified wine traditionally made in Italy and France are captivating. And so is Odd Society’s Bittersweet Vermouth. It’s crafted in the East Vancouver distillery from B.C. ingredients adapted for a “reimagined” recipe that’s “based on an Old Italian set vermouth recipe found in an antique notebook.” Its golden colour is aligned with this hybrid of sweeter “rosso” vermouth and a bitter amaro. Which might explain why Odd Society describes it as a “contradictory blend.” There was no conflict for me: I bought two bottles. Audiences at BC Distilled ranked Bittersweet Vermouth in second place, as favourite spirit/liqueur.

How to drink it: Twenty-five botanicals are beautifully balanced, making this superb to sip on its own. I also tested it out with a twist on the classic 007 cocktail, the Vesper, shaking (not stirring) up 3/4 oz of vermouth with 1.5 oz each vodka and gin. Lemon twist, optional.

Blackcurrant Liqueur and Raspberry Liqueur, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery

You don’t casually win the coveted Spirit of the Year at the World Spirits Awards, with a record-breaking 97.9 points unless you have an all-star product. That was in 2013, but the Blackcurrant Liqueur made by Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery, with locations in Kelowna and Vernon, earned this distinction again in 2015. (Did I mention that it also won Double Gold?) As the saying goes, the proof is in the tasting. And the liqueur, made from 100 per cent B.C.-growth blackcurrants, is damn tasty with just the balance of sweetness and acidity.

Nipping at the heals of the Spirit of the Year is the much-medalled Raspberry Liqueur (94.7 points, earning Gold at World Spirit Awards in 2015 and 2013), which is an explosion of 100 per cent B.C. crammed into a bottle. It’s sweet, tart and for me – a massive fan of raspberries – a little too intense on its own.

How to drink it: Let the big fruits flavours be the star: mix together some vodka, Blackcurrant Liqueur or Raspberry Liqueur, and a splash of soda.

Gin, Ampersand Distilling

What writer could resist a distillery named for a sign that was once the 27th part of the alphabet (word geeks can digress here)? Stephen Schacht, the elder of the father-son team, regaled me with this history when I was tasting Ampersand Distilling Company’s handcrafted gin, made with Cowichan Valley wheat. He and his son (and fellow engineer) Jeremy designed and built the mash tun and pot and column stills they use at the Duncan-based distillery to make the, juniper-forward spirit. Since gin changes in flavour as it ages, the Schachts keep batches consistent by using a Solara method to blend various ages of the spirit before bottling. It’s no surprise that despite working long hours, the Schacts can’t keep up with demand. Stay tuned for a vodka, which Stephen says will be named “per se.”

How to drink it: Don’t mess with perfection: Make a G&T of with Ampersand gin and Fentimans tonic, says Stephen. And once it’s ready, he suggests trying Bowman Bottling Co.’s craft tonic, made right in Vancouver.

Aquavitus, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery

I couldn’t pass up on taking a sip of Okanagan Spirits’ world-class blackcurrant and raspberry liqueurs, but it was its aquavit – named Aquavitus – that piqued my interest. Like many spirits, traditional Scandinavian aquavit (literally “water of life”) has a history of being consumed for medicinal purposes. It’s similar to vodka, but gets its savoury flavours from herbs such as caraway and dill. Sipped neat, Aquavitus is smooth with caraway, as expected, as the dominant spice, plus anise, juniper, coriander and fennel. Not convinced of its authenticity or quaffability? You guessed it – Aquavitus won Double Gold at the 2015 World Spirits Awards, which was held in Denmark.

How to drink it (if you dare): I didn’t catch the name for this cocktail, but it goes like this: mix an oz. of whiskey with an oz. of Aquavitus and add a dash of Angostura bitters.

Legacy Gin, Old Order Distilling

Every distillery has a story, and Old Order Distilling Co.’s is an epic that warrants more time than a quick conversation between sips. But here’s the Coles Notes version. Although the distillery itself just opened in October, its name was born from the Martens family’s heritage as pioneering Mennonite farmers who can trace their lineage to the 1790s when distilling was common among their Southern Russian ancestors. The new distillery is located in downtown Penticton (not on the farm) and it was born from the practical need to earn some extra value from the apple and cherry orchards. Legions of Okanagan farmers uprooted fruit trees in favour of grape vines, but Old Order decided to make gin (and vodka, which I didn’t sample), resurrecting its roots. Malted barley from Armstrong is used for the full-bodied base spirit of the Genever-style gin, with anise and citrus as dominant botanicals, rounded out with apples, sage and sumac.

How to drink it: In a classic martini. Mix together 2.5 oz Legacy gin with 1/2 oz. dry vermouth in a shaker filled with ice. Stir for 20 seconds and strain into a martini glass. Garnish with an olive.