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Small batches, big flavour

British Columbia micro-distillers proud to show off niche products

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VANCOUVER -- From apricot eau de vie in the Okanagan, to potato schnapps in Pemberton and elderflower liquor on Hornby Island, B.C.'s tiny distilling industry is starting to show its 'spirit'.

And, crafted to tickle the palates and warm the hearts and stomachs of weary travellers, these spirits are a departure from those produced by much larger companies, say their makers.

"We're not making commercial-grade alcohol. We are capturing aroma. We're making a craft spirit," 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.

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 licensed distilleries at 13, with several licences pending.

In comparison, 62 licences 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 like small cherries, misshapen pears and bruised apples going to waste in a "graveyard" and 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 at the facilities can last up to 45 minutes and accommodate as many as 70 people in Kelowna and 40 people in Vernon.

Then it's off to the tasting bar.

The two distilleries produce a wide range of products that include liqueurs, fruit brandy, grappa, absinthe, aquavit and single-malt whisky.

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.

"(With) wine making, you put in stuff, 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 elderflower liqueur. The company can sell 100 bottles a day and it runs out of product frequently, he added.

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," Kimmerly says.

Of every $100 in product he sells, he gets to keep only $24 and the rest goes to the government, he says.

The distillery is only open Saturdays in the winter, when Kimmerly said tourists can visit 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 of 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."

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 (was) probably something else that (could) be done with the potato besides selling it at a grocery store, and that led us down the route to doing a potato vodka," he said.

Schramm 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 its size allows them to focus on full-flavoured spirits and a niche market. The distillery produces vodkas, gin, absinthe and 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.

The distillery's shop and tasting room are open from noon to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday from May 17 to Oct. 14, with tours at 4 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. (Winter hours from Jan 1 to May 3 were Friday and Saturday, noon to six, with just a Saturday tour unless a group of six or more people call in advance to organize a visit.)

Following the tour, 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.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 D2

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