Four years into craft boom, artisanal whiskies take off at local distilleries

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      Although Liberty Distillery was one of the first places in Vancouver to produce handcrafted vodka and gin, it was another spirit that owners Robert and Lisa Simpson had in mind when they dreamt up the facility and its accompanying tasting lounge in 2010. “The big, big picture at Liberty has always been the whisky program,” Lisa, a former pastry chef and management consultant, tells the Straight during an interview at the Granville Island spot.

      That Liberty didn’t launch its debut whisky until 2016—three years after the establishment opened its doors—isn’t the result of any blunder or delay. Crafted from fermented grain mash and traditionally aged in charred wooden casks to acquire its rich, golden-brown hue, whisky, by definition in Canada, must be aged for at least three years before it can be labelled and sold as such. It’s during this time that the whisky matures, the barrel drawing out undesirable flavours while imparting ones that will come to define its nose and palate: primarily vanilla, buttery, and woodsy notes.

      Knowing that, it becomes clear that Liberty’s first whisky, the Trust Whiskey Single Grain, has been a work in progress since 2013. It was only last year that the libation—produced from 100-percent organic B.C.–sourced barley and triple-distilled for a smoother sip—was extracted from its cask, offering the Simpsons, Liberty master distiller Raymond Prior, and local imbibers their initial taste of and look at the small-batch spirit.

      Boasting hints of caramel and almond with a long, lingering finish reminiscent of an Irish whisky, bottles of Trust quickly sold out. The following spring, Liberty presented its Trust Whiskey Single Cask Madeira—a similarly robust spirit with a slightly honeyed aroma not unlike that of warm Christmas cake—to keep up with what industry folks see as a growing thirst for locally produced whisky.

      Propelled by the explosive success of craft beer in B.C., which inspired an understanding of and appreciation for the word craft in the regional lexicon, a demand for similar alcoholic beverages—manufactured in limited runs and with care, imagination, and B.C.–grown ingredients—has emerged.

      Brewer Gary Lohin and distiller Stuart McKinnon joined their talents to craft Central City's first whisky, the Lohin McKinnon single malt.
      Central City Brewers + Distillers

      “Craft doesn’t mean bad, craft means exceptional,” states Lisa Simpson. “And there are so many different styles. It’s a whole adventure in itself to go out and experiment with different types of whisky and all those [flavour] profiles, rather than having everything fit into one big-box category.”

      Dustan Sept, marketing director at the Surrey-based Central City Brewers + Distillers, which unveiled its first small-batch whisky last year, compares the growing popularity of whisky to that of gin. In the same way that that herbaceous spirit has come to be embraced by younger generations and inventive bartenders, so too has whisky—especially homegrown varieties—come to occupy a permanent space in liquor cabinets and on bar carts of the under-50 cohort.

      Once B.C. distilleries up their whisky production, it’s only a matter of time before those bottles are incorporated into cocktail lists around town. “I think there’s a lot to tell from a local spirit,” Sept asserts by phone. “People want to engage with local businesses and support those in their own backyard.”

      For Tyler Dyck, CEO of Okanagan Spirits Distillery, the appetite for whisky is one that will always outstrip the supply. With manufacturing facilities based in Kelowna and Vernon, the craft distillery is the oldest in Western Canada and has been producing fruit-based liqueurs and brandies since 2004. It expanded to include gin, vodka, and whisky in its lineup two years later, paving the way for the development of Okanagan Spirits’ award-winning Laird of Fintry, billed as B.C.’s first single malt.

      Its initial release in 2013 attracted so much interest—from approximately 900 consumers—that Dyck and his team were forced to sell their 300 bottles by lottery. “It was a way to make it fair, so we weren’t giving it to our friends or whatnot,” Dyck explains.

      Western Canada's oldest craft distillery, Okanagan Spirits, has been producing whiskies, including the corn-based BRBN, since 2016.
      Okanagan Spirits

      Okanagan Spirits continues to employ this system for its once-a-year Laird of Fintry release, the quantity of which has steadily increased since. It also produces three other varieties of whisky, including a corn-based bourbon, and a Master Distiller series that features experimental hopped, peppered, and wood-fire iterations. Unlike most distilleries, Okanagan Spirits does not regulate the environment in which its barrels sit, allowing the wooden casks to be stressed in fluctuating temperatures so that their contents take on unique qualities in taste, colour, and aroma.

      “In the Okanagan, we get really big, hot summers, so we get these big, rounded flavours,” says Dyck. “The grains that are grown here are going to have different flavour profiles, too, and that’s something that we think should be celebrated.”

      With more than 30 licensed artisanal distilleries now operating in B.C.—many of them launched in 2013 or later, thanks to legislative shifts that made tasting rooms possible—Dyck is confident that local imbibers will be seeing an abundance of craft whiskies in the near future. In fact, he knows of a number of B.C. distillers who currently have whisky aging in barrels.

      Elsewhere, East Van’s Odd Society Spirits is selling whisky by the cask and the soon-to-be-open Resurrection Spirits (1672 Franklin Street) has perfected a white rye whisky that will debut at the 22nd annual Hopscotch Festival’s Grand Tasting Hall, which takes place on November 24 and 25 at the PNE Forum.

      There, attendees will be able to sample a staggering assortment of regionally and internationally produced whiskies, plus rums, gins, wines, and more from 130-plus vendors, including the aforementioned distilleries. However, if you ask the Simpsons, Sept, and Dyck, it’s the stuff crafted close to home that, over time, will resonate most with Vancouverites. “As time passes and more distilleries open up, it creates this wealth of energy,” says Lisa Simpson. “The snowball starts growing.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.