A sense of determination

A sense of determination

Davin de Kergommeaux undertakes the great Western Canadian distillery challenge

Places | 10 Sep 2010 | Issue 90 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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You have to be a determined traveller to visit even the most famous western Canadian distilleries on this itinerary. So what if the west is where rum-running fortunes were made and lost and where vast expanses of “small prairie grains” –the essential ingredient of Canadian whisky – continue to flourish. Some secrets are not for sharing and these days, getting inside a Canadian distillery can be as challenging as clearing security at an airport. Even so, some gems are worth the effort.

Shelter Point, for example sits snug on its 1,746-acre, ocean-front farm in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley. This brand new farm distillery welcomes visitors year round. Distiller emeritus, Mike Nicholson, brings skills from his time as manager of Lagavulin as he begins trial runs in two copper pot stills imported from Forsyth’s of Rothes. By next harvest, Shelter Point will malt its own barley in a custom-designed drum malting machine. Distinctly Scottish in character (but without pagoda) Shelter Point is the brainchild of Arran Distillery’s Andrew Currie, along with two local partners.

Victoria is surprisingly warm and sunny in January and visitors to the annual Victoria Whisky Festival charity weekend (January 21-23, 2011) are greeted with vivid displays of bright spring flowers. But after a three-hour, 140 mile trip “up island” from Victoria to Shelter Point, sports-minded visitors also have a chance to rent snowshoes, skis, or snowboards (lessons included) at Mount Washington, just 25 minutes away. The nearby Nim-Nim visitors’ centre and I-Hos Art Gallery feature K’omoks Aboriginal culture.

Just up the Pat Bay Highway from Victoria, green market gardens sit in dark, loamy soil. This land is rich, perhaps too rich for mere grapes. Victoria Distillers left its winery days behind to focus on the product of their shiny copper and stainless, wood-fired, three-tray, German Müller column and kettle still. Their Victoria Gin sells well, and a boring Manhattan springs to new life with a dash of their Twisted and Bitter aromatic orange spirit.

Some may want to guess the names of herbs in the hands-on display of gin and bitters botanicals, but the Kentucky Bourbon barrels out back will catch the serious whisky traveller’s eye. Distiller Peter Hunt’s first Craigdarroch single malt whisky will be ready in 2013. In the meantime, with some prompting, Peter might offer a sample of the pepper and berry-rich maturing malt spirit.

The 70-mile journey from Victoria to Vancouver takes four hours by car because 25 of those miles require a ferryboat. Commuters snooze as travellers watch seagulls hovering on thermals above the boat, and scan the sky for bald eagles. Amid the waves there are dolphins and the occasional killer whale.

Vancouver. No longer making whisky, but what a history! During Prohibition, the sons of Alsatian brew master, Henry Reifel, made fortunes distilling whisky and dispatching it by boat down the west coast of the USA, “in the service of American drought relief”. The Reifel’s Coon Hollow Bourbon was a Prohibition staple for aficionados from Port Angeles, Washington, to Baja, California.

At 1920 Marine Drive, their mansion, Casa Mia, remains a drive-by attraction for locals and visitors alike.

Four hours further east, in Vernon, British Columbia, Frank Deiter of Okanagan Spirits distills eau de vie in a two-tray Müller still. The company that introduced real absinthe to Canada now displays a few barrels of malt spirit in their showroom. Since it needs another seven or eight years in the cask, Deiter entertains his visitors’ palates with a broad selection of fruit liqueurs.

Driving south along Lake Okanagan, from Vernon to Winfield takes you through pine forest and desert scrub. Just as odd, in the pine and sage beyond Winfield, is a great, green, metal-clad plant churning out fuel alcohol. In the early 1970s, Canadian Club built it as an exact replica of their Walkerville distillery in Ontario, to supply Canadian Club to western markets. Dusty hunters still seek out those toothsome western bottles. From 1982 to 1992 this was also the home of Glen Ogopogo, a mythical malt whisky named jokingly for the “Nessie” equivalent that supposedly inhabits the long, narrow Lake Okanagan. For 10 years, Glen Ogopogo was the backbone of some Suntory blends.

A few minutes further south, in sprawling Kelowna, Potter’s Distillery is the home of more whisky folklore.

Now called Calona Wines, Potter’s was the source of the fabled Bush Pilot’s, a 13 Years Old, single-cask bottling of Canadian whisky released briefly in the 1990s. Although Potter’s did not actually distil Bush Pilot’s, whisky anoraks still show up from time to time in search of this Holy Grail.

A 10 hour drive from Kelowna over the Crow’s Nest Pass, where snow capped Rocky Mountains jut like enormous white molars from the earth’s crooked jaw, is Lethbridge, Alberta. It’s a risky drive because the mountain road lacks guardrails. Driving this route between October and April requires tire chains. But at the end of the road lie Lethbridge and Fort Whoop-Up, where Montana-based whisky traders caused much murderous havoc, trading raw alcohol to the local Blackfoot Indians for furs. In 1873, Canada’s prime minister created the police force that became the Mounties, complete with Stetson hats and scarlet tunics, to put an end to this nefarious trade. The fort’s gift shop is filled with post cards, books, and Canadian Indian artifacts, but nary a drop of whisky.

Up the hill from the fort, past the Alberta Terminals grain elevators, is Black Velvet Distillers. Each week, two tanker train-cars leave here with three-year-old whisky for American drinkers. The captivating aromas of corn being turned into whisky may lure the whisky traveller, but without a visitor centre, the best you can do is circle the perimeter of this giant plant, and breathe deeply.

Two hours north, en route to High River, Alberta, you pass mile after mile of grain fields, the Rocky Mountain Foothills rising gently to the left. High River is home to Highwood Distillers, Canada’s quirkiest distillery, but again, they are not prepared for visitors.

An hour north of High River, though, is Canada’s own oil capital, Calgary. It is the home of Alberta Distillers, the last Canadian distillery to bottle 100% rye whisky. Open for tours? No!

To finally get inside a traditional western Canadian distillery you have to travel 900 miles further east to Gimli, Manitoba. In this proudly Icelandic community about an hour north of Winnipeg, each day, 1,000 barrels are filled with the makings of Crown Royal, the best selling Canadian whisky in North America. Groups are welcome with advance booking. The 90-minute tour includes the Cognac casks used to make Crown Royal Cask 16, and the heady aromas of warehouses that are rarely opened.

So, 48 hours of driving 2,000 miles across western Canada renders three small boutiques open to visitors, and three large factories closed to the public. But this tour ends on a high note: one massive distillery that welcomes group tours. Move Western Canada up on your list of must-do vacations? Yes! But start small with the Victoria Whisky Festival, Shelter Point, and Victoria Spirits.
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