Whisky Travel: A journey along Canada's Okanagan Whisky Trail

Whisky Travel: A journey along Canada's Okanagan Whisky Trail

Exploring the delights of this little-known whisky paradise
If there is a smoky air to some Okanagan whiskies, it’s not peat reek. For the past five summers, the 110-mile-long string of distilleries near the sliver of water called Okanagan Lake has witnessed blazing destruction in large tracts of nearby forest. In Vernon, British Columbia (BC), smoke clouds from the wildfires hung so low they drifted straight through the doors of Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery.

Then, in 2021, a climate change-induced heat dome sent typically balmy summer temperatures soaring to 50°C, bringing a flash-point mob of wilting angels to guzzle maturing spirits. However, as serious as this sounds, don’t let it extinguish your dreams of touring the Okanagan Whisky Trail.

“The Okanagan is the Puerta Vallarta of summer,” as distiller Tyler Dyck tells it. Just a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Vancouver, the narrow, 80-mile long lake is boater’s bliss. Come winter, visitors head up the valley-flanking Cascade and Rocky Mountains or north to the Monashees for some serious skiing. In summer or winter, spring or fall, visitors flock to destination shopping, restaurants and top-tier hotels such as the family-friendly Vernon Prestige Lodge, where a
stream burbles through the restaurant.

Whisky lovers will hone in on well-stocked distillery tasting rooms, and, if there is one not-to-miss recommendation for lunch, it’s the local wild menu on the patio at Legend Distillery, on the Naramata Bench. Here, sumac, wild sage, and stinging nettles find their way into food and drink. Legend's Wyatt whisky, named for owners Doug and Dawn Lennie’s son, makes a fine post-prandial digestif.

The Dyck family of Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery

As towns named Peachland and Cherryville attest, irrigation has turned the dry, sunny Okanagan into a fruit lover’s paradise, with orchards galore and more than 200 vineyards. It was natural then that, in 2004, the Dyck family, fifth-generation Okanagan residents, established Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery (OSCD) to make fruit spirits and build their whisky stocks.

It didn’t take the Dycks long to realise that the most significant impediment for start-up distillers is Canada’s outrageous taxes. So began a decade-long lobbying campaign that finally brought provincial tax concessions to distillers who would use British Columbia–grown feedstocks exclusively. It was like striking the distillery motherlode, as the western province quickly became Canada’s epicentre for artisanal distilling. Of nearly 100 distilleries in BC, a dozen can be found in the Okanagan and seven of these make whisky.

OSCD wins national awards and accolades for its Laird of Fintry single malts. Around 1909, a passion for hunting had lured James Cameron Dun-Waters to the Okanagan Valley. He fell in love with the natural beauty and bought land on Okanagan Lake, naming it after his Scottish home village of Fintry. Desperate for his favourite spirit, he ordered a batch of whisky to be shipped in from Scotland. If only there had been a time machine to send him today’s Okanagan drams, that Scotch order would have been cancelled. Today, the company honours Dun-Waters with a replica of his label on its Laird of Fintry single malt.

From the start, the distillery worked directly with farmers and foragers. “Our spirits have a hyper-local signature,” says Tyler Dyck, CEO of OSCD. “But, of course, whisky adds a whole new element. You have to mature whisky. It goes from nature to nurture and that nurturing through the maturation process takes it to the next level.” The distillery preaches that terroir includes the ageing process, so they avoid foreign elements such as automated humidifiers in the warehouses. “Let it age in the environment, not manipulate it along the way. Instead, let the whisky present its true profile.”

Andrés Faustinelli

This approach is evident in the distillery's playfully named BRBN. It shows the vanillas, caramels and slight pulling tannins of corn whisky matured in virgin oak, but with a firm flavour footprint that skips Kentucky and stays in the Okanagan. An extensive range of fruit spirits, gins and vodkas rounds out the selection on OSCD's tasting bar.

The spacious Vernon location evokes a speakeasy with a whisky-six roadster completing the décor. No one’s saying anything, but that car likely saw rum-running service down the Okanagan Valley during Prohibition days. The barely staffed US border post just south of Osoyoos teemed with night-time traffic back then.

Were that whisky six to speed down Highway 97 today, a minor detour at Osoyoos would bring it to Tumbleweed Spirits, where Lokesh Khismatrao makes 100 per cent rye and corn whisky, with single malt and triticale whisky about ready to bottle. Tasting samples are available now at the bar. Visitors will want to linger there and take a peek at the odd ‘Hillbilly’ stills with their diamond-shaped heads, before making the short jaunt to Oliver, BC, to visit a talented whisky maker – Grant Stevely – and his hand-built Dubh Glas Distillery.

Two Laird of Fintry single malt whiskies.

Grant Stevely makes noteworthy gins and single malts reminiscent of the Rosebanks and Linlithgows of old. Stevely, as everyone calls him, names and releases his 'Lowland-style' malts one by one. A volunteer fireman, when he called a pair of releases ‘Smoke on the Water’ and ‘Fire in the Sky’, Stevely wasn’t thinking about Deep Purple’s holy trinity of rock. He saw mountains ablaze and smoke resting on the nearby lake. “Smoke on the water and fire in the sky,” he remarks.
Smoke on the Water began in very small new oak barrels, until Stevely felt they were overpowering the spirit. He then transferred it to ex-bourbon barrels re-coopered down to 100 litres. The increased ratio of spirit to wood and tamer, seasoned oak worked wonders. “The goal was to get rid of those teenage years for a richer flavour profile. I then finished it in quarter casks from Scotland,” he adds.

Stevely stuck with re-coopered barrels for Fire in the Sky, but, instead of quarter casks, he finished the whisky in a Canadian port-style wine barrel. This is where the whisky got its fiery red tinge. “Fire in the Sky gets some cask-strength whisky street creds,” he says of its 65.4% ABV. Stevely’s whisky also loses water faster than alcohol,
so it keeps the angels more hydrated than tipsy.

Heading on towards Kelowna, the curious visitor will want to pop into Old Order Distilling on Martin St in downtown Penticton, where distiller Graham Martens pours a fine cocktail and finer whisky. Then, on to Kelowna, home to Bearface Whisky: the taste sensation of finishing fronted by blender Andrés Faustinelli. Operating out of Mission Hill Winery, Faustinelli specialises in unique barrel and 'Canadian terroir' finishes of whisky distilled by others.

He stores his ageing spirits in shipping containers, which act as weather enhancers; Faustinelli calls the process "elemental aging". “I’m harvesting weather into the casks,” he says. But, it’s his latest umami-laden matsutake-finished gem that the Okanagan visitor should seek out. This whisky raises elemental ageing to a new level and, in the process, captures nature’s footprint in a bottle.

Gripped with mid-pandemic boredom, Faustinelli dreamt of infusing whisky with wilderness. “I was in Kelowna blending and had an opportunity to go for a hike with two foragers. We travelled by helicopter and landed on a nearby mountain peak.”

Faustinelli had packed small bottles of high-proof whisky and some bear spray – a whisky maker’s survival kit. He strolled down the mountain, sampling anything with the potential to interact with his whisky. On the way, he found the matsutake mushrooms and they were a revelation. Matsutakes are slightly earthy but not overpowering, almost reminiscent of amontillado sherry. Faustinelli came marching down the mountain like Moses with his stone tablets, but, when he declared, “Let’s make a mushroom whisky,” some people wondered if he had really spent the afternoon foraging 'recreational' mushrooms. The brilliance of his idea soon emerged in the whisky’s flavours. The subtle mushroom note accents the blend, much like an olive does a Martini.

Faustinelli returned to the Monashees for 10 more days of foraging the delicately flavoured matsutakes, which he added to a single barrel of Bearface whisky each night, imbuing the spirit with savoury notes. Then he added this infusion to a complex blend of whiskies from his shipping containers, creating a heavenly subtle and rarely tasted flavour of pure Okanagan.

Back in Kelowna, Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery’s second location, a small demonstration distillery, has more spirits to sample before weary wanderers curl up in the Gatsby-esque, wood-panelled Hotel Eldorado at the south end of town. An elegant touch of yesteryear, where guests dress for dinner overlooking spectacular views of the lake, the Eldorado caps an extra-long weekend on the Okanagan Whisky Trail. Of course, if the visitor doesn’t want the night to end yet and needs further recommendations, the locals will help out – they’re the ones packing bear spray and smelling delicately of true eau-de-forest-fire terroir.
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