We live in a place that is absolutely stunning. We have a goldilocks climate and an incredible food culture.
All of this means Vancouver Island is a much loved Eden for people who love good food and great beer, wine and spirits. We have an abundance of amazing craft beer, world class gin producers and great wineries around every corner.
Unfortunately, for the many whisky lovers on the Island it has taken a little longer to see their spirit of choice make it to store shelves. There is a lot of whisky resting in barrels around the island. From just casually asking around it seems like there are as many as a few thousand barrels filled on the Island with many more being filled every day. The supply may be a little tight right now, but it won’t be long before local whisky lovers will be able to get their hands on.
Luckily whisky enthusiasts are patient and they know it takes time to get the good stuff. Even better, we have started to see a wave of Vancouver Island whiskies becoming available.
Many local distilleries are focused on making a product that reflects the spirit of the place. The soil, grain, water and climate all play a part in how the whiskies being produced on the Island come together. Shelter Point has made a point out of growing their own barley. Brennan Colebank at Stillhead in Duncan uses all BC grown grain in his spirits and as he says corn grown in BC has a really different flavor than corn that comes from Southern Alberta, Ontario or the States. This desire to make a uniquely local product is on display at distilleries around the Island, including Devine Distillery and Macaloney (included in our tour!).
From raw materials to distillation to aging there is a lot of educated guesswork that goes into making a whisky. Especially early. You can get pretty predictable results based on the grains and yeast you select. Your still design and the barrels you choose will all give you a pretty good idea where you are going to end up.
But there are factors you don’t control. Climate for one. Cooler temperatures and proximity to the ocean are one of the factors that shape the way a whisky ages in the barrel. In this area we have a very high relative humidity and relatively warm weather which means the alcohol in the spirit evaporates at a faster rate than the water. In theory, this produces a rounder, more mature spirit than one that is aged in a drier climate.
That is good news for distillers on the Island. In the time it takes for a barrel of whisky to mature on the Island a distiller on the Island loses around 25% of their liquid to evaporation. That is considerably higher than the 2-4% per year that many people cite as the typical ‘angel’s share’. Because, while that loss to evaporation is costly, it also means the flavor is becoming more concentrated and mature a little more quickly. The consensus so far is that whiskies on the Island might start really hitting their stride around 4 or 5 years old.
Another aspect that makes Vancouver Island special is simply the ability and interest of whisky makers here to experiment. They are not tied to established traditions and legal frameworks like distillers in Scotland, Kentucky, or even the rest of Canada. They can pick and choose raw materials and practices from other more established regions. They can try new things like different grains, malts and barrels.
We’ve barely started down that road here. Below we have the details on a few whisky producers on the Island, but there are more already available. Sheringham has put out a couple very small releases. Phillips Brewing has put out a couple of releases. Tofino Distilling has something coming soon. Here are a few you may find at our stores now!
Shelter Point was one of the first distilleries focused on whisky to get established on Vancouver Island. They started in 2011 on a farm on the banks of the Oyster River. They are focused on producing Scottish style single malt whisky. The distillery was started by Patrick Evans, a farmer with deep roots in the Comox Valley.
Shelter Point has taken advantage of the land where they sit. They are one of the rare distillers that can produce whisky entirely from grain to bottle. If you’d like to try that, look for one of the Montfort 151 releases. The Smoke Point Single Malt is also worth trying if you like a whisky with a touch of smokiness.
Shelter Point Montfort 151 Single Malt Whisky
Shelter Point is home to 100% Single Malt Whisky, distilled batch-by-batch in traditional copper pot stills from two-row barley, and aged in American oak barrels in our oceanfront warehouse. When it comes to artisanal whisky, every element matters – and in our unique, temperate rainforest climate, even the sunsets and sea air become integral.
Stillhead Distillery in Duncan has been producing gin, vodka and fruit brandy for the past few years. Meanwhile they have been putting down barrels of rye and various other whiskies while they do it. Brennan Colebank the founder and distiller has a curious mind. He has invested a lot into distilling various BC grown grains, oak varieties and maturation techniques.
It is all done with the intention of crafting a uniquely Canadian product. Stillhead has released a few different whiskies at this point. Be on the lookout for the B-Word, a whisky made with a BC corn and rye mash and aged in new oak barrels. Their blackberry barrel aged rye is another interesting spirit to pick up.
Stillhead B Word Canadian Whisky
We can’t call this Canadian whisky Bourbon, so we called it the B-Word! This bourb*n-style whisky has a mash-bill of 63% corn, 27% malt and 10% rye. It was aged for 3 years in new oak barrels and then blended together to produce a beautiful, bold batch of 1100 bottles.
Devine Distillery is located on the Saanich Peninsula and they are producing single malt whiskies made with grain grown in the area. Their Glen Saanich Single Malt has established itself as a serious contender earning awards at several whisky competitions.
De Vine Glen Saanich Single Malt Whisky
This Single Malt Whisky is made from the finest barley grown minutes from the distillery on the Saanich Peninsula. Milled, mashed, fermented, distilled twice and aged in once-used Bourbon barrels for 3 years in the tradition of the finest single malt whiskies. Notes of citrus and ripe pear give way to vanilla, cinnamon and clove, then a lingering malty finish and a whiff of sea air.
Macaloney Caledonian Distillery is located in Saanich and they specialize in creating single malt whiskies on their two massive hand hammered copper Forsyth stills. With both Graeme Macaloney, their founder, and Mike Nicolson, their master distiller, coming from Scotland and the Scotch whisky industry they have a distinctly Scottish approach to making whisky.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they are bound by tradition. Their Oaken Poitin is an unusual beast. It is rich and flavorful, but it isn’t necessarily following the rules. More traditional releases like the Mac na Braich and Glen Loy have done well in whisky competitions and have found a following.
Macaloney's The Glenloy
Fruit, floral and Sherry notes followed with oak, vanilla, malt and sea breeze. On the palate, it's creamy with caramelized orange, vanilla, potpourri, fruit cake, blackcurrant, honey, wood spices and lingering oak.