Changes to liquor laws in BC have meant good news for anyone with an interest in creating spirits for the local market. Small to large distilleries are springing up and the entrepreneurial spirit of the industry is alive and well. This week on CBC Radio’s All Points West I profiled of one of the new kids on the block.
We have already been through and continue to benefit from a greater choice in beverages like wine and beer and mead, now it’s time for spirits to step up. Artisan distillers are quick to thank the pioneers of this era like Merridale Ciderworks, Okanagan Spirits, and Island Spirits Distillery on Hornby Island, the makers of Phrog gin. We’ve had Victoria Gin for a while and Shelter Point Distillery near Campbell River has come on stream with vodka and their single malt whisky will soon be available. Arbutus Distillery is also a newcomer to the field in Nanaimo.
But for now, come with me just outside of Duncan to Sol Farm, a family-run organic farm that is now also home to the Ampersand Distilling Company. Down behind the house in a small shed close to the raspberry bushes I was picking from this summer I found Stephen Schacht, his son Jeremy and Jeremy’s girlfriend Jessica McLeod. Stephen showed me around as Jessie was carefully filling bottles of Ampersand Gin, then passing them on to Jeremy for labelling, everything done by hand in this fledgling business. I asked Stephen why he wanted to get into distilling in the first place: “Our family has always been independent entrepreneurs, and we’re always looking for something to do that will keep us close to home. Jeremy went to school for chemical engineering but when he graduated most of the job opportunities were in industries like the oil sands and chemical plants, places he didn’t really find attractive. So one day he said, ‘Dad, do you think we could build a distillery?’ And the rest of it came out of that little conversation.”
There have been a lot of crazy ideas hatched over a simple conversation, and in this particular instance Stephen and Jeremy started from scratch. They welded the stills together, built everything by hand, and even created a machine that would turn a spool of wire into these tiny spring-like devices that are used to purify the alcohol in the distilling column. I saw the facility as it was coming together and it had the whole air of ‘mad scientist’ to it, and at times Stephen admitted the whole process seemed a little daunting: “We weren’t even sure that it was going to work. In the few weeks before we started distilling I was lying awake night after night thinking ‘oh god, what have we done, if this is going to work so well why isn’t anyone else doing it?’ But what we kind of discovered is that gin has been made in basically the same way since the 1800’s, the distillers using the same kind of stills, and the technology has never changed. But we’ve decided to take a totally different approach and it seems to be working amazingly well.”
The other factor that has worked out well for them, according to Jeremy, are the recent changes in BC liquor laws. “Yeah, you could always start a distillery but it didn’t really make a lot of sense to do so, under the old tax structure. But now, because we are making our gin from raw BC agricultural products (we make it from BC-grown organic wheat), we get a different distribution agreement with the government. In essence we can sell directly to restaurants, liquor stores and consumers, like at the farmer’s market, and that has helped us a lot to start a distillery and be able to charge reasonable prices for a quality organic product.”
Farmers’ markets have been a big part of their marketing so far. It’s a great chance to talk to customers, let them taste and buy right there, and that just happened a couple of months ago and it’s great to see these other forms of BC agricultural products at the markets. While All Points West host Jo-Ann Roberts was sampling the Ampersand Gin Stephen told us why they chose Ampersand as their name: “The ‘And’ symbol (&) means ‘in combination with’ and we just like the feel of that, we’re bringing this new technology to an ancient art, the making of gin, along with our organic farming practices, and in our place of healing the earth by growing things without a lot of chemicals and it’s been a pretty joyful experience and I think it was a good choice of a name.”
Expect more from Ampersand in the days ahead, a vodka, flavoured with tayberries grown on the farm, a beautiful festive red colour for the holidays, and perhaps a liqueur based on Cowichan Valley hazelnuts. Ampersand is available at a growing number of outlets, check their website for locations.