Call it moonshine, hooch, firewater, fine brandy, eau de vie or whatever, if you were making small batches of alcohol in British Columbia and trying to make money on it, you were wasting your time and your own money. Alcohol artisans are celebrating now, however, as I explained on this week’s edition of Food Matters on CBC Radio’s All Points West with Jo-Ann Roberts.
There already are some craft distillers here in BC, but this is how they used to operate. Anything they made had to be sold through the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, where it was taxed at a 140 percent rate. So, as Rick Pipes explained to me on Tuesday, out of a bottle of liquor that would cost you 40 dollars in the liquor store, the manufacturer would get about 12 dollars of that. That’s fine if you are making a lower quality/high volume product because you can still make some profit, but if you are a craft distiller, you are basically doing it for nothing because the cost of making the bottle of liquor is around 12 dollars each. Rick Pipes is the co-owner of Merridale Estate Cidery in Cobble Hill, just down the road from where I live, and for the past five years he’s been trying to get the liquor regulations changed.
BC is well-known for some of its archaic liquor regulations. Rick and some other people who want to be craft distillers had to lobby and send letters and seek meetings over and over again. Here’s how they started:
“In the early days we had to ask to see ministerial aides, and then the assistant deputy ministers and then the deputy ministers and then finally we would get to see the ministers. And at one point we got to see the agriculture minister, and the minister of tourism and small business and they all thought, hey, this is great, we see the value in this, and then we ran up against the gatekeeper in charge of the Liquor Distribution Branch, and they saw the loss in revenue, and they squashed us. Then there was a cabinet shuffle and we had to start all over again but at least we were able to start at the doors of the cabinet ministers.”
The next go-round after the cabinet shuffle got them a reduction in the tax from 170 percent to 163 percent. Needless to say that still wasn’t enough to make it worthwhile to make craft liquors. Keep in mind that about seven years ago Rick had invested a pile of money to purchase a still and construct a brandy house to turn some of his apple cider into brandy. There were many other twists and turns to get to the point where a new designation of craft distiller has been created in the province, and Merridale was the first to get its license, just on Monday, which gives them tax relief and the freedom to make the products they want and be able to sell them at a price they want. On Tuesday they held a ‘Speakeasy’ at the brandy house, hearkening back to the days of Prohibition, Rick and his wife Janet and all the staff and many of the guests dressed up in 1920’s fashions, and I asked Rick what it meant to him to achieve his goal:
“It means that Janet won’t be able to ask me how much money we are going to keep losing in the brandy house! And I will be able to be much more creative with what I do, because I know I can make small quantities of a specialty spirit, maybe something like a quince eau de vie, and I’ll still be able to sell it without losing money on it. I can buy whatever raw materials I want and all the things that have been in my head to do will come out as products now. And because Janet has done such a good job of marketing this place we have thirty thousand people a year coming through here and when I see the look on their faces after they’ve tasted our products then that makes it all worthwhile.”
The main star of what has been aging there for the past five or six years is the apple cider brandy, which has now been bottled, and he also did a barrel sample for us of his pear brandy, which so many people have never tasted. Even though I am not the biggest fan of pears, I have to say that the sample I tasted was incredible, with a very clear taste and aroma of fresh pear. As for the apple cider brandy, Rick says he did a blind tasting with some friends, family and staff using Merridale brandy and four different brands of Calvados (apple brandy) available at the local liquor store and everyone picked the Merridale as their favourite.
While Rick thinks that more and more distilleries will open soon in BC, including the Shelter Point Distillery north of Courtenay, I’ll have more on that company in a few weeks, he also believes there should be a multiplier effect down the line as the distillers will encourage farmers to grow grains specifically for use at distilleries, he would love to have some Vancouver Island rye, for example, to make into whiskey, and maybe some more malting facilities to prepare the grains for brewing and distilling…and it’s all happened because of a few liquor laws being changed to help create business instead of discouraging it.