The Whisky of Victoria’s Future

photo: Victoria Spirits President Bryan Murray at the wood-fired copper pot still

credit: Bill Blair

by Alyssa Belter

Imagine this: island-grown barley malted in Victoria, fermented into beer by Phillips Brewery, then distilled and aged in Garry Oak barrels – a completely local single-malt whisky. This is what the master distiller Peter Hunt envisions for Victoria Spirits.

Recently, on a decidedly spring day, I made the trip to the distillery’s idyllic location on Old West Saanich Road. Peter was throwing blocks of compressed wood chips, one of many environmentally conscious measures, into the fire of a gleaming, German-made, 120L copper pot-still. After describing how the 4 to 6 hour distillation process produces a concentrated spirit full of aromas but stripped of impurities, Peter crouched over and proudly patted a small barrel. This quarter cask was full of what will be known as Craigdarroch Whisky. In the tasting room I cupped my hands around a glass of the pale, straw-coloured spirit and sipped. Despite being a mere four months old it was nicely caramelized, deeply warm and almost sweet.

I asked Peter to tell me how this delicious liquid is made. Peter starts with a “wash” (roughly 8% alcohol), made by Matt Phillips, which goes through the still on an initial “beer-stripping run”. The resulting “low wine” (now 30-40% alcohol) is distilled again and from its “hearts” Peter obtains a “new make” grain spirit (approximately 60-86% alcohol). This spirit must be aged for a minimum of three years before it earns the moniker whisky.

Craigdarroch Whisky will be classified as a single-malt since it is only made with barley (from Canada, but with hope, soon it will just be from Vancouver Island). Scotch single-malt whiskies possess a characteristic smokiness due to the tradition of drying sprouted grains with peat-moss fuelled fires during the malting procedure. This technique won’t be used for Craigdarroch Whisky, which means the terroir of Vancouver Island can shine clearly. Just part of a whisky’s flavour comes from the grain while “more than half the character comes from the barrel it’s aged in,” said Peter, who will mature each small batch differently. In some cases the spirit will be aged in small, new American oak barrels – like the young whisky-to-be I sampled. Smaller barrels provide more surface area so the whisky that emerges has a complexity that belies its youth. Other batches may be aged in old Bourbon barrels or, if Peter finds a way, in local Garry Oak barrels. That whisky would truly live up to its namesake – Craigdarroch means “oak of the rocks”.

While we pine away the next three years, for what will be an impressive artistic and artisanal whisky, other developments are a-foot at the family-run distillery. Twisted & Bitter orange bitters have recently been embraced by cocktail aficionados. Eau de Merlot, one of several eau-de-vies, combines the spicy, chocolate notes of wine with the pleasurable heat of a spirit. The brand-new Left Coast Hemp Vodka offers an agreeably round oiliness and faint nuttiness to a typically ho-hum liquor. Oaken Gin is the Victoria Gin you know and love aged in a combination of French and new American oak barrels for six months before being blended. It is Victoria Gin the morning after – complex, smoky and sultry. Peter explained that all of these “came out of curiosity and a desire to keep the tasting room fun and interesting”.

The tasting room will be open for samples, sales and tours of the distillery on weekends and holidays from April to October. Meanwhile, plans are underway to make Victoria Gin available throughout Canada while remaining “true to the label brand and flavour”

Victoria Spirits

6170 Old West Saanich Road

(250) 544-8217

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