B.C.'s Craft Distilleries Take Flight

Joern Rohde



As a visitor to Whistler, you will probably want to experience locally sourced food and beverages: from Dungeness crab, Kusshi oysters and Pemberton beef to wines from the Okanagan and microbrews from craft breweries.  

Now, you can add local spirits – including gin, vodka, absinthe, lemoncello and single-malt Scotch – to the mix.

British Columbia’s craft distilling industry is flourishing. In fact, the West Coast is Canada’s unofficial hub of artisan distilleries, also known as boutique, micro or independent producers of liquor. Thirty-two of the 60 micro distilleries in Canada are in B.C., and according to B.C. Distilled, the annual micro-distillery festival, most of them have emerged in the past four years and produce more than 60 per cent of the country’s small-batch spirits.

Why the recent B.C. bounty? For the past century or so, Canadian liquor production had been dominated by a handful of large-scale, mass- produced distilleries. The restrictive bureaucracy and liquor taxes that grew out of prohibition in the early 20th century made it impossible for the little guys to compete.

But in 2013, the B.C. government began loosening the laws. The “tied house” rule, which had prevented craft distilleries, breweries and wineries from selling products at their own off-site restaurants, was ended. Craft distilleries were allowed to build on-site tasting rooms and lounges, and also sell directly to restaurants and private liquor stores, thereby bypassing the brutal markups and byzantine distribution routes through the provincial liquor board.

It’s still not easy to produce profitable yet premium, small-batch hooch in this province. The craft designation comes with its own set of onerous regulations, while liquor continues to be taxed at a higher rate than beer or wine. But those dedicated to their craft have carved out a niche in selling highly distinctive spirits made with local grains, indigenous botanicals and wild fruits that appeal to connoisseurs looking for the taste of terroir in their cocktails.



Gibbons Hospitality Group is a Whistler- based entertainment company that owns several popular pubs and founded the Whistler Village Beer Festival. Owner Joey Gibbons has always been interested in pursuing the vertical integration of his company’s various arms; so when the provincial government changed the “tied house” rules, he began looking for a brewery and distillery with which to partner.

Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers was a small business just getting off the ground. Owner Shae de Jaray, a mechanical engineer who completed a masters in brewing and distilling in Edinburgh, had returned home to the easternmost edge of Vancouver’s North Shore to build a production facility near the water and surrounded by forest, where he could pursue his off -duty passion for outdoor recreation.

It was a match made in outdoor heaven. “Deep Cove is just like Whistler, but in Vancouver,” de Jaray says, laughing. “We became partners and good friends because our lifestyles and mentality match up.” The cozy Deep Cove brewery and distillery is a favourite hangout for locals who appreciate the distinctive flavour of the spirits made on the premises with B.C.- grown and malted barley. 

In Whistler, Gibbons appreciates being able to offer his guests the complete distillery-to-glass experience: “Our team can go up to the table and say, ‘This is our vodka. We created it. The grain comes from here. The water is from the North Shore Mountains.’ When you can connect all those dots, it becomes a really interesting business.”

604-770-1136 | deepcovecraft.com


Try it at … Firerock Lounge

Warm up next to the fireplace in this cozy lounge while sipping a dirty rosemary and olive “Olivier” martini, or a boozy coffee spiked with pumpkin mocha “Jack-O’-Lantern Joe” liqueur.

604-935-4345| firerocklounge.com



Just north of Whistler in the shadow of the Coast Mountains is a small farming community famous for its potatoes. Pemberton – or Spud Valley, as the locals call it – is world- renowned and the seed-potato capital of B.C. 

When planning the small, family-owned distillery, Tyler Schramm knew that those spuds would form the foundation of the company’s handcrafted spirits and that they would be 100 per cent organic.

“We really wanted our spirits to reflect the flavour of our region,” says the master distiller. “Even the local water supply, which we use for final dilution, adds to the character of all our spirits.”

What he did not fully realize before going to Scotland to complete his training at Heriot Watt University is that there are essentially two schools of vodka: a mainstream version that is heavily distilled to taste neutral, and “this whole other Eastern European school that has historically treated vodka like single- malt whiskey with unique characteristics,” he explains.

Schramm fell in love with the latter. It wasn’t an easy choice at first. The local market wasn’t entirely prepared for the complexities and heavier texture of his early double-distilled Schramm Organic Potato Vodka, which is better suited for sipping than mixing. (The current triple-distilled recipe is slightly smoother, silkier and subtly sweet with a nutty, toasty aroma.)

Shortly thereafter, Karlsson, an even heavier single-distilled potato vodka made by the Swedish master blender who once worked for Absolut, exploded onto the North American market. Trends changed. Tasteless vodka went out of style. And now, Schramm’s loyal fans keep asking him to go back to his original, full-bodied recipe.

604-894-0222 | pembertondistillery.ca


Try it at … The Wildflower Restaurant, Fairmont Chateau Whistler

Pemberton Distillery’s organic vodka, gin, absinthe and flavoured liqueurs are widely available in bars all over Whistler, including Araxi, Bearfoot Bistro, Bar Oso, Cure Lounge and the Fairmont’s Mallard Lounge. The Wildflower offers a unique spin on Schramm Organic Gin by mixing it into a cold gin tomato soup, prepared tableside.

604-938-8000 | fairmont.com/whistler



Like many young Vancouver couples with a strong DIY spirit, John McLellan and Kelly Woods found their way to Squamish. The former logging town located halfway between Vancouver and Whistler has become a growing community for urban professionals that is often referred to as the new Portland. 

McLellan is a DJ and handyman who grew up in Scotland, sailing around the distilleries on the west coast. Woods is a sommelier, bartender and oyster expert. After several frustrating false starts in Vancouver, they launched their distillery in Squamish, where they were welcomed with open arms.

“Vancouver is the epitome of bureaucracy,”says McLellan. “The city departments don’t even talk to each other.” 

“But here, if you want to meet the guy in charge of economic development, you just end up sitting beside him at the brew pub,” Woods interjects, cutely finishing her partner’s train of thought.

Their distillery is located in the Industrial Park, an emerging craft beverage cluster that is also home to a local coffee roaster and a small Belgian brewer. The tasting room is an eclectic chic, modern hippie sanctum where the resident cats (Cheech and Chong) sprawl on vintage sofas and vinyl records are spun. Even more interesting is the back room, where the couple built an impressively capable production facility on a shoestring budget, with milk pasteurizers repurposed for fermenting and an ancient steam kettle that looks like a Sputnik satellite.

It is also back here where their deliciously smooth Sin Gin is steeped with local white pine, spruce, lemon verbena and raisins (yes, raisins); organic lemons are zested by hand for a refreshingly balanced Lemoncello; and Mexican chilies are macerated for Aphro, a curiously rounded yet spicy slope-side sipper.

“We wanted to do it as grassroots and environmentally friendly as possible,” Woods says. “And we are.” 

604-390-1122 | gillespiesfinespirits.com


Try it at … Basalt Wine + Salumeria

This sleek new West Coast cuisine-inspired restaurant serves Gillespie’s Lemoncello as an aperitif and in its refreshing lemon-drop martini. Aphro, a premium vodka spirit infused with cacao, chili and vanilla is mixed with hot chocolate for the perfect après toe-warmer. 

604-962-9011| basaltwhistler.com



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