Tag Archives: distilling

The West Coast Distillery Trail

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Hiking the Juan de Fuca Trail

The West Coast Trail is ranked among the top hiking routes in the world. The 75km trek along the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island is a challenging proposition. The route from Gordon River to Pachena Bay includes river crossings, ladders and cable cars. Only 30 passes per day are issued for each access point during the open season, from the 1st of May until the end of September. Of the 6,000 hikers attempting the trail each year about 1 to 2% require rescue. The remote location may result in a long wait for salvation, therefore a warming island spirit is an indispensable hiking companion.

Before I embark on such an arduous mission, I will need to build up some familiarity with the land and its people, and road test the local spirits to rejuvenate aching legs. I thus ventured forth to discover the distilleries of Vancouver Island that might be able to assist in my quest.

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The beautiful Forsyth stills at Shelter Point looking rather festive

Shelter Point Distillery is a remarkable place. Nestled along the island’s eastern shore near Oyster River, Patrick Evans has converted his farm buildings into a whisky wonderland. The shiny Forsyth stills made in Scotland stand prominently in the high ceiling barn. They feast upon green barley grown right in front of the distillery. The cask strength whisky exemplifies the potential of BC to produce some of the best whisky in the world. Pure water, clean crisp air, temperate climate, the influence of the sea and wholesome grain. The landscape is like the west coast of Scotland, but with more trees!

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‘The Wee Man’ at Wayward

Wayward Distillation House in the heart of Comox valley has created a buzz in BC with its use of honey as a substrate for fermentation. This was the first time I encountered a whole distillery run on bee nectar. The honey is locally sourced and tastes divine. The distillers are honey bears in spirit and commented on how everything ‘gets so sticky… in a good way’. I also liked they way they gave their tanks personalities by naming them, e.g. ‘Wee Man’ for the small spirit receiver.

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The luscious lines of the Arbutus spirit safe

Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo is notable for its gnarly ‘Babayaga’ absinthe and finely crafted spirits. Michael Pizzitelli, master distiller, with an MSc in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University, has a background in natural sciences. This has helped him achieve a quality of spirit that will be welcome on any hike. Upon researching the etymology of ‘Babayaga’, I discovered it’s a supernatural being from Slavic folklore who appears as a demented woman flying around in a mortar and waving a pestle, who lives in a forest hut and has chicken legs… gnarly indeed!

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Spirit offerings at Sheringham Distillery

Lastly, Sheringham Distillery, is the real deal of West Coast Trail distilleries. The distillery is perched on a hill overlooking the wild Pacific in the heart of prime surfing territory near Jordan River. Jason, the founder and head distiller, combines his passion for distilling and surfing in the most sublime of locations. The production facility in a rustic wooden building is where Jason and John produce gems such as Seaside Gin, chocolate vodka and a double distilled new grain spirit. The new grain spirit is a tantalising glimpse into the whisky to follow in a few years time.

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Monkeying around at Mystic Beach

Having completed my mini west coast distillery trail there was time for a warm up hike on the Juan de Fuca trail. A 4km jaunt to Mystic Beach and back with a rope swing thrown in for good measure. As all hardy hikers know, the best part of any hike is a rewarding dram at the end!

Strathearn to Learn

Strathearn Casks
A selection of casks at Strathearn Distillery. The wee 50L octave casks line the back wall.

The winds of Harris seem to have followed me to central Scotland. I drove to the Forth Road Bridge in hope rather than expectation. My fears were confirmed by a row of traffic cones denying further progress. Storm Gertrude had enough huff and puff to close the bridge completely. So off I went on the long way round to Strathearn Distillery via Stirling. I was minutes away from my destination on the A822 south of Crieff when progress came to a shuddering halt. Flashing hazard lights and men in high-viz vests warned of the fallen trees blocking the road. My teeth began to clench but then I thought of Buddha’s wisdom, ‘It is better to travel well than to arrive’. A detour via Comrie led me down a winding road of dramatic barren scenery and changing light. Beams of bright sunshine shone between the dark clouds, dancing over brown and desolate moorland. One of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen arched over the road. So despite being 40 minutes late for my appointment it was worth it to discover the delights of a path less travelled.

Upon arriving at Strathearn Distillery, Zack and Liam provided a warm welcome and introduced me to Bella the Stripper….

No, that is not what you are thinking! Bella is one of two Portuguese built Hoga stills used in the production of whisky and gin. ‘Bella’ is a wash still with 1,000L capacity while the spirit still ‘Wee Erin’ is just 500L. They are also the first Hoga stills fitted with steam coils in the pot. With such lovely small stills the production capacity of Strathearn is limited to 14,500 litres of pure alcohol per annum, making it a contender for the smallest whisky distillery in Scotland.

Bella the Stripper
‘Bella’ the Stripper, the 1,000L wash still for whisky production

Everything is done simply at Strathearn, which is refreshing having recently visited some of the more computerised distilleries in Scotland. With small scale production most items can be carried by hand, all you need is a few buckets, small casks and a strong back. The wee 50L octave casks mature rapidly due to the high wood to spirit ratio compared to larger casks. The first whisky will be released after 3 years and should taste just as good as a 10 year old according to our hosts! The distillers are not afraid to experiment with different maturation regimes and wood types. They already have 13 different expressions including virgin oak, sherry and a host of wines.

Strathearn’s gin production was also refreshingly different. Selected botanicals are infused with distilled gin for a week after distillation. This uncommon practice, similar to dry-hopping in brewing, has the unusual effect of turning the heather rose gin pink with the addition of tonic. So if you ever feel like a retro Global Hypercolour G&T then Strathearn gin will certainly please!

Having enjoyed an enlightening tour I made my way back to Edinburgh. The winds had eased allowing the Forth Road Bridge to reopen and a stress free journey back home. Rather than worry about trees falling on my head, I was able to reminisce upon a wonderfully informative visit with enthusiastic young distillers. A visit to Strathearn is a great place to learn about whisky and gin done the craft way.

Heriot-Watt to Harris

The Edinburgh Festival was sacrificed in order to complete my dissertation, but a lovely Jura from SMWS helped mitigate the loss.
The Edinburgh Festival was sacrificed in order to complete my dissertation, but a lovely Jura from SMWS helped mitigate the loss

The pen, paper and calculator have been banished to the drawer. August was a quagmire of dissertation and deliberation. Upon submission on the 27th I was free as a bird. Free to fly away to Canada. A long, leisurely holiday filled September. I visited distilleries, wineries and breweries in Vancouver, Victoria, Sidney, Salt Spring Island and Galiano Island. Then it was off to the ‘US of A’ for a road trip around Washington and Oregon. I was fascinated to witness first hand the extent of the craft boom in the Pacific North West. Craft breweries huddled together like penguins in the Antarctic. The range of beers was ridiculous. My preference for super-hopped beer increased as I toured the tap rooms of Yakima, where over 70% of America’s hops are grown. The desert like conditions and abundant irrigation create the perfect conditions, resulting in wonderfully fragrant varieties of the hop cone. I also experienced the pleasures of the slow lane, river tubing 10 miles down the Yakima Canyon.

There's more to Yakima than just hops!
There’s more to Yakima than just hops!

Portland and Seattle were intriguing for their creative energy and weirdness. Boundaries don’t seem to be a problem in this part of the world, as illustrated by Rogue’s Beard Beer, made from yeast found in the brewer’s 1978 beard. Distilleries are becoming as popular as Starbucks cafes. There are over 100 distilleries in Washington, more than any other US state.

Upon returning to Scotland it was nice to get back to a comforting pint of tennents and a fry-up before the real work began. I discovered that I had achieved a distinction in my Masters in Brewing & Distilling, which was a satisfying way to finish the course at Heriot-Watt University. With my studies over it is time to turn my attention to the world of work. I left the world of banking in May 2014 in the pursuit of distilling dreams and now it is time to put theory into practice. I am writing this post in a cosy cottage, protected from the wild weather of the Outer Hebrides. Tomorrow I will face the elements and begin my new distilling career at the Isle of Harris distillery….

The Isle of Harris distillery awaits as the ferry comes into harbour.
The Isle of Harris distillery awaits as the ferry comes into harbour at Tarbert

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Ferris Bueller, 1986)

Ferris was right, life does move pretty fast, it is almost a year since I left financial services to pursue a career in whisky. Here I reflect on a whirlwind journey into the unknown….

From this...
From this… (the office at Virgin Money HQ)
....To this! (Distilling lab at HWU)
….To this! (Distilling lab at HWU)

The adventure began in Pitlochry at Edradour Distillery. Entertaining visitors in the malt barn, nosing the angels’ share in the warehouse and packing countless boxes of Signatory Vintage bottles to be sent all over the world. It was very refreshing to spend a Scottish summer in a kilt and I was especially grateful on the hot days when the still house could reach temperatures of 38°C!

Then off I went to Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh for a master’s degree in Brewing and Distilling. I have so far completed 8 modules over 2 semesters, consisting of 7 exams and 14 assignments (totaling 29,891 words) and one class test. Just the small matter of a dissertation project to go….

Some of my favourite ‘learning’ experiences were the class visits to various breweries, distilleries, glass blowers and printing works. It has been like an episode of ‘How Stuff is made’. Alloa Glassworks has the largest furnace in Europe and the hot machinery and glowing gobs of glass made it feel like the closing scenes of Terminator 2. We also milled, mashed, boiled, brewed and distilled, with weekly tastings to hone our senses and enjoy the fruits of our labour.

But the best part has been meeting like-minded, enthusiastic people, whether they be brewers, distillers or maltsters. This is a small industry and already I have met some of the great names through various dinners and events. Everyone is approachable, friendly and genuine. I’m looking forward to becoming part of this great industry and seeing where all my class mates end up in the years to come.

Class of 2014/2015
MSc Brewing and Distilling – Class of 2014/2015

Beer Pong

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If you have ever wondered how much it would cost to set up your own brewery then you might get a little encouragement from Steve and Jo Stewart, the founders of Stewart Brewing in Edinburgh. They began their brewing adventure 10 years ago with only £10,000 to establish a beer production facility. Much of the original equipment was homemade and the brewery had to be mobile (think Meccano set with wheels!) as it took up most of their kitchen. Now with brand new premises and a 6,000 hectolitre annual capacity the brewery is considerably more business than craft.

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This university ‘research trip’ was further enhanced by the presence of a ping pong table outside the brewery. If you ever needed evidence of heaven on earth this must surely be it….. two of my favourite things…. ping pong and beer! Of the beers we tasted I really like the ‘Solas’ with a good balance between hops and malty sweetness. The ‘Coconut Porter’ also justifies an investigation if you are looking for something a wee bit exotic. All in all a great trip and good fun too!

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If MolsonCoors did lectures they would probably be the best lectures in the world…. or should that be Calsberg?! The worlds 7th largest brewer came in to give us a pep talk on all things beer, and to ensure complete attention they brought 30 cases of beer with them too!

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To put what we’ve learnt into practice plentiful home brewing is encouraged. You don’t need much equipment and with a bit of experience you will soon have amazing tax free beer at 30p a pint. I adore the innovative home brewery above. Note the camping mat wrapped around the plastic bucket, lovingly duct-taped together, with a straining sock inside…. otherwise known as a mash tun. During mashing a sleeping bag is put over the top just to add to the hilarity!

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Finally, a wonderful couple of weeks was rounded off at Edinburgh’s Oktoberfest where we learnt the art of balancing on benches while swaying back and forth singing ‘Ein prosit, ein prosit, der Gemutlichkeit!’ The perfect ending to the evening was provided by an intensely tasty 127.39 from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an 11 year old Port Charlotte with Tabasco and deep-fried Mars Bars in the tasting notes….. Wowee!