I was never really a whiskey guy," says Master Distiller Tyler Schramm, as he pours me a dram of lightly peated, 2012 Canadian single-malt, single-cask whiskey in the warm, bottle-lined foyer of Pemberton Distillery. "But it only took one session with some teenage whiskey lovers and I was in."
That watershed resulted in the production of a 2010 whiskey for which some 200 people were wait-listed — accounting for two-thirdst of the first cask before it was even bottled. Circumventing the stigma usually associated with younger whiskeys, it had aged well enough in three years to sell out. If you own some of that now five-year-old spirit, you're a happy camper. And you'll likely be stoked with subsequent batches and forays into peatier styles. More interesting than the whiskey story, however, is the history of Pemberton Distillery, a meteoric arc that has not only had an impact on the artisan food-and-drink culture in British Columbia, but continues to drive the bus in evolving it.
Tyler had finished a degree in geography but had always been interested in organic agriculture. In 2002, he and brother Jonathan found themselves discussing possibilities for the latter's small potato farm in Pemberton Meadows. As one imagines it, they looked down at the ground then up at the surrounding mountains and made a connection: the combination of Pemberton's world-renowned potatoes and pristine glacial creekwaters were the perfect ingredients for an ultra-premium vodka.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to get a license from the province to make it. But when that changed in 2005, they committed to the idea and tracked down proper equipment in Germany. There was only one problem: they didn't quite know what they were doing. That's when Tyler decided to go back to school, applying to a Masters program in Brewing & Distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. "Nowadays, some of that stuff is offered in courses as short as two days, but I was interested in this one-year degree program and happy to be accepted," he says.
It was a wild immersion: Of 16 students from all over the world who started it, only 12 finished, and all save Tyler were there for brewing — many sent by large breweries they already worked for.
A degree was naturally required to qualify, but with knowledge of microbiology key to brewing, and likewise chemical engineering to distilling, Tyler's geography background meant he'd have to pick up some other courses. "I was OK with the micro, but being a Masters degree, they went into more detail with chemistry than you'd need on a day-to-day basis. It was tough."
Tough, but precisely why he'd travelled there. Dibbing and dabbing on the university's tiny pilot still, he created the recipe for what would become one of the province's most celebrated products: Schramm Organic Potato Vodka. He'd also fall into the whiskey barrel.
"It started pretty much the first Friday after I began classes," he recalls. "The Whiskey Society was run by these 18- and 19-year-old undergrads and I was blown away by their ability to understand and explain complex flavours. I was a whiskey lover after the first meeting and it was part of my distillery plan after that. Now it fits perfectly into the production cycle because we have eight months of potatoes, then a four-month window from May."
But that's leaping ahead. After Tyler's return, a year passed before he, Jonathan and younger brother Jake began raising the now-familiar "metal barn" in Pemberton's non-descript industrial park. Building over the winter of 2008, the structure included a geothermal pump heating and cooling system that uses ground and building heat to reduce energy use, depending on the mode it's in, by 40 to 70 per cent. "Before building, most of the time was spent writing a business plan with my wife, Lorien, who comes from a commerce background. We presented that to financiers in late 2008 — basically the worst time possible to be looking for money."
Especially for a concept yet to find footing in the Great White North. Although micro-distilling had caught on in pockets in the U.S., Canada's antiquated, provincially regulated liquor laws threw up more than a few hurdles — especially in B.C., which remained more draconian than most. Notwithstanding, the Schramms persevered. And they did well.
Conducting trial distillations of his recipe through early 2009, Tyler carefully distilled a first crop of organic potatoes in July and the family hand-bottled its first batch of Schramm Vodka. Pleased with the clarity, smooth mouth-feel and rich character, they sent samples to the World Spirits Awards in Austria. In January 2010 they were informed their humble hooch had not only won gold for Spirit of the Year, but an additional "double gold" for garnering the most points of any entry across the clear spirits category. Though they'd subsequently shy away from the awards circuit for a few years to preserve the pride and novelty of those initial accolades, the gin Tyler concocted two years after the vodka launch (he actually distilled his first whiskey before this, but it was ageing) was begging for recognition. Shipped to the prestigious London International Wine and Spirits Competition last year, it qualified, under stringent standards, as a London dry gin and landed them a bronze.
Did this kind of recognition matter in B.C.? While kudos for his vodka added up to personal affirmation for Tyler and a great selling point as they pounded Lower Mainland pavement with their products, it didn't help much in the bigger picture. B.C.'s archaic laws continued to suck the life out of their efforts. "It was still hard to make the business feasible because of the regulations around it. We'd made it through four years with the old model and, despite all the attention, definitely weren't making ends meet," he says with what I suspect is a generously diplomatic tone. "Luckily the regulations changed just as we were starting to, uh... get a little bit desperate."
Financial desperation, however, wouldn't keep Pemberton Distillery from continuing to innovate and diversify its small-batch, hand-distilled spirits, which now saw it poised for a whole new phase of growth and recognition.
Next week — The Pemberton Spirit II: Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.