When, in late 2012, the province of British Columbia announced significant and long-awaited changes to its cripplingly arcane liquor laws, the growing cottage brewing and distilling sector breathed a collective sigh of relief. Free of the manacles that kept their businesses on a treadmill, they could now focus on the reasons they'd began: a passion for their craft and products. "For us it was kind of like Day 1 all over again," recalls Pemberton Distillery head Tyler Schramm of the June 2013 enactment.
In the distillery's tasting room, we chat while I scan the famously eclectic labels on bottles of organic vodka, gin, whiskey, absinthe, kartoffelschnaps and coffee liqeur lining the shelves. "The vodka label was an idea I'd had in my head for a while," recounts Tyler, of their first-ever product. "We were doing something value-added with Pemberton potatoes so the obvious fit was a Pemberton icon — like Mt. Currie. An artist friend did a painting, and after some transformation the image became the label. A Vancouver bartender suggested calling it Schramm Vodka. She said, 'If you're willing to put your name on it, I'd be willing to buy it.'"
She wasn't the only one — especially after the organic potato vodka Tyler had blueprinted during a sojourn to obtain a Masters in Distillation in Scotland became one of the world's most celebrated spirits in 2010. Because quality begs understanding of the process that goes into it, I'd wanted to tour the facility, which was as easy as strolling through a door next to the bar. The humble building proved spacious, set up so you could follow the process of producing hand-crafted spirit from start to finish. At the front, near a loading door, was the raw material — here, depending on the month, could be found crates of apples for brandy, malted barley for whiskey, and some 45,000 kg/yr of potatoes supplied by Pemberton's Across the Creek Organics. Next were small, specialized grinders and the cookers into which the process material went. With potatoes, the cookers are held at boiling for a few hours until the spuds deliquesce into a gelatinous slurry (five different potato varieties are used, but the process renders all into the same basic starch). Subsequent fermentation of this slurry essentially creates "potato beer" of 7.5 per cent alcohol content.
Though each of these steps is important, the visitor can't help but anticipate the next, and arrival at the distillery's centerpiece: a series of polished copper pot stills of such craftsmanship and aesthetic they beg comparison to giant musical instruments or something straight out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The oldest copper pot-stills go back 400 years, but these 21st-century jobs are just as beautiful, their classic shapes unlikely to change given an abiding functionality that includes everything from heat distribution to helping precipitate common sulfuric distillation compounds. You really can't stop ogling them. "During tours, people are always attracted to the copper and want to touch it," reports Tyler. "That's a problem if the stills are on... you can burn yourself."
Here, a first distillation of the ferment, which takes a week, yields a 55 per cent alcohol product plus other not-so-good stuff (you wouldn't want to drink it). The second distillation refines that to 85 per cent alcohol. To officially be considered vodka, however, a third distillation up to 95 per cent is required. The greatest purity you can achieve is 96.4 per cent; however, in hitting just 95, Schramm vodka preserves a distinct character and flavour that would be lost if they pushed it the extra 1.4 per cent. (After tasting flavorful Eastern European vodkas, Tyler changed course from an original plan to make a more neutral vodka, wanting to avoid the kind of "blandka" whose popularity in North America was driven by the post-war cocktail-making scene, and in which big-name commercial distilleries that each pump out 10,000 litres/day beat any character out of their spirit by aiming for the 96.4 per cent alcohol mark.)
The 95 distillate is then directed into different channels: for vodka, it's diluted with water from the Birkenhead River, whose mineral profile is similar to distilled water, while for gin — which has surpassed vodka in terms of brand recognition for the distillery — it goes into a smaller still where botanicals are added to extract flavours. A bit of 95 is directed to the unique Devil's Club Organic Absinthe, made in a single annual batch since 2011. With all the traditional herbs of the famous French formulation, it also contains organic hemp seed, the distillery's homegrown hops and wormwood, plus roots from locally sourced Oregon grape and, of course, devil's club (you knew the stuff had to have at least one good use).
Past the stills, in a cross between lab, kitchen and art studio, Tyler's brother Jake sits at a bench hand bottling a new whiskey liqueur laced with organic honey, angelica root and vanilla. Lightly pounding in corks with a rubber mallet like some giant Christmas elf, he turns the bottles over and dips them in a hot wax seal — another artisan garnish.
Exiting the warehouse, my eye is caught by stacked oak barrels labelled apple brandy and whiskey. "Whiskey is my passion, but the product I had to wait longest for," says Tyler. The rest of us, too. His organic single-malt made with B.C.-grown organic malted barley and first barrelled in 2010 has been extremely popular. The next big thing he's looking at is a rye whiskey, having finally tracked down a farm in Delta that can supply 800 kilograms of organic rye. At the same time he may have located the right type of organic corn to do bourbon whiskeys, which he's also hoping to produce in the next couple years.
"We still need to grow a bit, from producing about 5,000 litres of spirit a year to about 8,500 litres to really make it work financially," Tyler notes, with a certainty that the goal is in sight.
The signs are certainly good. With the Pemberton Distillery staff still only himself, Jake and Lorien; it's small, it's tight, and it's family. But what started as Tyler's master's degree project is also acknowledged as one of the best distilleries in the world — and it's just up the road.
For Part I of this series go to www.piquenewsmagazine.com, Oct. 15.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.