This is the third installment in my much-delayed series on a trip we took to Vancouver Island, BC, during the week of July 4th, 2019. To come clean about it, this was not even supposed to be a trip about visiting breweries or wineries or distilleries. It was something my wife has been wanting to do for years, now, and also, more to the point, it was intended to get our dogs OUT of the fuggen United States during the run-up and aftermath of the Fourth of July, wherein all our otherwise staid Tacoma neighbors – and 95% of the rest of America – turn into raging, inconsiderate, obsessed pyromaniacs.
Starting a good two weeks beforehand and lasting until a month or more after the Fourth, most of America approaches Blowing Shit Up with a fervor normally only seen in ISIS and fanatical religious suicide bombers or self-immolaters. Our one dog could not care less about this and generally sleeps through even the worst of it. Our little Chihuahua-Terrier mix, Mickey, has to literally be sedated. He used to sit and tremble pitifully for almost a month. So we said “screw dat” and left the freakin’ country. And if the cornoavirus thang abates, we’re gonna do it again, this year and every year because our jihadist neighbors outnumber us.
Multi-taskers that we are, we decided to combine Judye’s yen to see as much as possible of VanIsle by car and keep Mickey placid, so we booked a nice room at a Best Western in an even nicer BC town, the totally excellent Courtenay, and set out to explore British Columbia’s best aspect.
The first two days were covered in installments one and two and were mostly about places close at hand to Courtenay. On Day Three, we began to cast the nest a bit wider.
Bear in mind that, out of all the places I’m covering, here, exactly ONE of them was a producer I had ever even heard of before, that being Driftwood Brewing, featured in Part One. That was my one iron-clad condition for even getting on the ferry to come to VI: visit Driftwood, one of my favorite breweries on the planet. EVERYTHING else was gleaned from rabid scouring of Google Maps and word of mouth – avid Canadians telling us about their favorite beers and wines and booze. And that didn’t take much prodding, either. A word to a restaurant server, a supermarket clerk, a hotel desk clerk, was like approaching the Vancouver Island Tourism Board and saying, “What’s good?“
So, I had found, on Google, a company called Shelter Point Distillery, located just 20 minutes up alternate Route 19A, in Oyster Bay, BC. I looked at Google Images and, whoa!, this was no garage operation. To start with, Shelter Point is an estate distillery. That means the same as when we call a winery “estate”: that the ingredients used in the making of the wines or whiskeys are grown right on the same property as the production facilities. Shelter Point sits, in fact, at the very edge of their estate fields of barley, smack on the coastline of that gorgeous northern edge of the island. They literally have a beach (above) about twenty yards past the end of the barley rows.
I also found, with only a few seconds of Google research, that Shelter Point has a rather massive Canadian and international reputation – primarily for their whiskeys…meaning the place has been in business for a while, as the kind of whiskeys that get noticed in the big spirits festivals are NOT made in any sort of hurry-up fashion.
Shelter Point was started by owner Patrick Evans in 2011, so there has been just barely enough time for barrels to mature but skill has given them a rather huge boost. In the 2020 Canadian Whiskey awards, Shelter Point won gold medals for its Single Cask Rye and Smoke Point Single Grain Whisky, finished in ex-Laphroaig barrels from Islay in Scotland. They also took silver for its Shelter Point Artisanal Cask Strength, Shelter Point Artisanal Single Malt, Shelter Point Double Barrel, Shelter Point Montfort DL 141, Shelter Point Single Cask Old Vines Foch Reserve, and Shelter Point Wine and Beyond Exclusive Single Malt. And as if that wasn’t enough, they also cleaned up in Bronze: Shelter Point Strath 8 Year Old, Shelter Point Strath Islay Cask, and Shelter Point Exclusive Co-op Rye.
In the 2020 World Whiskies Awards, Shelter Point ‘Old Vines Foch Reserve Whisky’ took a Gold Medal and was Category Winner in round one and also won Gold Medals for Artisanal Single Malt and Single Grain Smoke Point Whisky.
At the uber-geeky, uber-prestigious World Whiskey Masters, in London, 2019 Golds went to Shelter Point Single Malt and Shelter Point Double Barrelled.
There is more but you get the picture…
I read all this after we visited, so I went in cold, knowing only that Shelter Point was the hot new thing in Canada, which was really impressive, given the current wave of excellent CA producers but had only a vague idea of how Canada fits into the international whiskey scene. Around Seattle, I think the general consensus would be that Westland Distillery would be the pinnacle of achievement in our still-emerging distillery culture and my tasting of their stuff pretty much cinches an eventual claim to rock star status in American whiskey. And I taste a fairly large number of new spirits, the number growing every year. So, while certainly hopeful, I walked into Shelter Point expecting to find nice stuff – shaken up with a little grain of salt. I was not prepared – at all! – for what happened next.
These Whiskeys were literally mind-boggling. They easily stood up to the best I’ve tasted from Westland…and from Corsair and Hudson Valley and Hillrock and Leopold Brothers and St. George and Motor City Gas and, well, pretty much everybody.
I was stunned. My wife went wide-eyed at the first sip of the Artisanal Single Malt and muttered, “Oh, my God.” As a savvy veteran booze reviewer, I didn’t burst out with something like that but I was thinking, “Fuck me!” and just barely restrained myself from dancing.
We tasted four of the Whiskeys, that morning, all that’s regularly bottled except for the Montfort District Lot 141, which was out of stock. Besides the Artisanal Single, we had Artisanal Cask Strength, Double Barreled, and Smoke Point. All were flat-damned sensational. None of this new distillery clumsiness and the stray off notes. These were all clean and pure and bristling with grain flavors and grace notes and a seamless, logical, organic flow to their palate. Sweetness on the tip of the tongue fans out to lushness on mid-palate and a full, lingering finish. The Double Barreled vividly showed its four years in new American oak and its year-long bath in Quail’s Gate French Oak Marechal Foch Reserve barrels. The flavors were fat and chewy and complex and immensely satisfying, drenched in but not dominated by the lusty Foch/oak notes of plums and dark chocolate and toasted wheat and black currants. These rode easily on the barley richness and lurking hints of sea salt and heather that illuminated the whole. It was incredibly heady stuff, fresh and new in its conception, and was surpassed only, maybe, by the glorious peaty majesty of the Smoke Point’s five years in new American oak and an eight-month finish in an Islay Scotch Single Malt barrel, which imparted a warm, aromatic smokiness and flavors of sea salt and wet oak to a lovely vanilla cast that tied together all this bounty.
The Artisanal Cask Strength and Single Malt were just simply as good examples of straight-forward, balls-out Whiskey making as I’ve tasted from any distillery in the past six, seven years.
Of all the liquids and places and producers I’ve referred to as “stunning”, Shelter Point may have been the most literal example of that term. We left almost vibrating with surprise and excited conversation – and with bottles. All three of which are gone, now, and we find ourselves in dire need to a return trip to Vancouver Island and that astounding little estate.
At lunch that day, we found another distillery, no more than a half mile from our hotel in Courtenay. Wayward Distillery sits just down a sort of industrial park sidestreet, about 200 yards off the main drag of the south end of the city. Aesthetically, it was almost the exact opposite of Shelter Point; a large, open, airy steel building with a robin’s egg blue exterior and huge roll-up truck doors that were flung wide, there in the July heat. We could see the big, steel stills and all sorts of storage vats and barrels, with exactly zero of the neat organization and presentation of that last place. Dave and Andrea Brimacombe started Wayward with organizational and strategic instruction from Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur, a program that helps veterans learn entrepreneurial skills. British Columbia wrote and enacted a startlingly producer-friendly set of guidelines called the Craft Distillery Agreement. The policy requires producers to use only B.C. ingredients, and to ferment, distill, bottle, blend and distribute liquor themselves. Let those last few words sink in: “…distribute liquor themselves.”
In the US, with our strangling, almost punitive liquor laws, the very idea of allowing makers of distilled spirits to do their own distribution would be hooted out of any state legislature in this country. Our pathetic fixation with the hallowed Three Tier System (cue celestial choir) makes the production of hooch a grinding daily exercise in navigating a rat’s maze of regulation which would stun a moose from eighty yards.
Our tasting at Wayward was led by Dave, himself, and it was revelatory. Wayward makes all their products from VanIsle’s gorgeous, locally-produced honey. It’s worth noting that, in distilled spirits, starting with a honey – or molasses or sugar cane or Any Sweet Substance – does NOT mean the finished product will be sweet. At all. The honey character may be most in evidence in their startling Krupnik(!!), the Wayward take on Poland’s signature nalewka (nah-LEF-kah), a strong distilled spirit usually made with honey. It is more rare, here in North America, than dwarves in the NFL. Wayward Krupnik is unabashedly honey-rich and coats the tongue like its base fluid but with distinct grace notes of cinnamon and vanilla and nutmeg and mixed fruit rinds and a lurking suspicion of eucalyptus. It’s a totally hedonistic sipper that argues strongly against the very real need for restraint in drinking it, as Sip One practically begs you toward Sip Twelve, glass Number Two and Bad Judgment, of the sort that can, in certain individuals, lead to skipping naked – in traffic. 97 Points
Wayward Distillery “Unruly” Vodka and Gin are bracingly clean, vivid, multi-layered, and delicious. The Vodka – the base spirit for the Gin, is pure and slightly viscous and subtly perfumed with the honey’s intimations of vanilla and faint white grapes and a lovely herbal character. As a mixer, I found it added a sort of richness and viscosity that gave my wife’s Moscow Mules a rib-sticking completeness that we’ve never gotten from grain or even potato-based Vodkas. 96 Points
Take that exceptional cast and add a locally-sourced, imaginative list of botanicals that give it definite 180 from traditional juniper-heavy London Dry gins. As their website says, “Unruly Gin is a refreshingly alternative Canadian-style gin that has balanced and complimented its juniper with a hint of cedar and citrus, a dash of fragrant lavender and sarsaparilla root, and the vibrant notes of coriander.” Seconded and passed. It is also damnably smooth and complete. I did mix one Gin Buck with it but gave that up. Unruly Gin don’t need no deckhands. It is as sippable a Gin as you’re likely to find in this end of the continent. 97 Points
The main Show at Wayward is, of course, the “Drunken Hive Rum“, a version of that spirit, usually made with sugar cane, that has become almost commonplace, these days. I’ve tasted four honey-based Rums in the past three years and all were very nice, subtle, and drinkable. Wayward’s is clearly the cream of the crop. This is a gorgeous Rum, bold and immediate and tinged with that broad, rich, almost decadent character of the VanIsle honey, layered with lush caramel, creamy texture, mild spices, vanilla, roasted nuts, graham crackers, and even a hint of the waxy honeycomb. It is far more than its base ingredient but proudly states its pedigree as a honey spirit. WE came back home with a bottle and nursed it for months, acutely aware that our stoopid, medieval trade situation with Canada insures that the only way to get more…is another trip to Courtenay…which, here in the Plague Age, is not happenin’ anytime soon. 98 Points
Oh, and lest anyone get the idea that Shelter Point is the only VanIsle distillery mining for gold, here is just a bit of the hardware Wayward has dragged home:
Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition: Vodka Class: Gold Medal / Liqueur Class: Gold Medal / Infused Vodka Class: Best In Show Gold Medal / Rum Class: Gold Medal / Gin Class: Gold Medal
Vancouver International Spirits Competition: Gin Class: Gold Medal
I covered our third VanIsle distillery, Moon Under Water Brewery and Distillery, in Victoria, back in episode one. It is well worth a visit, when in Victoria…but that is at least a big part of what these posts attempt to say:
In the same, very real, way that Washingtonians reflexively assign lower priority to wineries, breweries, and distilleries that are guilty of the heinous sin of “Not Being In Seattle”, tourists may well believe that whatever is not in the lovely, (comparatively) bustling Victoria Ain’t Happenin’. Uh, that would be DEAD WRONG and give no more than a nice half-picture of what Vancouver Island’s adult beverage scene is all about. That long, easy, uber-scenic drive along the island’s north shore gives you a wealth of startling wineries, distilleries, and breweries and, added to ample time in Victoria, paints an undeniable picture of this island as one of the emerging beverage hotspots of North America.
Yes, you would miss significant producers like Tofino Distillery, Pacific Rim Distillery, and the stunning Sheringham Distillery, a much-decorated producers of imaginative clear spirits like their Kazuki Gin, an Asian-inspired botanical infused with cherry blossoms and yuzu rind…their main otanical Gin called “Seaside”, made with natural botanicals and sustainable hand-harvested local winged kelp (Alaria marginata)…a Vancouver Island Akvavit, made with that same kelp infusion and locally foraged land and aquatic botanicals…and a slammin’ basic Vodka.
The solution? Come back for another visit and do the majestic Tofino and Sooke and Ucluelet and some of the wildest, mist unspoiled territory left on the continent, south of the Yukon of Alaska. Presumably, the pandemic will become managed, at some point, and I for one cannot wait to get back.\
A QUICK AND UNHAPPY NOTE: One of the posts for this series I was most looking forward to was about our landmark visit to Unsworth Vineyards, a beautiful, pastoral winery in the Cowichan Valley. There, I tasted and bought several of the most outstanding wines I’ve found from any winery, anywhere, in the past ten years. It was a totally shocking 90 minutes at a winery I had never even read about and its highlight was their Estate Pinot Noir, easily – and this is NOT any sort of exaggeration – the best, most complete, most thoughtful, and most accomplished Pinot Noir my much-abused anti-Pinot sensibilities have encountered maybe ever. I waited nearly a year to open and try the one bottle we brought back, and opened it among a party of eight friends and relatives. They were all floored, too.
BUT…just a couple of months ago, it was announced that Unsworth was sold to the California colossus, Banke/Jackson Family Wines, run by the wife and daughter of the late Jess Jackson, the namesake founder of Kendall-Jackson Wines.
Ms. Banke, it must be said, has a sterling reputation in California wine circles, and is widely respected. BUT, it should also be said, that, in my twenty-five+ years in the American wine biz, I have seen various Jacksons take over about a dozen wineries and NONE of those business got better, at least in aesthetic terms. Their empire now includes over forty wineries in the US, Italy, France, South Africa, and now Canada. Many of these are wineries I have sold and promoted in the past and all declined in quality.
One dynamic that never changes is that rich people who buy businesses have the firm conviction that they know better about what makes the products work than those who came before them. It’s human nature but it is not at all universally true. MANY times, the new efficiency techniques and “improvements” and budgets and personnel and rules and philosophy stifle or even kill whatever that magic was that made the new owners want to buy the place, to begin with.
I don’t know for sure that Ms. Banke and Ms. Jackson plan to change anything at Unsworth. But, as I look at the histories and legacies of wineries like Arrowood and Edmeades and Murphy Goode and Freemark Abbey and Cambria and several others and what I see is decline – fewer shops stocking the wines, fewer people talking about them, fewer articles written in praise of them…and notably Less when you open a bottle, pour the wines, and take a sip.
I decided, then, that the first two principles of this website have to apply with Unsworth: never write anything negative about the products or people of any producer (only exception Anheuser Busch, which richly deserves every trashing I dole out) and never review anything I have not personally tried. Whether this is right or wrong, Unsworth Vineyards no longer really exists. The name is still the same on the signs but this is now Banke-Jackson/Unsworth and I have never visited or tasted anything from them.
I hate that because the Unsworths in our wine chiller remain some of my most treasured bottles. But, to quote an infamous “American”…It IS What It Is.