A couple of years ago, I think it was, at my first time attending the Victoria Whisky Festival’s Grand Tasting night, I noticed a small table as I passed through the crushing mass of merry whisky enthusiasts. Behind it there were a couple of friendly people passing out samples of a rye and encouraging people to pick up a brochure. I said hi, tried a small sample of the whisky, grabbed a leaflet, and wandered off to lose myself in the crowd and Scotland’s finest.
It was only later that I took a look at what I’d picked up, and was surprised to see that not only was this a distillery rather local to Vancouver, but that the rye was only an initial foray into the whisky market and they’d be developing their own single malt! I knew I’d love to visit one day but while it’s not far as the crow flies, the trip over to Vancouver Island from the mainland can be costly and takes several hours, and life tends to get in the way of having a good time far too often.
Roll forward a couple of years, then, to the present day, and my whisky obsession has only deepened. I’m now writing this blog and chatting about whisky on Twitter, and it was there I rediscovered Shelter Point through their discussions online with other local enthusiasts. A bit of a last-minute plea to squeeze us in on a tour last weekend fell on sympathetic ears, and finally we were on our way.
Shelter Point is on the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island, just south of Campbell River. There’s not really much in the way of any significant settlement past there unless you’re heading to Port Hardy, almost three hours drive to the northwest, so you’re almost at the island’s edge of civilization. With so much space available it’s a perfect spot for a farm, which was the original purpose of the land on which Shelter Point is situated. Formerly a University of BC research farm, the fields are now used to grow raspberries, corn and, seemingly relevant to our interests, barley! The distillery’s output comes from its own barley fields; although it does have to be sent elsewhere for malting, what goes into the casks is entirely from the fields surrounding the stills. Count me as a believer in terroir of this kind; it only adds to the experience and credibility of any great food or drink.
Arriving at the distillery a few minutes early, we’re warmly greeted by the friendly and ever-industrious manager Marion, and Brian, our guide and font of all knowledge on anything whisky-related, which you might expect, and the history of English royalty, which you might not! And again I feel the need to digress and ask, what is it about the whisky industry that attracts the nicest people? I haven’t been doing this for too long, but it never fails to amaze me not only how friendly people involved with whisky are, but how patient they are, how much time they’ll give you, how willing they are to open up about their work and their passion for it.
Beginning in the well-appointed reception/gift shop, the tour takes you through a pair of luxurious tasting rooms with leather armchairs, a double-sided fireplace and windows engraved by a local artist, no two alike, overlooking the barley fields surrounding you. The beautiful wooden building really is something else; you can tell the owners really went all-in on the distillery, and I doubt there’s much of a Plan B! There’s more evidence of that in the next room, the main attraction; the stillroom. Here, copper stills made in Scotland by Forsyths of Rothes sit next to the gleaming steel washbacks and mash tun. The room was heady with the smell of fermenting wort when I visited, and added to the strangely homely feel of the place; the distilleries I’ve visited in Scotland have a very different atmosphere, usually being made up of small stone or concrete rooms and industrial metal walkways, nothing at all like the wood and slate surrounding you here.
The tour concludes with a tasting of the rye whisky I mentioned waaaay back at the beginning of this piece. This time I was actually paying attention, and really enjoyed the spiciness of the 46% ABV, 100% rye. It’s produced for Shelter Point by a mystery Canadian distiller, to fill the gap until they can sell their home-grown spirit as whisky (after the legal requirement of three years and a day), but it’s put out under the Shelter Point name. It needs to be good, then, so as not to damage their reputation before it has a chance to grow, and happily it’s great stuff.
I’ve already sort of outed myself on Twitter as having tried just a drop of their new make spirit and Marion didn’t seem to mind, so I’ll repeat myself here. I was extremely pleased with what I had; powerful and clean, it had a noticeable citrus character of its own which was very appealing. The first samples have been in casks for a year or so now; I can’t wait to try the first release in a couple of years and see how the character of the new make comes through. Brian discussed some of their plans to experiment with a few different finishes and other unique things to come in the future, and it all sounds very exciting.
Since our visit, I’ve been thinking about the great opportunities that exist today for a boutique distillery like Shelter Point. Whisky consumption and consumer interest in its provenance has never been higher, and enthusiasts are seeking out all kinds of whisky from all over the world, no longer focusing just on Scotland. They’ve picked probably the best time in history to start a distillery, and if they can overcome some of their hurdles (not least being the punishing BC liquor taxes and bizarre distribution laws) I feel that the future could be very bright for the entrepreneurial folks up at Shelter Point.
(In case any conspiracy theorists are wondering, I paid for the whole trip including our tours and the bottle of rye I took home with me at the end!)