It can be hit and miss, but this year summer in Vancouver was beautiful. One week of sun-drenched warmth flowed into another seemingly without end, an almost unprecedented stretch of clear weather. It was towards the end of this run that I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the soon-to-open Odd Society Spirits distillery.
Housed in a converted motorcycle garage in East Vancouver, Odd Society is a distillery and lounge developed by Gordon Glanz and Miriam Karp. After being bitten by the whisky bug, Gordon obtained an MSc in brewing and distilling from Heriott-Watt University in Edinburgh. (As an interesting aside, there’s another local connection to Heriott-Watt as the head of brewing and distilling is Professor Alex Speers, a Canadian who got his graduate degree at Vancouver’s UBC!)
The visit was arranged by Crystal Coverdale (@edgylassie on Twitter), manager of the excellent Edgemont Fine Wines in Edgemont Village and a hugely knowledgeable whisky geek (I don’t think she’ll mind being called a geek in that context!). Joining us were John (@potstilled), another Edgemont employee and collector of historical whisky artifacts, and last but not least visiting member of the Twitter “whisky fabric” Amy (@whskyplus), and her boyfriend. Really fantastic to meet you guys!
The distillery is easy to reach by car or in my case by bus (owning a car requires spending many whisky tokens on it so I don’t bother). The surrounding area is a bit of a hotbed for the burgeoning local beverage industry, with Powell Street, Storm, Parallel 49 and Coal Harbour breweries all within a couple of blocks of the Odd Society building. This is a boon for the distillery – lacking a mash tun, their malted barley goes to the Storm brewery where it’s combined with water, and the resulting mash is returned to Odd Society to be fermented and distilled.
Fortunately, to be considered a craft distillery in BC it’s not necessary to create the mash directly on-site. I think that’s perfectly sensible (if the distiller supplies the malted barley and the water supply is local, who cares where the mash tun actually sits), but I’m surprised there’s no red-tape in this area. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that British Columbia has complicated laws regarding the making and selling of alcohol. I’m fairly sure that not only are there many legal hoops to jump through, but also that the hoops are on fire and while you’re trying to jump through them they’re being aggressively juggled by an angry bureaucrat with a grudge against brown spirits. People of faint heart don’t open distilleries in BC.
To qualify for so-called “farm-gate” status, which allow a distillery to sell their products directly without huge government markups, the producer has to use local ingredients – so for instance all barley used must be grown in BC. That’s a good thing for BC farmers of course, but there are arguments going on as to how that impacts quality (though Gordon didn’t seem to have any worries in this area) and there are also concerns over the amount of product available to distillers. The sole exception to that rule for Odd Society is that the aromatics they use to flavour their gin are allowed to be imported – good news as the local alternatives don’t match up to the real deal.
As you enter the building, you find yourself in a very nicely-appointed lounge area with a long bar and tables to relax at while sipping a glass of one of the distillery’s, well, distillations. The initial lineup consists of gin, vodka and an unaged malted-barley spirit, and Gordon and Miriam are looking forward to serving unique cocktails based around them.
As you enjoy yourself in the lounge you can see gleaming equipment and tubing through a dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass wall, and it’s of course here that the spirit in your glass is created. There are two small but beautiful 350-liter pot stills, made by Arnold Holstein in Germany, and a soaring column still for the vodka. All water used is cooled and recycled, reducing both waste and costs.
While there will be no aged whisky on sale for a while, some aging will indeed be going on in the dark recesses of the distillery. We saw some ex-bourbon barrels from the Woodinville micro-distillery, just over the border in Washington state. One thing that’s interesting about these barrels is that they’ve been drilled internally to increase the surface area of the wood in direct contact with the spirit, and it’s hoped this might speed along the effect of the maturation process (naturally, the spirit must still be matured for three years to be called whisky). Personally I’m skeptical about anything that suggests it increases the perceived “age” of a whisky, but if nothing else it’s an interesting experiment.
As the distillery wasn’t open for business at the time of our visit, there wasn’t much product to try yet. I did however have a VERY small taste of some uncut vodka made from malted barley. I think Gordon said it was 95% pure, and I risked my eyesight (not that great to begin with) to have the smallest of drops. I actually kind of liked it, but luckily for all of us you won’t be able to buy any at that strength!
I really enjoyed our meeting with Gordon and Miriam, and it’s great to see a local business making a real go of it in the midst of challenging and constantly-changing laws and regulations. I look forward to trying their spirits, and not only that but some of the exciting programs and innovations they’re planning. They certainly have the heart, drive and talent to make the distillery succeed, and I wish them nothing but the best for the future. Make sure to check them out once they’re open for business!