Craft spirits add to wine trails around Kelowna and Penticton.
OKANAGAN VALLEY, B.C. — At Legend Distilling’s tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake, bartender Michele Montgomery fills a Mason jar with lavender lemonade, a warm-weather refresher made with gin infused with locally-grown lavender, elderberries, mint and apples.
There’s “Slowpoke” vodka made with cherries from the orchard down the road, and “Blasted Brew,” a cold-brewed spiked coffee liqueur crafted with a roast from neighboring Backyard Beans.
Visitors driving through British Columbia’s Thompson Okanagan district — a dry, desert region, surrounded by mountains and lakes — mostly notice vineyards spilling down terraced hillsides. The area is best known for its more than 170 wineries, producing grapes that thrive in the sunny climate.
But before the vineyards came the orchards, and it’s still tree fruit — cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots — that drives the local agricultural economy.
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Enter a wave of small-town, farm-to-flask craft distilleries specializing, by law, in spirits fermented and distilled on site, using only 100-percent British Columbia-grown grains and fruit, much of which might otherwise go to waste.
Using the surplus
“When it drops to the ground, it stays there,” says German-born Jorg Engel, owner of Maple Leaf Spirits, a Penticton distillery with a tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake. A cabinet maker from Southern Germany, he formed the distillery in 2005 after noticing how much fruit wasn’t being used because it either fell to the ground before it was picked, or was too bruised, misshapen or overripe for the export market.
“In my part of the world, when apples drop to the ground, they end up being distilled or sent to a juice factory. To see them wasted, well, it just hurt.”
The distilleries, many with tasting rooms doubling as cozy cocktail lounges, offer an alternative to wine tasting, but finding them can feel like a scavenger hunt. Some are off the beaten path, a throwback to when laws restricted their locations and direct sales.
During four days in the area, my husband and I put together a self-guided tour that took us to the towns of Vernon, a lake area in the North Okanagan; Kelowna, the region’s tourist hub, known internationally for its fruit and produce; and Penticton and Naramata in the south, home to many of the wineries.
“People are still a bit uneasy about drinking straight vodka or gin (the reason most tasting rooms offer cocktails), so we’re not getting the huge parking lots filled with tour buses,” says Graham Martens, owner of Old Order Distilling, in downtown Penticton.
Most distilleries offer short tours as well as tastings either free or for a small charge, waived with a purchase. Best advice: Take it slow, designate a driver and plan your visits around another activity such as a bike ride, lake walk, or visit to a farm or cidery.
Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find:
Urban Distilleries, Kelowna
Where: Tucked in an industrial park near downtown Kelowna. Look for the neon “open’’ sign on the tasting room door in Unit 5.
Why visit: Inspired by a visit to a cognac distillery in France, owner Mike Urban obtained his craft distiller’s license in 2009, when liquor laws required distilleries to locate in industrial zones. Moving now would be too expensive, but he’s created a welcoming lounge inside a tasting room stacked with colorful bottles from his “Spirit Bear’’ line and oak barrels filled with aging “Burban” whiskey.
What to try or buy: Spirit Bear gin, made with grains, flowers, roots, fruits and seeds from local farms, and infused with lavender and apples; vodka blended with espresso supplied by Kelowna’s Cherry Hill Coffee; kirsch brandy made from Okanagan cherries and fermented with the pits for a slight bitter-almond taste. Urban gets most of his cherries free from an orchard that culls out all but the most perfect fruit for export to China.
Next up: A whiskey liqueur and honey mead wine. Urban is also experimenting with a chili vodka.
Suggested side trip: A bike ride along the Myra Canyon Trail that follows a section of the former Kettle Valley Railway, taking cyclists over 18 trestles and through two tunnels.
Urban Distilleries, 325 Bay Ave., Kelowna. urbandistilleries.ca. Proceeds from tastings go to the Save a Spirit Bear Foundation helping to preserve a rare subspecies of bear living in British Columbia.
Okanagan Spirits, Kelowna and Vernon
Where: Relax with a cocktail on the barrel room patio at the downtown Kelowna tasting room, or visit the new Vernon distillery that transports visitors back to Prohibition times with a 1932 Plymouth parked in front of a gleaming, 2,000-liter copper pot still.
Why visit: Owner Tony Dyck or another family member are often around to explain the distilling process to visitors. Dyck and his family bought Okanagan Spirits in 2010 and grew its products to include gins, vodkas, whiskeys, fruit brandies, liqueurs and absinthe.
What to try or buy: Unique is its Haskap liqueur made from the kidney-shaped haskap berry, a cross between a raspberry, blueberry and black currant, with high levels of vitamins A and C, grown by two local farms. When a local woman walked in one day with a bucket of orange sea buckthorn berries, often used in skin and hair-care products, Okanagan’s distiller went to work and came up with an antioxidant-packed Sea Buckthorn liqueur that pairs well with cheese or ginger beer.
Next up: The October release (around 2,000 bottles) of its Laird of Fintry single-malt whiskey, made from B.C. malted barley and sold for $75 a bottle through an annual lottery.
Suggested side trip: Downtown Vernon has one of the largest collections of outdoor art in Canada. downtownvernon.com/things-to-do/murals
Okanagan Spirits, 267 Bernard Ave., Kelowna, and 5204 24th St., Vernon. okanaganspirits.com.
Old Order Distilling, Penticton
Where: Graham Martens’ copper still is seen through a pane of explosion-proof glass behind his downtown tasting room. Old photos of fruit pickers line walls. Ceiling fans spin above wooden tables and church pews, a reminder of his Southern Russian ancestors, the Old Order Mennonites, known for traditional ways of living, including making their own beer and spirits.
Why visit: Looking for ways to diversify his family’s orchard business, Martens, a fisheries biologist, and his wife, Naomi Gabriel, opened their distillery last year. The cozy lounge makes for a refreshing stop on a hot day for cocktails such as the Okanagan Collins, made with Old Order Heritage Vodka, Martens’ homemade peach liqueur, lime juice and club soda.
What to try or buy: Martens is concentrating these days on making triple-distilled vodka and a lavender-free Dutch-style gin, infused with dried apples from the family farm. His newest product is Black Goat Vodka, a spirit with the same taste as regular vodka but black in color due to an infusion of plant-sourced minerals.
Next up: Genesis Whiskey, ready in 2018, following the rule that Canadian whiskey has to be aged at least three years and one day.
Suggested side trip: Explore Main Street, lined with historic buildings, shops and restaurants.
Old Order Distilling, 270 Martin St., Penticton. oldorderdistilling.ca.
Maple Leaf Spirits, Penticton
Where: Perched on a hill above Okanagan Lake and the terraced vineyards of the Naramata Wine Route.
Why visit: While parents do a tasting, kids can entertain themselves with the mini-zoo that Jorg and Anette Engel maintain on their property.
What to try or buy: Engel uses apricots from a neighbor’s orchard, locally-grown pears and Italian plums, and grapes from his own vineyards to produce a line of clear fruit brandies and liqueurs. His grape spirits are similar to Italian grappa, made from the skins and pits of grapes. His signature product is a maple liqueur made from Kirsch and organic Canadian maple syrup, recommended in “Canadian” coffee or poured over creme brulee.
Next up: Cognac, raspberry liqueur and a port wine.
Maple Leaf Spirits, 948 Naramata Road, Penticton. mapleleafspirits.ca.
Legend Distilling, Naramata
Where: Eight miles north of Maple Leaf Spirits, with similar spectacular views.
Why visit: Legend is the only distillery to have a restaurant on site. Pull up a stool at the bar in the Legend Lounge for a tasting, or relax at one of the outdoor picnic tables over a Dirty Bee, made with Defender Island Smoked Rosemary gin, honey and lemon, served in a Mason jar. The distillery and tasting room occupy a former doctor’s office, which informs some of the products made here.
What to try or buy: Blasted Brew Spiked Coffee with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla; the Slowpoke strawberry-rhubarb, sour cherry and “farmberry’’ vodkas; and the Doctor’s Orders gin, if not for the gin, then for the inscription on the heavy, black bottle: “British Columbians did prohibition better than anyone else. No, you couldn’t buy alcohol, but if you were feeling under the weather your physician could prescribe you a cocktail.”
Next up: A new European-style liqueur and a whiskey to be released “whenever it tastes good,’’ says co-owner Doug Lennie.
Suggested side trip:Summerland Sweets (summerlandsweets.com), specializing in jams, syrups and wines made with Okanagan fruit. (Locals recommend the ice cream.)
Legend Distilling, 3005 Naramata Road, Naramata. legenddistilling.com.
IF YOU GO
The Thompson Okanagan (Okanagan Valley) region is in southern British Columbia. The name comes from two major geographic features, the Thompson River and Okanagan Lake.
Kelowna is about 300 miles from Seattle. Count on a 5-to-7 hour drive.
Hello BC lists accommodations at hellobc.com/thompson-okanagan.aspx. We rented a two-bedroom suite with kitchen in a private home in Kelowna through Airbnb for $104 (U.S.) per night.
The Smugglers Smoke House at Legend Distilling serves snacks, lunch and dinner. Many wineries have restaurants, some with outdoor patios and lake views. Locals recommend the Pecking Room Patio Grill at the Red Rooster Winery (redroosterwinery.com) and The Kitchen at Misconduct Wine Co. (thekitchen-mwco.com).
U.S. travelers may bring back one liter of alcohol per person duty-free; more if you declare it and pay the duty. Bottle prices at craft distilleries typically range from $25-$50 (Canadian), plus taxes.