Artisan Distilling by Julianna Hayes

Wine is the Okanagan's liquid asset that seems to be getting all the press these days. But there's a quiet group of beverage makers who are slowly making inroads in what can be a difficult market.

They are artisan distillers - making spirits out of everything from apples and plums to star anise and wormwood. Next time you visit a local liquor store, pick up a bottle of eau-devie or absinth, you just might find a local name on it.

With the obvious bounty of fresh fruit available in the Okanagan Valley, distilling would appear to be a no-brainer. It certainly is what appealed to Laurent la Fuente, a French winemaker-turned-spirit-maker with the new Spirit West Distillery in Penticton.

"I saw the unique potential of producing first class eaux-de-vie because of the distinctive recognition of the valley for growing excellent quality fruits and grapes under almost perfect weather conditions," explained la Fuente.

Rodney Goodchild of Vernon's Okanagan Spirits agreed that the resources here are hard to beat, yet, so much of it gets unused. "It is amazing the abundance of fruit that goes to waste here. There's no secondary market."

It will take a long time for distilling to fill the void, despite the best efforts of a select few. That's because spiritmakers - even ones using 100 per cent home-grown product thus eliminating unnecessary waste - have to contend with a hefty sin tax, deal with distribution challenges and must go head-tohead with imported brands that are insanely cheap, if not as cheerful.

Thus Okanagan Spirits, Spirit West and Penticton's Maple Leaf Spirits have opted to create unique products of superior quality in an effort to woo aficionados and carve a small and, hopefully, lucrative niche in a cutthroat market.

"We can't compete on volume. What we try to market is our uniqueness and quality," said Goodchild.

If they have one thing on their side, it's the "buy local" attitude embraced by B.C. consumers, which has helped to elevate the province's wine industry.

Each of the valley's three artisan distillers use a large quantity of regionally grown ingredients in their products and all make something called "eauxde- vie" - a clear, colorless fruit brandy produced by using ripe fruit that is fermented, distilled, and quickly bottled in order to preserve the freshness and aroma of the parent fruit. The fruit flavor is typically very light.

They also make "grappa" - a fragrant grape-based pomace brandy of Italian origin. Most grappa is made by distilling pomace, grape residue (mainly the skins) left over from winemaking after pressing. It was originally made to prevent waste by using leftovers at the end of the wine season.

However, the local distillers offer up their own variations on these beverages. Here's an overview of them and some details on their special offerings:

Okanagan Spirits

Okanagan Spirits began production in 2004 under distiller Frank Dieter, who has been dubbed the industry's provincial pioneer. The company has been recognized as a 'First Class' distillery by the World Spirits Organization and produces a wide range of products in a traditional copper pot still and uses no artificial flavours, preservatives, chemicals or sugar.

Two of the company's unique products are the Canados - its version of a traditional French apple brandy known as Calvados; and Taboo - a locally made Absinthe.

Canados - This version of Calvados is mainly distilled from Hyslop Crab Apples, delivers a distinct change-up between lively flavors of exotic fruit and cinnamon with the aromas of the oak barrel that provides hints of vanilla. A well balanced distillate, it won a silver medal at the 2007 World Spirit Awards. $45

Taboo - Absinthe is an unusual beverage that was portrayed as a dangerously addictive psychoactive drug and was eventually banned in the U.S. and most European countries before it was vindicated. A revival of this spirit began in the 1990s. Okanagan Spirits uses the same traditional distilling methods and original recipes, with a blend of star anise, hyssop, fennel and the much scrutinized wormwood. It won a silver medal at the 2007 World Spirit Awards. $55

Maple Leaf Spirits

Jorg Engel was inspired by the fine local fruit resources and his southern German ancestry to secure a license for Maple Leaf Spirits in Penticton in 2006. Like Okanagan Spirits, artificial sweetners and flavours are not used in products, allowing the natural sugars and character of the fruit to shine through. Only a handful of products are made here, including a Pear Liqueur and Pinot Noir Grappa.

Pear Liqueur
Maple Leaf Spirits uses another one of its products - an eau-de-vie brandy called Pear Williams - as a base and combines it with golden pear juice to make this liqueur. The result is an intensely flavoured, fruit beverage that is also crisp and clean on the finish. $37

Pinot Noire Grappa
Maple Leaf distills wet, fresh pomace of Pinot Noire from local wineries, but does not "stretch" the pomace by adding water and sugar, as is often done with cheaper, mass-produced versions of grappa. The pure, soft-pressed pomace is distilled to capture the concentrated aromas and smooth finishes that characterize the best grappas. $40

Spirit West Distillery

Spirit West is the latest addition to the Okanagan distilling family and falls under the umbrella of Holman Lang, which owns several wineries along Naramata's famous bench. The spirit master, la Fuente, spent most of his career in the rum industry in various rolls with distilleries in the West Indies.

The company produces more than 35 varieties of fruits and grapes in its own orchards and vineyards located in the South Okanagan. However, it does have private contracts with growers in the Okanagan and the lower mainland for raspberries, blueberries and other berries.

The new distillery will be releasing several aged products in the future. "I have spent my career aging any kind of rums and knowing the strong Canadian tradition of aged whisky, I thought that aged brandies might be a nice touch to our portfolio," said la Fuente. "By using new oak barrels, Appalachian and French, I try to enhance the complexity of the fruit flavours and the oak taste. It is always a question of balance."

These aged eaux-de-vie will include apple, cherry, pear, prune and cognac-type.