In a converted cattle barn with 2,000 barrels of ageing whisky lining the walls as far as the eye can see, a thick, heady scent fills the air. Here, amid the delicious fumes known to whisky lovers as the “angel’s share,” are the makings of more than half a million bottles of Shelter Point Distillery spirits.
This fast-growing Vancouver Island distillery, which barrelled its first batch of whisky in 2011, now produces more than 125,000 litres of spirits – whisky, gin, vodka and liqueur – per year.
Located on the eastern side of Vancouver Island just south of Campbell River, the distillery’s beautiful 380 acres of oceanfront property is criss-crossed by streams, the Oyster River, wetlands and, of course, golden fields of barley and wheat rippling gently in the wind.
Shelter Point’s general manager, Jacob Wiebe, is married to one of Shelter Point owner Patrick Evan’s four daughters and it’s clear this is a tight-knit family business.
“You’ll be successful if you work half a day every day,“ Jacob says, quoting Patrick’s father, who also once worked this land. “Doesn’t matter if it’s the first 12 hours or the second 12 hours.”
Jacob laughs and adds, “That’s Patrick’s motto, too.”
Patrick was raised a dairy farmer. But with the industry in decline, he looked to establish value-added agriculture. Creating Shelter Point Distillery was more about capitalizing on an opportunity than being a whisky aficionado.
“I am a beer drinker myself,” Patrick laughs. “I asked myself, ‘How do you value agriculture to the highest degree?’ Well, one acre of land produces 800 litres of alcohol, or 2,700 bottles of whisky.”
Today, plans are underway to develop a true “field to flask” operation with onsite malting. While Shelter Point currently out-sources malting to a plant in Armstrong, within a year or two, Patrick hopes to be malting here, meaning every aspect of production – from seed to spirit – will occur on this land. It will also allow them to add smoked whisky to their repertoire, incorporating true West Coast flavours like maple, driftwood or seaweed.
“There are different perspectives on what defines the flavour of the whisky,” Patrick says. For him, as a farmer, it’s all about the soil, but other factors include the distilling process, the type of barrel used, and the variety and quality of the grain.
“When the alcohol goes into the barrels, it’s all exactly the same,” Patrick points out. “But it comes out different from each barrel. Even the wood and history of the tree used in making the barrel will affect the taste.”
Water is also essential to the world of whisky. Once the barrelled whisky has aged, water is added to cut back the percentage of alcohol, unless the whisky is bottled at cask-strength. Water at Shelter Point bubbles up from a mountain-fed aquifer, so it’s hard to imagine a more pure-tasting addition to the spirits!
Tours & tastings await
Today, with its two distillers crafting fine spirits, Shelter Point Distillery is one of the largest producers of single malt whisky in Canada, and the accolades are rolling in with two gold medal wins recently announced at the 2019 World Whisky Masters.
Stepping into the distillery with its soaring, timber-trussed roof, gleaming, six-metre-high copper stills and futuristic-looking columns is like walking into a piece of art or a sci-fi movie set. While the entire Shelter Point building is gorgeous – from the beautiful, flowered entranceway to the lounging area flush with cushiony, aged-leather armchairs – this room is truly spectacular.
The distilling process is fascinating, and as public tours of this part of the operation are free for the taking, they’re definitely recommended!
Once finished with the tour, it’s time to taste the fruits of all this labour or perhaps, more accurately, the spirits of all this distilling.)
Beyond the silky-smooth whiskey, gin and vodka, there’s even more to discover – Sunshine in a Barrel Liqueur, which comes with a story.
“My daughter didn’t like the taste of the whisky,” says Patrick, “so we told her to go and create something she did like.”
The resulting liqueur has been the distillery’s bestseller (although this summer sales were surpassed by the gin). And basking in its heavenly blend of sweet, citrus, honey warmth, it’s easy to understand why.
Shelter Point cask purchases: A reward that’s worth the wait
The price of acquiring a cask at Shelter Point may seem daunting as it costs several thousand dollars, but the investment actually offers a variety of benefits. While the cask ages (for an additional two to three years), those who have invested in it can organize tastings of the spirit directly from their own barrel in Shelter Point’s barrel room. Customized bottling is another unique opportunity, but best of all, is the end price per bottle (minimum of 250 bottles per cask), which is significantly below retail pricing.
So like all good investments, the reward is worth the wait.
The ABCs of Shelter Point spirits
ABV: Alcohol by volume is the percentage of alcohol in a bottle, sometimes referred to as proof. For example, 80 proof is 40 per cent ABV, since proof is calculated out of 200. The ABV of most Shelter Point spirits is 40 per cent, but it ranges from as low as 30 per cent for Shelter Point’s Barrel of Sunshine Liqueur to 50 per cent or higher for some lots of whisky.
Barrel ageing: To qualify as a whisky, a spirit must age at least five years in a cask, three of which must occur in charred oak casks. Shelter Point uses a variety of different barrels or casks, including Kentucky bourbon barrels and various types of wine casks, many from Quail’s Gate winery in Kelowna. Both the wood of the barrel, plus the flavour of what it previously stored, impart flavours to the whisky as it ages.
Cask strength: In many cases, distillers decide if a whisky from a certain cask can be consumed as is, or if water should be added to reduce the ABV. If a whisky is “cask strength,” it has been bottled exactly as it was in the cask. Cask strength alcohol typically ranges from 46 to 60 per cent alcohol.
Copper pot stills: For any type of distilling, a pot or still is used to extract the spirit from the grain mash or wort (see below). The shape and composition of those stills can have notable effects on the spirit. Shelter Point uses two beautiful hand-crafted stills ordered specially from one of the oldest still manufacturers in the world: Forsyth of Scotland. Why copper? Because it is an excellent conductor, spreading the heat evenly in the distilling process.
E or no E?: Whisky is sometimes spelled whiskey. There is no definitive answer to the age-old question of “e or no e?” but for the most part, Irish and American whiskey is spelled with an “e,” while whisky made in Canada, India and Japan conforms to the Scottish tradition of having no “e.”
Malting: The malting process used in distilling imparts various flavours beyond what the original barley and water provide. The best example is the peat moss used by many Scottish distilleries to add a smoky flavour to their whisky. Shelter Point is planning to add onsite malting to its operation to complete the entire field-to-flask cycle. By having its own malting process, Shelter Point will be able to try various types of smoking, from maple to other woods and even possibly seaweed collected directly from the Salish Sea.
Single malt whisky: A whisky made from malted barley in a single pot distillation process, as opposed to blended whisky made from more than one type of grain or distillation pot.
Wort: The wort, sometimes referred to as the “mash” is the porridge-like mixture of grain that is slowly and evenly heated up to produce fermentation and start the distillation process.