Victoria Spirits - Next Level Distilling in Canada
All photos by Alwynne Gwilt.
The west coast of North America has long been seen as a mecca in the world of craft brewing and – more recently – small-batch spirits. The craft brewing boom began there in the early '90s and over the past decade, cities like Portland have taken the distilling scene to the next level.
This trend extends to both sides of the border and it is in Victoria, Canada where you can find one of the earliest entrants to craft distilling there.
Victoria Spirits has been running for six years after the Hunt family decided to switch from small-batch wine production to distillation on their compact plot of land in Saanich, just outside of the main city limits.
The company first became known for its Victoria Gin, before experimenting with innovative products such as hemp vodka and a bitters line called Twisted and Bitter, which gained fame in the cocktail bartending space. The sales of its gin have steadily grown and will soon be getting distribution in the US to go alongside a healthy visibility across Canada.
It is still very much a family affair, with Peter Hunt as master distiller, his brother-in-law Phil Lecours at the helm of distiller, his sister Anna (Phil’s wife) the creator of the company’s bitters and sister Mia, as label designer. With only a 35 ft x 40 ft space, and one 217 litre handmade, wood-fired copper still (imported from master-stillmakers Muller-Brennereianlagen in Germany) it is a very-hands-on setup.
But the transition from grape to grain production wasn't easy. I spoke to Peter about the experiences as a small start up, the future of the company's first experiments in whisky making and what recommendations he gives to those entering the world of craft distillation.
You've been going strong for a few years now. What are you most proud of?
I am proud of two things foremost. First, the quality of our products. We regularly receive notes of congratulations on the taste of products and that is what keeps me going. Second, we would not be where we are if it were not for the team of staff that is my family. It has been a fantastic experience working with them to make this happen.
Why did you feel it was the right time to start the distillery when you did and do you feel that has been helpful in your success?
We got in to distilling just as it was starting to take off in British Columbia. This has helped our visibility and engagement with the market. It has helped with our success but, being one of the first, also had its challenges. We had to build our business before the time of a special 'craft' license. This did make it difficult to get started as the margins are so small with a 'commercial' license, which was the only one offered during our first several years of business.
You've been successful with gin and vodka, and have been experimenting with whisky making. What stage is that at now?
We are excited about the whisky. We started working on it in 2009 and we only have a very small amount. We may release a bit later this year but it won't be widely distributed because of the small volume. It has received many complements by those who have tried it and I'm looking forward to getting some out. We have been putting a bit more down but we have to find time in our busy gin production schedule to do so – we are not going to be competing with Scotland any time soon!
Where do you see your next biggest developments?
We are going to be selling into the US in the very near future. This, along with our expansion across Canada, will keep our production team busy. We will also be expanding our line of cocktail bitters - Twisted and Bitter.
What have been some of your biggest challenges since starting?
I think the biggest challenges have been the small margins seen on each bottle and expanding our sales beyond British Columbia. It is tough to engage in markets at any distance and finding the right sales representatives is a challenge.
Finally, what advice would you give new craft start-ups?
Make sure you product can speak for itself. Being a small producer your product must be good. After that, you will need time and financial support to build your brand – it doesn't happen over night...at least it didn't for us!