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Garth Eichel: Small distillery punches above its weight class

Human nature is such that we naturally cheer for the underdog. Particularly so in sports, business and love. Despite the odds, we harbour the hope that those with heart will prevail.

Human nature is such that we naturally cheer for the underdog. Particularly so in sports, business and love.

Despite the odds, we harbour the hope that those with heart will prevail.

But what about the top dogs in our midst? Is there no empathy for them?

Apparently not. Well, at least not in the world of beer, wine and spirits where small artisan producers are enjoying ever-increasing popularity at the expense of large producers.

Such is the case with Victoria Spirits, a small, familyowned distillery in Saanich that made waves in the spirit world in 2008 with the launch of Victoria Gin - a peculiar and intensely aromatic premium gin that picked up silver medals at the Los Angeles Wine and Spirits Competition (2010) and the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2009).

Building on that success, Victoria Spirits has put its lone wood-fired pot still to work producing additional products, including vodka, oaken gin and eau de vie.

Last weekend I wound my way up to the Barking Dog Vineyard on Old West Saanich Road where Victoria Spirits houses its pot still and tasting room.

Tended by master distiller Peter Hunt, the gleaming copper and stainless steel still is an artistic array of spheres, tubes, analog gauges and porthole windows that suggest it was lifted out of a Jules Verne novel.

Patient to a fault, Hunt explained the complexities of the distillation process and then steered me upstairs where his brotherin-law, Phil Lecours, poured samples:



While vodka is regarded as a "tasteless" spirit, Left Coast Hemp Vodka is anything but.

That's because the hemp heart oil secreted in the distillation process imparts a viscous and herbaceous quality to the spirit, making it like no other vodka. Moreover, there are hints of spice and even hazelnut. While I found it a bit too alcoholic, or "hot" on the palate, there is no denying the intense and unique botanical flavour of this vodka.



Victoria Gin is the flagship and foundation product of Victoria Spirits. A highly aromatic gin, it is produced with a range of botanicals that infuse it with extraordinary smell and flavour, including: juniper berries (as you might expect), star anise, cinnamon bark, coriander, angelica, orris root, rose petal, and lemon and orange peel.

Personally, I found the first release of Victoria Gin in 2008 too heavy on the juniper berries and associated botanicals, but over the past three years the distiller seems to have hit its stride with this gin, making it a much more balanced and complex spirit that is a must try for any gin lover who enjoys "acquired" tastes.



When you have a unique spirit, why not age it in a barrel and see what happens? To that end, Victoria Spirits has aged some of its gin in new American oak barrels for nine months, creating a curious Oaken Gin that gleans sweet hints of vanilla and caramel from the wood, as well as spicy notes of clove and cinnamon. For the most part, I enjoyed this peculiar gin variation, but I found the aftertaste rather long and undesirable. EAU DE VIE (PINOT NOIR AND MERLOT) 375 ML, 40 PER CENT ABV, STARTING AT $50

These two eau de vies are something of a nod to the Old World tradition of making distilled spirits from grapes.

Of course, such traditions were popular among peasants who preferred industrial strength fire-water over nuanced fine wine. In keeping with that, the Eau de Vie, Pinot Noir, has a lot of heat.

Unfortunately, the burn at the front of the mouth is such that it is hard to discern any subtle influences or complexity. That said, the Eau de Vie, Merlot, is a somewhat more balanced and interesting grappa-esque product that is still high test, but won't take the enamel off your teeth.

Note: Victoria Gin and Oaken Gin are available in B.C. Liquor Stores and most private retailers.

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