A dream can ferment a long time in one’s life, gaining texture and flavour over the course of many years, perhaps even a lifetime.
For Jason MacIsaac, local distiller and chef extraodinaire, having his own distillery was certainly a decade-long dream; one that has, at last, come to fruition. Now, perched on top of a small hill in the heart of Shirley just overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca, is the area’s latest and hottest gem: the Sheringham Distillery.
Run solely by MacIsaac and his wife, Alayne MacIsaac, the distillery, specializes in vodka and white whisky forged with water from a on-site natural spring and local organic grains and malted barley.
Sheringham Distillery may be one of the smallest in B.C., but the MacIsaacs are cool with that; much like a tailored suit, or a hand-built car, the devil’s in the details.
“It gives us the opportunity to really control and oversee the quality of the product, which is really important to me,” MacIsaac said, noting that after cooking privately for the last 10 years, preparing the ingredients in a distillery is similarly to what a chef does with the ingredients he cooks with — in the case of whisky for example, is to let the grain speak for itself.
“The things I’ve learned from being a chef is that you use really good ingredients, local ingredients, treat them with respect,” he said.
Two products have spawned from Sheringham’s beautifully-chromed stills: a smooth and textured vodka (40 per cent alcohol) and William’s White, a white whisky with bright aromas, sweet grains and clean, yet slightly spicy flavour.
William’s White holds a particularly special place in MacIsaac’s heart; it originates from his middle name, William, and that of his father, Joseph William MacIsaac. It also plays tribute to Royal Navy Captain William Kellet, who explored and named Sheringham Point in 1846.
The current location of the Sheringham Distillery also happens to be along a famous and historic rum runners’ route which operated feverishly during the prohibition era back and forth between the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
So there’s enough history to fill a small book. But how does it all get made?
“For the whiskey we use wheat from a farm in Metchosin, which we cook in our mashing kettles; water comes to a boil, then I’ll wait for the temperature to get down to 150 degrees Fahrenheit,” he said, after which he’ll add the malted barley, which is a different grain, and that will convert all the starchiness into fermented sugars.
“I’ll let that do its thing for two hours, wait a bit, then I’ll strain the liquid off and put it into these two containers and let it cool down a bit more to room temperature,” he said.
Beyond this point it becomes an a deliciously-intoxicating science — and the long road begins — to get to the perfect and final product. It’s a process known as the “stripping run” in which the alcohol is literally stripped in specialized stills from all the yeast and everything else.
“It’ll come out and start at a high percentage like 75 per cent, then drop down and run the stills till it’s about the percentage where it started out, so about six per cent,” MacIsaac said, noting the product that comes out is called “low wines” - a very raw form of alcohol which is then transferred after three to four days onto the next stage of the process: “the spirit run.”
This, of course, involves the spirit still; a beautifully-crafted chromed chamber with so many pipes and gauges that it looks it like it fell off of a Steam punk comic book. And it’s not just looks, either; this machinery is tasked to strip out and distill the alcohol even further through the process of condensation.
But it doesn’t end there. Lastly comes a fine balancing act that involves an extraordinary ability to smell and taste — done poorly, and the final product may either come out too harsh or too soft or tasteless. Needless to say, MacIsaac points out this is one of the most important stages of the process.
“You narrow the cuts down. If you have really tight hearts cuts, which means how far in from the heads and tails you come, it’ll become a smoother and cleaner flavour,” he said, referring to the process of eliminating fusel alcohols; the volatile ones in the heads and in the tails that impart flavours which are unpleasant.
“What you want to do is decide where that starts and where it ends and cut it off between the heads and the hearts, and then cut it off between the hearts and the tails. You determine this from taste and smell,” MacIsaac said, adding that where you make those cuts is what determines the profile and the flavours of the whisky.
As for the vodka, its smooth and unique aftertaste lends itself to more than just science it seems.
“A number of people who’ve come through with notable palates have tasted a hint of salt in the finish of the vodka,” MacIsaac said. “That could be from our close proximity to the sea, but otherwise, it’s a mystery.”
In the end though, it all translates into a lot of hard work and many long days in the distillery — but for MacIsaac, it’s a passion, and a dream come true
“I love it. Everything we do here is all manual; we carry everything from place to place, we don’t use pumps or anything, maybe in the future,” he laughed.
Everything is recycled as well; some locals come and pick up all the spent grains to use for livestock feed and also for compost, so nothing really gets wasted. “The only thing we are left with at the end of the day are empty sacks of grain, that’s it,” MacIsaac said.
He noted that the Sooke community has shown a lot of support, and Sheringham Distillery spirits have already begun hitting the shelves of local restaurants and liquor stores in Sooke.
“We’ll be at Point-no-Point restaurant, Sooke Harbour House, (launch party will be held there on July 10) Stonepipe Grill, Buffy’s, Castle beer & wine, and the 17 Mile Pub,” he said.
Sheringham will be present at all four Cascadia shops in Victoria and the Hillside liquor store as well.
“We are really excited about that.”
As for the future, MacIsaac said he would like to produce spirits made with wild fruit from the area, and at some point build a big deck just outside the distillery to allow guests at the distillery to enjoy a unique view of the Strait.
To learn more about the Sheringham Distillery, or if you would like to book a private tour, please visit: www.sheringhamdistillery.com.