Story by Hans Tammemagi Photography by Don Denton
Seeking top-line spirits to impress my friends and make stimulating cocktails — the current hot trend — I headed to Sooke and Sheringham Distillery. In an unassuming two-storey grey building just off the main street — surprise! — I found the world’s best contemporary gin.
While sipping a Seaside Gin, with its hints of the nearby ocean, I spoke with Jason and Alayne MacIsaac, the owners and operators, and learned about the passion and care that results in a small distillery producing spirits with tastes and quality that far surpass those from a massive assembly-line production.
That Sheringham crafts the finest became glaringly obvious when their Seaside Gin was entered in the World Gin Awards competition in London, England. The MacIsaacs were overjoyed to win the qualifying competition for contemporary gins made in Canada. But when their overall victory against 22 other countries was announced in London in February of this year, they were ecstatic. A critic said, “Really gorgeous on its own, when you sip this gin it tastes nothing like you’d expect a gin with kelp in it to taste like.”
And it wasn’t a fluke, for Sheringham’s four spirits have won more than a dozen awards in the past few years.
Alayne explained how the idea for Seaside Gin was born one day as she and Jason walked along French Beach.
“It was a glorious sunny day with waves rolling in, and a wonderful fresh breeze carried the aromas of blooming Sitka roses, the forest and the ocean,” she said. “Jason and I were enchanted by the beauty of the moment and wondered how we might capture the terroir and its mystique in a bottle.”
Jason began experimenting using different botanicals — the flavourings added in the third distillation that gives gin its character. In addition to juniper, coriander, rose, anise and lavender, he tried foraged winged kelp.
Jason, a local surfer, likes the briny and umami notes that kelp adds to his gin: “It’s clean as a south island surf,” he said.
Little wonder that a prize-winning libation emerged, for Jason, a chef by formal training, has a superb palate and has memorized an extensive “catalogue” of flavours and aromas. He also knows how to source local products such as organic barleys and wheats. He had a home still almost two decades ago and learned the trade by reading and speaking with local master distillers like Victoria’s Ken Winchester.
Alayne has a business degree and studied Mandarin overseas. With a strong business acumen, she looks after the financial, administrative and promotional side of the company.
It was risky to give up their separate successful careers, but the couple wanted to work together, so in 2015 they started Sheringham Distillery, combining the strengths and talents of each. Thanks to their skills, passion and hard work, the distillery has succeeded.
Their first operation was home-based in Shirley, BC, but in 2017 they moved to nearby Sooke and more than tripled their production. They live above the distillery with Cassandra, their six-year-old daughter.
“My favourite part of Sheringham Distillery,” said Jason, “is working with Alayne. We’re a great team.”
Indeed, I could sense their mutual support, synergy and strength.
In addition to Seaside Gin, Sheringham crafts four other spirits. Kazuki Gin was born out of a love of both eastern and western botanicals experienced during their travels, and also of Japanese cuisine. Kazu means harmony and ki means radiance. Two of the botanicals — cherry blossoms and yuzu peel — are imported from Japan.
Akvavit, a traditional Nordic spirit, is not common on this side of the Atlantic, but Sheringham’s version, nicely spiced with local botanicals, may change that.
William’s White was an un-aged whisky that was gaining popularity, however, Jason discontinued it to pursue whiskies aged in oak barrels. I was happy to hear that a few will soon be reaching the age of three years, a requirement in Canada to be officially called a whisky. Sheringham also produces a notably smooth vodka.
Jason led me on a tour. One side of the main hall was filled with four large, vertical stainless-steel tanks, a mash tun and three fermenters. But the centre of attention was the three gleaming stainless-steel stills with shining orange copper cladding.
“The large one is a stripping still, the next in size is the spirit still and the third, smallest still is where I add the botanicals,” Jason explained. “I enjoy experimenting with different botanicals and have tried quite a variety over the years.”
He added: “As in cooking, terroir is important in making spirits. We love this part of southern Vancouver Island overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”
The moniker Sheringham Distillery pays homage to the name given to the area in 1846 (later shortened to Shirley so it would fit on a postage stamp). The Sheringham Point Lighthouse, built in 1912, is located nearby.
“We’re definitely growing,” said Alayne with a smile. “We’re planning to produce more by being more efficient and we’re adding a new tank soon. Our public relations strategy is something we love: connecting with and meeting our customers.”
Driving away, I had a new and profound respect for the creativity and passion that makes a craft spirit.
From West Shore Life + Style magazine