Making spirits bright
Vancouver is in love with craft distilleries. Follow our tasting tour of some of the best to learn about British Columbia's natural wonders – bittersweet vermouth made with arbutus bark, anyone? – and get off the city's beaten tourist path
Back in the bad old days of Prohibition, Vancouver was a hotbed of rum-runners and illegal hooch palaces. Fast-forward almost 100 years and the clink of bottles and drip of stills is back – but this time it's legal.
British Columbia, in fact, is riding high on a wave of craft distilleries, thanks to a change in the law in 2013. In 2012 there were 17, and as of December, 2015, there are 51 licensed distilleries in the province – with 12 applications in process – more than in the rest of Canada put together. Vancouver has more than half a dozen craft distillers in some of its coolest neighbourhoods, and nothing warms up a winter trip to the West Coast like sipping and sampling your way through the drinky delights they have on offer. Exploring the city by way of its distillery tasting lounges makes for a spirited way to see a less-discovered side of Vancouver.
Sure you've heard of Granville Island, but most visitors never make it past the Public Market and its photo-snapping foodies. But beyond the artfully stacked fruit – just across the tracks at the corner of Old Bridge Road and Railspur Alley – there are uniquely Canadian boozy delights. At the Liberty Distillery ( thelibertydistillery.com), admire the gleaming copper still through the glass windows, or join a weekend tour ($10, includes tasting) to learn more. Cocktail hour begins at 11 a.m. daily at this 100-year-old antique bar, where you can sip signature drinks or try a tasting flight of its triple-distilled, 100-per-cent organic, B.C. wheat-based gins and vodka.
James Andrew Christie
The sake splurge
Now's probably a good time for some "Oh, why not?" splurge shopping at some of the excellent artists' workshops along Railspur Alley, and if you need a bracing coffee, Off the Tracks Espresso Bar is just a few doors away. Keep that buzz going at the Artisan SakeMaker ( artisansakemaker.com/tastingroom) – a Canadian first. Sticklers could protest that sake is fermented rather than distilled, but trust me – Masa Shiroki's superb sake definitely counts as a spirited adventure. Book a tour to find out more, or stop by for a tasting.
Hop on a floating taxi Vancouver's cute water taxis (granvilleislandferries.bc.ca) are fun to ride at any time, but when feeling tipsy on B.C. spirits, they're even more of a delight. You can go straight from Granville Island to the Long Table Distillery, which is a few minutes walk from the Aquatic Centre stop, or relax and enjoy a ferry tour of the False Creek area, taking in the gloriously photogenic geodesic dome of Science World and sweeping mountain views as you motor past Kitsilano Beach. After opening in 2013, Long Table recently bagged Gold and Silver medals at the World Spirits Competition. Pull up a seat at its sequoia bar and try its silky-smooth cucumber gin made with Sunshine Coast cukes. Fridays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., bartenders run a sociable gin-and-tonic session, and on Saturdays from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., things get creative at its Cocktail Lab. Each week, a different food-truck visits, serving up anything from tacos to Filipino fusion. If the trucks aren't there, then head around the corner to Tartine (tartine.ca) to score one of their buttery pastry crust pies – the salt-caramel apple is especially good.
Discover the district
Leave touristy Gastown behind and walk 30 minutes along Powell Street, past the industrial port and old railway lines, to what's become B.C.'s craft brewery district: Where there's grit, there's grain, and you can visit almost a dozen different breweries in just a few blocks. Walk over the Powell Street overpass for Instagram views over the North Shore mountains and take a shot of the old Rogers Sugar building, one of Vancouver's most historic buildings that dates back to 1890. You'll also find one of the city's quirkiest distilleries here, Odd Society Spirits. Odd Society ( oddsocietyspirits.com) makes small-batch spirits using B.C. ingredients such as arbutus bark in its bittersweet vermouth and Abbotsford blackcurrants in the crème de cassis. You can sample a tasting flight or try a craft cocktail in the tasting lounge. Fortified by local flavours, you're just 10-minutes walk from Commercial Drive's independent stores where you can browse retro knick-knacks and furniture at Attic Treasures (attictreasuresvancouver.com) or flip through vinyl at the excellent Highlife Records (highlifeworld.com).
Mountain air, mountain spirits
Following the booze trail to North Vancouver will open up a whole new terrain via Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers ( deepcovecraft.com), and the ultraboutique Sons of Vancouver Distillery. The 212 bus from Waterfront station takes you across the bridge to Phibbs Exchange, just a 15-minute stroll to Deep Cove's modern tasting lounge surrounded by Douglas firs and stacked with barrels. There's even a yoga studio upstairs (how very Vancouver) and a 20,000-square-foot climbing centre next door.
"It's basically a mini-Whistler, but without the Australians," grins Matt Eberhardt, Deep Cove's operations manager. The base of Seymour Mountain is a 10-minute bus ride away with amazing hiking trails, he adds. Also nearby is Lynn Canyon Park with its a no-charge suspension bridge (unlike the more touristy Capilano) and a boat tour or rentals from Deep Cove Kayak will get you out along Indian Arm (a jaw-clangingly gorgeous glacial fjord).
So after you've hiked, biked, swum or skied, it's time to taste a flight of Deep Cove's 100-per-cent B.C., barley-based booze and brews. Its Claire vodka scored a double gold last year at the Great American Distillers Festival, and their Oliver gin is a savoury Mediterranean-style made with olives and local rosemary. The kitchen focuses on beer or spirit-spiked favourites such as the Smooth Criminal stout-infused pretzels, or meatballs with a vodka-tomato sauce.
Katie Huisman/Katie Huisman
Five minutes away is the small-batch Sons of Vancouver Distillery ( sonsofvancouver.ca), whose chili vodka – made with 75 per cent soft, white-spring wheat from Dawson Creek and 25 per cent malted barley from B.C.'s Peace region – has a cult following thanks to its "just under lawsuit" heat from a blend of local and Thai-dragon chilis. Sample the local blackberry honey-spiked amaretto while you play some vinyl in the tiny tasting lounge or – if you're ever near Elsay Lake atop Mount Seymour – you might discover a bottle tucked away in a rescue shelter. It's a six-hour round trip hike and SoV's co-owner James Lester likes to "stock up the bar" as a treat for iron-thighed visitors. "If you had a case of beer and a fishing rod, you could make a day of it," he says. "According to the Ranger's Book, people just take a sip and leave some for the next person. I love that!"