Other than water, vodka is perhaps the only popular consumable that achieves greater adulation as it becomes increasingly devoid of flavour.
It’s hard to imagine any other food or beverage item proudly owning this characteristic. The Cadbury Nothing Bar. Old Dutch No Flavour Chips. Neutrality is so rarely the aim of a product and yet the vodka market is rife with examples of spirits that have been distilled and filtered to a level where their only discernible qualities are wetness and a vague heat sensation when ingested.
James Lester and Richard Klaus, the young guns at the helm of the self-described “really, really small batch” craft spirit distillery, Sons of Vancouver, are not proponents of neutrality. In fact, my recent visit to their funky, convention-bucking space down on the industrial strip of Crown Street in North Vancouver revealed a commitment to the polar opposite of flavour neutrality.
The Sons of Vancouver produce small, high quality and eminently interesting batches of vodka, fiery Thai dragon chili-infused vodka, and, wait for it, amaretto. Yes, amaretto.
This latter has become something of a cult sensation for those in the know and is made with meticulous attention to detail, including the almost unheard-of practice of creating custom flavour extracts in-house that give the spirit its tremendous depth of flavour.
Lester and Klaus make an extract of bitter almonds (actually the core of the apricot pit, nothing to do with the nut) and then marry that with blackberry honey, orange oil, bourbon vanilla bean extract and their own vodka as the base spirit. The whole lot sits on fresh apricots for two to three weeks and then gets racked and bottled. The resulting amaretto, copper-hued and viscous, has a gentle, warm and exceedingly delicious ripe and round, nutty fruit character.
Lester and Klaus represent the kind of focused, entrepreneurial spirit out of which greatness is born.
The two had dabbled in small batch beer brewing for years before discovering the Washington distillery scene, in which they eventually apprenticed for a year, learning the distiller’s art while producing vodka, whiskey, and even moonshine, arguably the hallmark of independent enterprise. I caught up with the two of them one recent Sunday following their participation in Bridge Brewing’s 10-kilometre growler run.
Sore and spent, the distillery partners somehow summoned the energy to tell me their story and, in so doing, gave me two of the most memorable insights I have heard in recent memory.
The first came in the form of a comment from Klaus. When I asked why the team had chosen the North Shore for their operation, Klaus responded: “The North Shore is the new East Van; it’s Vancouver’s Brooklyn.” Vancouver’s Brooklyn? I have never heard anyone say this before, but I immediately knew what he meant.
The North Shore is a place that is situated close enough to the heart of Canada’s famed West Coast city to participate in its culture, but still operates at its own pace and with its own unique philosophy. Innovators, free thinkers and up-and-comers live and work here.
Consider that the distillery is neighbours with other trailblazing entrepreneurs, including Moja Coffee, Bridge Brewing, Artisan Bakery and Tour de Feast, just to name a few, and you can begin to apprehend the truth of this comment. As North Shore residents, we are part of a nascent movement, a culture-redefining shift rooted in rediscovered traditions and simple, reliable quality.
The second insight came from Lester as he speculated on the nature of craft production generally, using beer as an example. He described how collaboration and mutual respect among brewers gave birth to an entire culture of craft beer that has systematically chipped away at the stronghold of the macro brewers.
“And yet the back shelf at bars hasn’t changed in years,” he said. “It has the same products from the giant distillers that you see poured everywhere, time after time. How do you change that?”
The answer, according to Sons of Vancouver, is to produce carefully crafted, memorable products and to support other independent distillers who are doing the same, affecting a much broader shift in consumer taste as a craft spirit community than any single distiller could do on their own. Lester and Klaus may be on to something with this perspective, if public response is any indication.
The partners, having set up the necessary infrastructure for their operation, turned to the Indiegogo crowdfunding application to source additional investment for their tasting room. They achieved their funding goal in less than one month, with $10,740 raised for a comfortable and inviting public tasting room, a functional bathroom, barware and distillery branded wearables.
The distillery will eventually try its hand at small batch, unique character whiskies, an undertaking that takes several years principally due to the barrel aging process involved.
In the meantime, I’d highly recommend giving one of their existing spirits a go. Their vodka, the backbone of the operation, is made with a mash of 75 per cent wheat and 25 per cent barley, and employs Champagne yeast as the fermentation agent.
The resulting vodka has an unusual but appealingly aromatic nose and vaguely citrusy, mineral-rich palate. The chili vodka, with its eye-catching, phosphorescent orange colour, is a conversation starter that presents a walloping dose of fiery heat and serves as a mean foundation for a Caesar.
Sons of Vancouver, 1431 Crown St., North Vancouver. sonsofvancouver.ca
Chris Dagenais served as a manager for several restaurants downtown and on the North Shore. A self-described wine fanatic, he earned his sommelier diploma in 2001. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.