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Andy Prest: Interesting things shaking in North Van distillery scene

Vancouver Cocktail Week provides an introduction to the North Shore's spirit world

Vancouver Cocktail Week was held recently, and it was pretty fun. At least, from what I can remember.

The craft cocktail scene around Vancouver, and here on the North Shore, is doing well these days, and cocktail week gave me the opportunity to learn a few things about the industry and meet some of the local folks who are turning their passions into delicious little beverages.

A couple of interesting paradoxes emerged as I worked my way through a couple of events. One is that the act of throwing a cocktail event with a steady supply of beverages is a bit like having an ice sculpture in the middle of the desert. At first it’s a delightful curiosity, and you’re going to take your time savouring it and all the nuances that went into its creation. But as time goes by it becomes a little slippery and you’re less interested in the art and more interested in getting liquids into you before time is up. And if you make it all the way to the end, you might not remember how things looked at the start, but somehow you may end up licking drops off a soggy table.

Or maybe that’s just me.

But it does seem like the more you enjoy a fancy cocktail event and the longer you stay, the less you might remember of it the next day. It’s a self-erasing party! 

The other interesting part of the scene is that there are a lot of cool, hip innovators involved in trying to provide people with a really fancy and fun good time in an industry that boils down to a lot of nerdy chemistry.

At the stops I made at a couple of local distilleries, there were people very excited about explaining in great detail the nuances of their juniper berry ratios, telling you about the boiling point on top of Mount Everest (legitimately mentioned in two separate establishments), and getting you to smell the powerfully horrific sludge that they turn into liquid brilliance. They’re going to say “impurities” about 17 times, show you the most expensive part of their chemistry set, and then hand you all kinds of fun things to drink. It’s actually a pretty good party plan.

The first North Shore spot I hit up was Copperpenny Distilling Co., a gin joint offering a change of pace in the City of North Vancouver’s Brewery District.

If you walk into Copperpenny and get the feeling that you’ve mistakenly stumbled onto a movie set, you wouldn’t be too far off. The husband and wife team of Jan Stenc and Jennifer Kong-Tom both came to the distilling business from the film industry, specializing in set decoration. They want you to feel like you’ve entered some place special and unique, and it’s safe to say you won’t find many cooler spots for a drink on the North Shore. And the drinks on offer only bolster the appeal of the place. 

A few days later I was at an event at The Woods Spirit Co. as the North Vancouver distillery held a celebration to introduce new owner Celia Chiang. Distiller Andy Davidson has stayed on, and Woods is still making a unique mix of liqueurs fronted by Italian-inspired classics such as Nocino, Amaro and Limoncello. The bittersweet ingredients can combine to make some very sophisticated offerings.

In between those stops was the Garden Gala hosted by Vancouver Cocktail Week, an event dreamed up by the folks who run The Alchemist, Canada’s only magazine solely devoted to the world of micro-distillers and craft cocktails. The Gala crammed dozens of craft distillers in a ballroom of the Sutton Place Hotel in a powerful blast of sights, smells and sounds. The tasting bit was a lot of fun too. For an amateur such as myself, it was near impossible to pick out the best beverages from the many mixes available, but I gave it my best shot.

My week didn’t include a trip to Sons of Vancouver, the North Shore’s most-established distillery, but they’ve already built up quite a reputation. Recently they’ve been making headlines with their award-winning whiskies, offerings they’ve added to their original attention-grabbing Amaretto and Vodka creations.

And if you are a whisky fan – note that if it’s Canadian or Scottish it’s whisky, not whiskey – you’ll certainly be interested to know that all three of those North Vancouver distilleries have whisky programs running, in various stages. The liquid has to sit in a barrel for at least three years before you can call it whisky, and the clock is now ticking on some North Shore concoctions that will soon join those already on offer at Sons of Vancouver.

Looking for an unforgettable North Shore experience? These might be the places to start – as long as you remember to stop.

Andy Prest is the editor of the North Shore News. His humour/lifestyle column runs biweekly.