Liquid treasure five years in the making is finally ready to be poured just in time to add a festive spirit to the season.
The Tofino Distillery celebrated it first batch of West Coast Whiskey with 270 bottles, which sold out immediately.
“We wanted to be pretty stoked with the whiskey we were going to release and sometimes whiskey needs time to mature in a barrel,” the distillery’s co-founder John Gilmour told the Westerly News. “It’s a world that is full of tradition and we wanted to enter that on a very positive note, which we’re pretty sure we’re doing.”
The distillery was founded by Gilmour and Adam Warry in 2018 and the whiskey went into barrels on Oct. 30 of that year.
A release party is being held on Friday, Dec. 1, at the distillery—681 Industrial Way—as part of Tofino’s Jingle Into Christmas festivities.
“On Friday, we’re going to have everybody in the distillery come by to pick up the bottles that they’ve preordered and have egg nog cocktails and they can sample the whiskey, check it all out and we can gauge the response locally,” Gilmour said.
He added all 270 bottles were purchased by individuals with none left to be distributed to stores.
“We kind of wanted to let everybody locally have the opportunity on that one and they jumped all over it,” he said. “We’re pretty excited. We were essentially able to sell this entire barrel without anybody trying it yet, so that was pretty awesome.”
He added he was surprised by the rapid response, but added it reflects the stellar reputation the distillery has crafted over its first five years.
“The fanbase that we have, I think, has confidence that we’re not going to put out something that we’re not happy with and that for sure goes a long way,” he said. “We’re pretty excited about what we’ve released.”
The distillery has been serving a variety of certified organic craft spirits throughout the province, including vodka, gin, limoncello and absinthe while waiting for the whiskey to mature to perfection.
“We were fortunate on that side that we’ve had amazing support from the community with vodka and gin to be able to keep afloat and now we’re ready to make the next big step for us,” Gilmour said.
He added the distillery has received “tons of support” from local restaurants and both the Ucluelet Liquor Store and Tofino’s Maquinna Liquor Store.
“Across Island, we’ve got great partnerships with chains and independently owned stores,” he said adding the distillery’s craft spirits are not available at government liquor stores yet, so the business relies largely on support from independent operators.
“We’ve also got great partnerships with awesome bars all over the place that want the next different thing that’s not the generic liquor that you get at your BC Liquor Store.”
Gilmour has lived in Tofino for about 20 years and was initially focussed on the fishing industry, including launching Trilogy Fish Company, and said he and Warry began working on a distillery plan around 2016.
He said he had experience with home-brewing and took the next step into distilling.
“It started as a hobby that turned into a business idea,” he said. “After a two year development phase, we were moving into our space and getting it going.”
Both Warry and Gilmour were serving on the Tofino Volunteer Fire Department at the time, with Gilmour serving as the department’s chief around 2016.
Gilmour said it was exciting to be launching a new business and that it was the right time for him to move on from his career in the fishing industry.
“Trilogy was awesome. It was a great business, but it was a very hard business in the sense that everything is full on or off. The fishing world is pretty intense and it’s for sure a younger man’s business. I was 15 years in the fishing world at that point and was looking for a change,” he said. “The timing was all working out to get a new business idea going and that’s when this started. It was a lot of excitement and not necessarily a scary step having run my previous business for a long time and knowing everybody that I needed to know to figure out all the steps and I had a big enough network. The second time was way easier to get something off the ground than the first time.”
With the first 270 bottles of West Coast Whiskey sold, another release of roughly 300 bottles is expected in the coming weeks.
Gilmour said one of the batches spent four years in a new oak barrel before being transferred into an oloroso sherry barrel to finish aging, while others spent their full term in oak barrels.
He said some barrels will be kept contained to eventually be released as a 10-20 year-old whiskey with small batches being released over the next few years before wide distribution is possible.
He noted that each barrel will produce subtle differences and that QR codes on each bottle will help buyers see exactly where their whiskey came from, taking them to the distillery’s website and information around when the whiskey was barrelled, what it was barrelled in and where the ingredients came from.
The next bottles of West Coast Whiskey are expected to arrive in about three weeks and the distillery will be selective about where those next bottles go, with an eye on keeping the distillery’s tasting room stocked as well as supportive stores in Tofino, Ucluelet, Victoria, Comox, Port Alberni and Nanaimo.
“We’ll fill the key places that have really been with us and then restaurants that this fits with,” he said. “We’ll make sure that all the places that have been supportive have the first chance and then we’ll see where we can get it to after that.”
He added early reception of the whiskey has been solid with recent tastings at Craft BC Whiskey Weekend and the Hopscotch Festival from Nov. 24-25.
“That was pretty amazing to have the response that we’ve had,” Gilmour said. “The feedback from the event organizers was very positive…I was very happy to have that news and we just hope to keep doing good work and hopefully the product speaks for itself.”
He said the craft spirit community is growing and the Tofino Distillery benefits from its tourist-friendly hometown as well as consumers who are conscious about organic ingredients.
“There is for sure a big craft spirit community and that’s growing everyday the same as in the craft beer world. People want options. We’re fortunate that we’re in a community where we see a lot of people, just being a tourist area, that would not necessarily have tried our product but can go home and find it on liquor store shelves, so that’s pretty awesome and something that’s a little bit different,” he said.
“One of the big things that sets us apart is that there are very few certified organic distilleries out there and to some people that matters a lot and it’s very important to us….The people that that matters to, it matters a lot so that is an option for them that is not available in B.C. and we fill that gap.”
He said there are only a handful of certified organic distilleries and he is passionate about supporting traditional farming practices that don’t use herbicides, pesticides, genetically modified ingredients or other processing aids which he believes are more widely used than people realize.
“We have more control over those aspects and we’re audited back to ensure that we do what we say we’re doing,” he said. “For me, I believe in traditional farming practices and that the use of these forever chemicals that are used in a lot of farming operations today should not be used. I think we’re doing a disservice by not understanding the long-term ramifications of this industrial farming. Diverse agriculture in B.C. starts with small operators that fill that niche, which shouldn’t be a niche, of traditional farming which doesn’t use those sort of things. It definitely takes more work and it also means that, yes, there’s a little bit more added costs to those crops, but it’s well worth it in the longterm.”
He added that while he would like to see more distilleries joining the organic route, he can only focus on his own distillery’s practices.
“It would be great if they were. That’s out of our control. We’re going to do what we think is right and other people are going to do what they think is right,” he said. “The way we look at it is, the more and more years that go by and the more and more grain we can purchase that supports the farmers and allows them to grow their operations and have that organic environment continue, so we’ll just stick to doing what we’re doing and not get distracted by what everybody else is doing.”
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