Sometimes, wine just isn’t enough. That was the case with Peter Hunt, a man with a Master’s in Molecular Biology who previously mapped genomes at the B.C. Cancer Agency before fermenting grapes for Barking Dog Vineyard. He distilled wine into brandy, and eventually cut wine out of the equation altogether, launching Victoria Spirits in a former farmhouse four years ago. Brother in law Phil Lecours married into the family last year and joined the fray. Now they produce gin, aged gin, Left Coast Hemp Vodka and Twisted & Bitter Orange Bitters, made with “hearts” from the gin. Hunt produces Victoria spirits in an eco-friendly fashion, with “heads” contributing to biodiesel, spring water sourced from the property and locally compressed sawdust bricks that burn in the copper pot still, a Muller-Brennereianlagen made in Oberkirch-Tiergarten, Germany. We met at Victoria Spirits on May 29, where Hunt further explained his background and approach.
You had been running a winery?
We used to be a winery, about four years ago, and made several wines. Then we bought the still and were interested in doing all sorts of spirits. We started by distilling some of our wines and started producing some of our gin. The gin was going very well. That’s actually when I started distilling. I started working on the gin. Then we decided for several reasons to move away from wine. Growing season on Vancouver Island here is not always spectacular. We were bringing in grapes from the Okanagan, which is our big grape producing region in B.C. Those grapes are quite expensive, although they are high quality. Our gin was taking off and we thought, well, let’s keep going with that because people are loving it. There’s nobody else doing significant artisan distilling in Victoria. There are a few other small distilleries around B.C., but they’re mostly doing fruit brandies. So there’s nobody else doing gin. So we decided to run with that, and a year and a half ago, we developed a couple other products.
How long do you oak age the gin for?
We blend from different ages. All of them are under a year because we do the aging in small 46-liter new American oak barrels, so it picks up quite a lot of flavor, and quite a lot of color, quite quickly. It’s a fairly small production that we do, but that’s our gin for whiskey drinkers, because not many people are doing it, and not many people are distributing it. But it is quite a unique product, particularly for mixologists and someone who likes something with a bit of a twist, because it does have those gin characteristics, with the juniper and the floral and the citrus, but then there are layers of caramel and vanilla from the new oak.
Why did you decide on hemp vodka?
Partly a little terroir. There is hemp grown in B.C. and we thought that nobody was making hemp vodka around here either, so we thought give that a try. So we have just sort of been experimenting with other little products like that, and the hemp vodka actually came out really nicely. We started distributing that now too. Again, it started as a small production run, but that is something that people have taken to quite readily. It’s nice. It’s got a smooth, buttery texture, and a bit of a nutty flavor, almost a hazelnut character to it.
And that’s from the hemp seeds and hearts?
Yeah. The hemp seed, the hemp hearts, have lots of nice oils in them, and those come through quite readily in the distillation. It gives that nice round texture.
Any other spirits in the works?
We are working on a whisky, which is essentially a single malt. That’s going to be some time until we release that, maybe a couple years, anyway. That will probably just be available through our tasting room. I don’t know that we’re going to distribute that very widely. Making whisky in our facility is really a labor of love, because we have such a small still. It’s only a 217-liter pot still, so we make our whiskey in collaboration with Phillips Brewing in Victoria. They’re fantastic at making beers. We bring the wash over from them, and then double distill it in our pot still here. So it takes several distillations to get through the wash, because it is such a small pot still, but because it is such a high quality still, it does produce some very nice spirit. We’ve got some of that in barrel now, and we’re going to be doing some more of that. We actually did a tasting of that at the Victoria Whisky Fest the last two years, which generally happens in November. It was really well received. We’ve got a fantastic starting material. Now we just need to age it for a little bit.
How did you decide on which botanicals you’d use in the gin?