Established in 2011, Shelter Point Distillery is spearheading a new wave of Canadian distilleries breaking the 200-year mould of traditional Canadian whisky by embracing the even older tradition of Scotch malt whisky. Established by thirsty and industrious Scottish settlers more than two centuries ago, today Canada is the world’s third largest whisky producer. The first Canadian whisky was released in the late 1700s (around the time that Scotch whisky distilling was beginning to gain serious momentum), and by the 1840s there were over 200 distilleries in Canada servicing a very willing and thirsty market both locally and across the border in the US. This was further bolstered in the 1930s when Canada became the biggest supplier of liquor to the US during prohibition, so much so that the Detroit River that separates the two countries became known as ‘the river of booze’.
Borrowing from their Scottish heritage, Canadian whisky is defined as a grain spirit that’s been aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of three years, but there’re a few quirks that make it quite different to what we’d normally drink. Firstly, while the bedrock of Scotch and our Whisky of the Month is malt, the Canadians normally opt for rye, so much so that Canadian whisky is commonly referred to as “rye”, even though there’s actually no legal requirement for a minimum rye component and many Canadian “ryes” contain no rye at all. Be sure to remember this useful fact for your next quiz night as it’s a perennial favourite! Secondly, just like Scotch, Canadian whisky is generally a blend of neutral grain whisky (in their case mainly corn but also barley or rye) and a second whisky, called a ‘flavouring”, but while the Scots typically add malt, the Canadians add rye.
So, sufficiently educated on traditional Canadian whisky and armed for your next whisky quiz night, it’s time to meet the man leading the exciting new wave of Canadian distillers who’ve seen the light and are making the good stuff; single malt of course.
Enter Patrick Evans: distiller, dreamer, visionary, tractor-driver, and much to his relief, ex dairy-farmer. While his father and brothers operate a nearby dairy farm, Patrick took the wise decision to leave behind the unforgiving life of a dairyman, opting instead for the rather more rewarding life of a barley farmer and distiller, and very sensibly, that of a single malt distiller specifically. Patrick and his wife Kimm hold a strong connection to the land, having purchased the farm in 2005 from the University of British Columbia who’d been using it as a dairy research farm. It had been bequeathed to the University by a New York stockbroker, Barrett Montfort. Patrick’s family were BC pioneers, and his grandfather owned a 160-acre portion of the farm before selling it to Montfort in 1950.
Patrick bought the farm with the intention of nurturing single-malt whisky rather than dairy cows, and through thick and thin, he and his wife Kimm have seen the dream through, always sticking to their philosophy to produce a high quality, artisanal, field-to-flask single malt whisky in harmony with nature.
“As humans, we cannot help but have an impact on the areas we reside in. However, by understanding why we did something in the past, critiquing how we do things today —and allowing ourselves to be wrong – we can certainly change tomorrow for the better.” Shelter Point is farmed in a manner that pays respect to the environment, utilising practices such as no till farming, winter cover cropping, organic matter versus chemical fertilisers, and providing feeding grounds for migrating waterfowl and residential wildlife.
Located on picturesque Vancouver Island, off the West Coast of Canada, the distillery sits on 380 acres of spectacular oceanfront, a natural mosaic of streams, a salmon-bearing river, wetlands, forests and fields – all shared with native wildlife, from bald eagles and great blue herons, to blacktailed deer and black bears. It’s a match made in whisky heaven.”
The concept for the distillery has always been quality over quantity, coexisting with nature and sourcing locally. This field-to-flask and local-first philosophy extends beyond just building materials. In fact, Shelter Point is one of only a handful of distilleries that grow their own barley and distil on the same site. Virtually the only things that aren’t local are the oak barrels, which were sourced from Kentucky bourbon distillers, and the copper pot stills which came from Scotland. Even the water is sourced on-site – the distillery sits on an incredible aquifer, with wells up to 70 feet deep producing 500 gallons per minute. The water is soft with minimal mineral content and isn’t treated for the boiler or distilling.
As far as Shelter Point’s methodology goes, well, when you wait five years for a whisky to mature, you can’t help but learn to be patient. As a result, nothing is particularly hurried there. They took their time to get the distillery right, and they’ve done the same with everything else.
To ensure a premium quality spirit, Patrick and James went direct to the original source to acquire their copper pot stills – Forsyths of Rothes, the recognized experts who supply many of the major distilleries in Scotland. The equipment travelled on a long ocean voyage, through the Panama Canal, before being offloaded by US Customs, where it was subjected to a thorough inspection. After a delay of over a month, the pot stills were released and arrived at their new home on Vancouver Island. It took over 200 hours of cleaning to bring them back to life after the journey.
And then there were the barrels. Patrick says:
“I would like to say we only have brilliant single malt, but the truth is when we started we ordered some casks from Stateside, and being a new distillery I was not definitive on what I wanted. They asked where we were from. I said ‘Canada, on the west coast/British Columbia, on an island’. ‘Boy we have some casks for you’ was the response. After an 8000km journey from Kentucky, our first casks arrived and 50% were usable… after 8 months many had to be re-vatted, as they just were not working. This was a great learning experience in how critical the wood is! From this point, I flew to Kentucky and met with the warehousemen and had very good communication, dialogue, and discussion … and we both came to an agreement that only select casks would come to Shelter Point, and we are absolutely fine with paying a premium. I can say now we are on our game for maturation of our spirits.”
To ensure their first few releases met their high standards, Patrick and James enlisted the help of none other than the great Jim Murray himself, who’s spent a very long time in their cask warehouse providing guidance on barrel selection.
Aging takes place within a few hundred yards of the ocean, imparting unique flavour influences on the whisky. The whole production process is fascinating to Canadian and international visitors and the distillery has been specially constructed so guests can get an up-close view of the process and the final product on tour. We’re dying to go and are planning our own visit there very soon!