Whisky is inextricably linked to the British Isles, but whether it originated in Scotland or Ireland is a matter of some debate (there just isn’t room to discuss that here!). On Vancouver Island, however, there’s been a huge Scottish influence, and as such, some local whisky distilleries are focused on Scotch (though not exclusively), and for the purposes of this article, so am I.
The Scots weren’t the first to create distilled liquor, but I wouldn’t dare suggest that they didn’t help perfect it! We probably have travelling monks to thank for introducing the distilling process to the British Isles hundreds of years ago, and we owe them a big thanks. Grain was abundant in Britain, and in the true Scottish spirit of invention and innovation, Scotch was born.
Whisky is no ordinary spirit. The English word “whisky” comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha,” which is pronounced roughly, “oosh-keh-beh-ha.” Say it a few times… can you hear it? If you are saying it correctly, it sounds a lot like whisky and it means “water of life.” The Scots were on to something here.
Whisky is one of the world’s most popular spirits. It comes in many different types and classes and its character and flavour varies widely depending on everything from how the barley is dried over the peat fire, to barrel composition and size, which all make a difference to the tasting notes of the final product.
Home away from home
When the British first came to Vancouver Island, they took one look at the countryside and promptly described it in missives home as resembling Scotland, but having the climate of southern England. It’s a fair description especially imagined as seen from the deck of a rolling tall ship! Among the many who came to this part of the world with the early waves of European immigration were, inevitably, Scots. With them, came Scotch.
Those early Scots left their mark on the Island — many places bear Scottish names and to this day, many of the things that are part of our blended West Coast culture have been influenced by the Scots. These resilient and hardy folks set up homesteads, built castles (Craigdarroch and Hatley Castles in Victoria), and established a Highland Games and Celtic Festival in Victoria which is celebrating its 158th year, bringing a little bit of the “old country” to their adopted home.
While you many not agree with Raymond Chandler’s broad assertion that “there is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others,” there’s no better time to try some great Scotch whisky!
(Here we also point out that “whisky” without an “e” is used in Scotland and Canada, while “whiskey” with an “e” is commonly used in Ireland and the US.)
Vancouver Island has lots of great distilleries, and for our purposes, this article only highlights Scotch producers. (gin, vodka and rye to be covered later!) I know, I know, it’s a tough job…
Buckle your kilt and grab your claymore for a tasty tour of the Island’s best Scotch whisky distilleries. Slàinte Mhath! (Slanj-a-va).
- De Vine Distillery and Winery – Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island on Old West Saanich Road, this award-wining distillery offers an array of products ranging from whisky to wine. Their Ancient Grains Quarter Cask Alternative Whisky and Glen Saanich Single Malt Whisky are made with local grains, fruit and honey and are distilled on site using traditional methods. No corners are cut in this process and it shows in the finished product. The newsworthy Glen Saanich Single Malt sold out in two days last year, and batch No. 6 is set for release in October! While they do not offer tastings and tours, if you love whisky, it’s worth arranging a curb-side pick up to take a bottle home!
- Macaloney’s Caledonian Distillery & Twa Dogs Brewery – The Caledonian Distillery was founded by ex-pat Graeme Macaloney. As a boy, Macaloney had yen to create the finest single malt whisky in North America, and to that end, he’s assembled the industry’s best Scottish distillers, great Canadian ingredients and carefully selected American and European oak for the barrels. The results are astounding. Ten unique, hand-crafted whiskies are available, many of them award-winning on the world stage. Tours are available that walk you through the process from start to finish. Along the way, you can touch, smell, and taste your way through their wide selection of craft beers and whiskies. There’s also an onsite bar and tasting room lounge.
North to Nanaimo:
- Arbutus Distillery – Located in Nanaimo, the Arbutus Distillery has a wide range of small-batch spirits. Their award-winning whisky is brewed and distilled on site using 100 per cent BC-grown malted barley. They also offer a tasting room and cocktail lounge with a food menu.
Further north again to Campbell River:
- Shelter Point Distillery – The land at Shelter Point has been farmed for generations and remains one of the last seaside farms on the Island. One of a few distilleries that grows their own barley on site, owner Patrick Evans has farming in the blood and a strong belief in preserving the land for the future. Prioritizing quality over quantity, aging the whisky takes place within a few hundred yards of the ocean, giving it a unique flavour. They offer 10 different whiskies, each unique and hand-crafted along with a variety of other spirits, all made with the same care and attention to detail. Located between the Comox Valley and Campbell River, stop by for a drop-in tasting and tour in a distillery designed around the idea of showcasing the process.
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