Spirits of the Okanagan: Distilleries take off in Canada's orchard country

Michele Montgomery makes a lavender lemonade at Legend Distilling's tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake

At Legend Distilling's tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake, bartender Michele Montgomery fills a mason jar with lavender lemonade, a warm-weather refresher made with gin infused with locally-grown lavender, elderberries, mint and apples.

There's "Slowpoke" vodka made with cherries from the orchard down the road, and "Blasted Brew," a cold-brewed spiked coffee liqueur crafted with a roast from neighboring Backyard Beans.

Visitors driving through British Columbia's Thompson Okanagan - a dry, desert region, surrounded by mountains and lakes - mostly notice vineyards spilling down terraced hillsides. The area is best known for its more than 170 wineries, producing grapes that thrive in the sunny climate.

But before the vineyards came orchards, and it's still tree fruit- cherries, apples, pears, peaches, apricots - that drives the local agricultural economy. 

Enter a wave of small-town, farm-to-flask craft distilleries specializing, by law, in spirits fermented and distilled on site, using only 100 percent British Columbian-grown grains and fruit, much of which might otherwise go to waste.

 "When it drops to the ground, it stays there," says German-born Jorg Engel, owner of Maple Leaf Spirits, a Penticton distillery with a tasting room overlooking Okanagan Lake on the Naramata Wine Route. A cabinet maker from Southern Germany, he formed the distillery in 2005, after noticing how much fruit wasn't being used because it either fell to the ground before it was picked, or was too bruised, misshapen or overripe for the export market.

Maple Leaf liqueurs
 "In my part of the world, when apples drop to the ground, they end up being distilled or sent to a juice factory. To see them wasted, well, it just hurt."

The distilleries, many with tasting rooms doubling as cozy cocktail lounges, offer an alternative to wine-tasting, but finding them can fell like going on a scavenger hunt. Some are off-the-beaten-path, a throwback to when laws restricted their locations and direct sales.
During four days in the area, my husband and I put together a self-guided tour that took us to the towns of Vernon, a lake area in the North Okanagan; Kelowna, the region's tourist hub, known internationally for its fruit and produce; and Penticton and Naramata in the South, home to many of the wineries.

"People are still a bit uneasy about drinking straight vodka or gin (the reason most of tasting rooms offer cocktails), so we're not getting the huge parking lots filled with tour buses," says Graham Martens, owner of Old Order Distilling Co in downtown Penticton.

Most distilleries offer short tours as well as tastings either free or for a small charge, waived with a purchase. Best advice: Take it slow, and plan your visits around another activity such as a bike ride, lake walk, or visit to a farm or cider. 

Here's a sampling of what you'll find:

Urban Distilleries, Kelowna

Where: Tucked inside a red and black building in an industrial park near downtown Kelowna. Look for the red neon "Open'' sign on the tasting room door in Unit 5.
Why visit: Inspired by a visit to a Cognac distillery in France, owner Mike Urban obtained his craft distillers license in 2009, when liquor laws required distilleries to locate in industrial zones.   Moving now would be too expensive, but he's created a welcoming lounge inside a tasting room stacked with colorful bottles from his "Spirit Bear'' line and oak barrels filled with aging "Burban" whiskey.

Mike Urban of Urban Distilleries in Kelowna

What to try or buy: Spirit Bear gin, made with grains, flowers, roots, fruits, and seeds from local farms, and infused with lavender and apples; Vodka blended with espresso supplied by Kelowna's Cherry Hill Coffee;  Kirsch brandy made from Okanagan Cherries, and fermented with the pits for a slight bitter-almond taste. Urban gets most of his cherries free from an orchard that culls out all but the most perfect fruit for export to China.  

Next up: A whiskey liqueur and honey mead wine. Urban is also experimenting with a chili vodka.
Urban Distilleries, 325 Bay Ave., Kelowna.  Proceeds from tastings go to the Save a Spirit Bear Foundation helping to preserve a rare sub-species of bear living in British Columbia.

Suggested side trip: Take a bike ride along the Myra Canyon Trail that follows a section of the former Kettle Valley Railway (KVR). The ride takes bikers over 18 trestles and through two tunnels, with high-up views of  the 84-mile-long Okanagan Lake. Bike rentals at www.myracanyonrental.com

Okanagan Spirits, Kelowna and Vernon 

Where: Relax with a cocktail on the barrel room patio at the downtown Kelowna tasting room, or visit the new Vernon distillery that transports visitors back to prohibition times with a 1932 Plymouth parked in front of gleaming, 2,000-liter copper pot still.

Okanagan Spirits' Prohibition-era tasting room 

Why visit: Owner Tony Dyck or another family member are often around to explain the distilling process to visitors. Dyck joined a group of investors working with Frank Deiter, a German distiller from Vernon, generally credited with pioneering small-batch distilling in Western Canada in the early 2000s. Dyck, his son, Tyler, and other family members bought Okanagan Spirits in 2010, and grew the company to include a line of 25 products including gins, vodkas, whiskies, fruit brandies, liqueurs and absinthe.

Okanagan Spirit's Kelowna tasting room 

What to try/buy: Unique is its Haskap liqueur made from the kidney-shaped haskap berry, a cross between a raspberry, blueberry and blackcurrant, with high levels of Vitamin A and C, grown for Okanagan Spirits by two local farms. When a local woman walked in one day with a bucket of orange sea buckthorn berries, often used in skin and hair care products, Okanagan's distiller went to work and came up with an anti-oxident-packed Sea Buckthorn liqueur that pairs well with cheese or spicy ginger beer. 

Next up: The October release (around 2,000 bottles) of its Laird of Fintry single-malt whiskey, made from B.C. malted barley, and sold for $75 a bottle through an annual lottery.
Okanagan Spirits, 367 24th St., Vernon and 267 Bernard Ave., Vernon. 

Suggested side trip: Downtown Vernon has one of the largest collections of outdoor art in Canada. Vernon Murals, features 27 murals as large as five stories high and a block long that depict the city's history, culture and folklore. 

Old Order Distilling Co., Penticton

Where: Graham Martens' copper still sits behind a pane of explosion-proof glass behind his tasting room in downtown Penticton. Old photos of fruit-pickers line the walls. Ceiling fans spin above wooden tables and church pews, a reminder of his  Southern Russian ancestors, the Old Order Mennonites, known for traditional ways of living, including making their own beer and spirits.

A tasting at Old Order Distilling in Penticton
Why visit: Looking for for ways to diversify his family's cherry and apple orchards business, Martens, a fisheries biologist, and his wife, Naomi Gabriel, opened their distillery last year. The cozy  lounge makes for a refreshing stop on a hot day for cocktails such as the Okanagan Collins, made with Old Order's Heritage Vodka, Martens' homemade peach liqueur, lime juice and club soda.

What to try/buy: Martens is concentrating these days on making triple-distilled vodka and a lavender-free Dutch-style gin, infused with dried apples from the family farm. His newest product is Black Goat Vodka, a spirit with the same taste as regular vodka but black in color due to an infusion of plant-sourced minerals. When in stock (It was recently sold out), Martens suggests using it to mix a black Martini or "dark" Moscow Mule.

Next up: Genesis Whiskey, ready in 2018, following the rule that Canadian whiskey has to be aged at least three years and one day.
Old Order Distilling Co., 270 Martin St, Penticton 

Suggested side trip: Explore the galleries and cafes along Front Street, or explore Main Street, lined with historic buildings, shops and restaurants. Or take a drive south to Shaka Lake and the towns of Oliver and Osoyoos.

Maple Leaf Spirits, Penticton

Where: Perched on hill above Okanagan Lake and the terraced vineyards of the Naramata Wine Route.

Why visit: While parents do a tasting, kids can entertain themselves with the mini-zoo Jorg and Anette Engel maintain on their property. Greeting visitors are Senegal parrots, a Polish rooster, pheasants and chickens.   

Jörg Engel and his Polish rooster

What to try/buy: Engel uses apricots from a neighbor's orchard, locally-grown pears and Italian plums, and grapes from his own vineyards to produce a line of clear fruit brandies and liqueurs. Unique are his grape spirits  - a Gewürztraminer  and Syrah - similar to Italian Grappa, made from the skins and pits of grapes. His signature product is a Maple liqueur made from Kirsch and organic Canadian maple syrup, recommended in "Canadian" coffee or poured over creme brûlée.

Next up: Cognac, raspberry liqueur and a port wine. 
Maple Leaf Spirits, 948 Naramata Road, Penticton. 

Legend Distilling, Naramata 

Where:  Eight miles north of Maple Leaf Spirits, on the Naramatra Wine Route. Similar spectacular mountain,lake and vineyard views. 

Why visit: Legend is the only distillery to have a restaurant on site. Pull up a stool at the bar in the Legend Lounge for a tasting, or relax at one of the outdoor picnic tables over a Dirty Bee, made with Defender Island Smoked Rosemary gin, honey and lemon, served in a mason jar. When Doug and Dawn Lennie went shopping for a copper still, they found there was a two-year wait for German-made equipment, so they ordered a still made by a Canadian manufacturer. It sits in the glassed-in front of the former doctor's office they transformed into a distillery and tasting room

Mason jar cocktails at Legend Distilling

What to try/buy: Blasted Brew Spiked Coffee with hints of dark chocolate and vanilla; the Slowpoke strawberry-rhubarb, sour cherry and "farmberry'' vodkas; and the Doctor's Orders gin, if not for the gin, then for the inscription on the heavy, black bottle. "British Columbians did prohibition better than anyone else," says a story on the back. "No, you couldn’t buy alcohol, but if you were feeling under the weather your physician could prescribe you a cocktail."

Next up:  A new European-style liqueur and a whiskey to be released "whenever it tastes good,'' says Doug Lennie. 
Legend Distilling, 3005 Naramata Road, Naramata.  

Suggested side trip: If returning to or heading towards Kelowna, stop at Summerland Sweets, specializing in jams, syrups and wines made with Okanagan fruit. Locals recommend the ice cream. 

If you go:

Getting there: The Thompson Okanagan (Okanagan Valley) region is in southern British Columbia. The name comes from two major geographic features, the Thompson River and Okanagan Lake. 

Kelowna is about 300 miles from Seattle via Interstate 5 north, the Trans-Canada Highway and BC-97C. An alternate route (350 miles) is through Eastern Washington via I-5 North to WA-20 E, US-97 N. and the Okanagan Hwy/BC-97 N. Count on a 5-7 hour drive. 

Where to stay: Hello BC lists hotels, resorts, bed and breakfasts and other accommodations. We rented a two-bedroom suite with a kitchen in a private home in Kelowna through Airbnb for $104 (US) per night. 

Where to eat: The Smugglers Smoke House at Legend Distilling serves snacks, lunch and dinner. Many wineries have restaurants attached to their tasting rooms, some with outdoor patios and lake views. Locals recommend the Pecking Room Patio Grill at the Red Rooster Winery and the Kitchen at the Misconduct Wine Co.

Customs: Bringing alcohol into the U.S. Travelers can bring back one liter of alcohol per person duty-free, more if you declare it and pay the duty. Prices at craft distilleries range from $25- $50 or more (Canadian), plus taxes, depending on the spirit and size of the bottle. 

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