Behind the Craft Spirits at Sons of Vancouver Distillery

By Kathy Mak

The local craft spirit movement has been gaining momentum for the past five years in Greater Vancouver thanks to a burgeoning breed of small-format distilleries that produce atypical products for a thriving cocktail community.  Nowhere is that truer than at the Sons of Vancouver Distillery, based on Vancouver’s North Shore. This self-proclaimed really, really small batch distillery has won over fans and followers with their grassroots energy and well-crafted roster of artisan products – a vodka, a chili-infused vodka and an amaretto liqueur.

The dynamic duo behind Sons of Vancouver are James Lester and Richard Klaus who met during trade school. They are part of a breed of new artisan distillers shaping the craft cocktail landscape in British Columbia.  These two enterprising friends and business partners are not ones to chase conventional dreams.  When they started their adventure as one of a few local early-adopters in craft distilling, they had a clear vision to make exceptional but unique small-batch spirits that would inspire more creative cocktail enjoyment.

Sons of Vancouver’s mission is also to create spirits that enhance the character of a drink, not to just act as a base ingredient.  Unlike the neutral taste of mainstream vodka, the Sons of Vancouver’s craft versions – Vodka Vodka Vodka and Chili Vodka –  have unique flavour profiles that add an interesting touch to popular libations like a dry martini, a spicy Caesar or a Moscow Mule. And, their liqueur – No. 82 Amaretto – has the distinction of being the only craft amaretto made in North America. The Sons of Vancouver’s Amaretto has become so popular it now represents half of the distillery’s total production.

Back when Lester and Klaus agreed to start a distillery from scratch, neither of them had any small business or distilling experience; but, they both had home beer brewing and bartending skills along with a background in process control and instrumentation. Feeling confident that a distillery would lead to more opportunities than a brewery, the lads made the leap into a distilling industry that was still very much in its infancy. At that time, there were only 8 craft distilleries in B.C. Today, there are about 35 in the province with many more openings to come.

Their bootstrapped approach, free-spirit nature, and resourcefulness have worked well for Lester and Klaus. After self-funding, and building their own stills and fermentation equipment from recycled items (including an ex-dairy pasteurizer), they then funded the construction of their tasting lounge with a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo. After that success, they purchased a larger fermentation Mash Tun with another Indiegogo campaign.

With no manual on how to start and operate a distillery, Lester and Klaus devised their current process largely from tenacious experimentation and experience that Lester picked up while working as an apprentice on weekends at a Seattle-based distillery making bourbon and liqueurs.

From the beginning, Lester and Klaus wanted to do things differently; they claim to be the first to ferment a base spirit from a blend of locally sourced wheat, malted barley and champagne yeast.  According to Lester, wheat gives a strong vanilla note, but too much vanilla can overpower a cocktail. Barley has the character of caramel and chocolate that almost goes undetected in their vodka but helps to create a well balanced clear spirit.

After distilling, resting, oxidizing and filtering, the base spirit becomes vodka (40% alc/vol) and is also used to make the Sons of Vancouver Chili Vodka (40% alc/vol) and No. 82 Amaretto (26% alc/vol). Lester explains that their process for every product takes about six weeks to go from being a dry grain to delicious booze.

The Sons of Vancouver’s hands-on approach includes creating their own extracts / infusions.  For the chili vodka, aquaponic chilies from Richmond are masurated in the base alcohol to produce the invigorating spiciness which lends incredibly well for making Caesars.

For their hugely popular No. 82 Amaretto liqueur, bitter almonds (the cores of apricot pits), Madagascar vanilla beans and orange peels are steeped in the base alcohol to pull the flavour out, then Demerera sugar and B.C. blackberry honey are added. The result is a sweetly balanced, smooth, stylish liqueur with a tinge of nutty-caramel note and cheerful citrusy aroma.  The amaretto is versatile enough to sip as an aperitif or digestive, but can happily co-exists in cocktails such as those recommended by the Sons of Vancouver – Amaretto Sour, Benzooka and OL’ 82 – as well as their own creation called Vancouver’s Brooklyn.  For a more complex flavour experience, also available is a limited barrel-aged No. 82 Amaretto that has rested for 12 months in an ex-Bourbon Sherry cask.

Sons of Vancouver Distillery recently celebrated two successful years since opening their doors and launching their spirits in early 2015.  When asked about the future, Lester and Klaus admit that they are totally satisfied with their really small distillery achievements.  Their goal is to keep raising the bar on quality and increasing the reach of their products, rather than expanding their portfolio. However, they have produced an extra-small batch of rye whiskey which is currently aging in an ex-peated single malt cask.  You’ll just have to wait 4-5 years for its release!

The distillery’s production is still well below the maximum allowed for the craft designation in British Columba, which is 50,000 litres per year. But “craft” for them is not about volume – craft is about the people and the community behind the spirits. They are immensely enthusiastic about the craft cocktail culture, especially being part of a family of local distillers and championing more entrants in the industry. Their passion in all things local is even reflected in their name, Sons of Vancouver, created to pay tribute to the city and coast that they love.

You can visit the Sons of Vancouver Distillery, located close to the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in the Vancouver’s North Shore enclave of Lynn Creek or also referred to as Lower Lynn. Visitors can sample and purchase spirits, take a tour of the distilling area, as well as hang out with friends in the distillery’s laid-back lounge while listening to tunes and enjoying a range of hand-crafted cocktails.  Lester and Klaus are more than happy to shake or stir up their specialities for you from the house cocktail list, or possibly mix up one of your favourites with a new twist!

The distillery is open:
Friday 5:00pm-9:00pm
Saturday 1:00pm-9:00pm
Sunday 1:00pm-5:00pm

Sons of Vancouver spirits can be purchased at the distillery on Vancouver’s North Shore, online and at various private liquor stores in Greater Vancouver.

Sons of Vancouver Distillery
1431 Crown Street
North Vancouver, British Columba
778.340.5388
sonsofvancouver.ca