By Kathy Mak
[COVID-19 update: Please note that this article was originally published during non-pandemic times. The distillery is currently closed to the public, but you can order online for pick-up and delivery.]
With the surge of new craft distilleries in BC, it’s not unusual to find an expanding collection of local spirits on the shelves of liquor stores and cocktail bars; but finding craft spirits made by a female distiller and with potatoes and corn grown on a distillery’s own farmland is unusual! Enter Roots and Wings Distillery, opened in early 2017 as the first craft distillery in Langley, BC.
Situated on a 30-acre farm in the idyllic countryside near the village of Fort Langley, Roots and Wings Distillery embraces a true field-to-bottle approach when producing artisan spirits. Back in 2015, the co-founders/owners – Rob Rindt and Rebekah Crowley – were inspired to handcraft their own distilled spirits when they couldn’t find a good locally-made potato or corn vodka for sipping straight. With some research and a big leap of faith, the couple created the distillery from the ground up, literally.
In keeping with Rob’s agricultural roots, but unlike most distilleries, they produce their spirits in-house from scratch with potatoes and corn that they grow (and with natural spring water) in a barn-converted stillhouse at their farm. It’s the art of craft distilling at it’s purest, a meticulous hands-on approach to controlling the highest quality – from planting and harvesting to mashing, fermenting, distilling and bottling – for small-batch spirits. They do it all.
In addition to creating uniquely homegrown and handcrafted spirits, the distillery has the distinction of being one of a few in British Columbia (and possibly a handful in Canada) to have a female distiller. In a male dominated spirits trade, Rebekah is pleased to lead the way for other women interested in distilling.
Although a relatively new entrant in the craft spirits boom, Roots and Wings Distillery is showing no signs of slowing down. Currently, they offer Vital Vodka (potato-corn vodka), Double Vice (coffee infused potato-corn vodka), Rebel (an unaged corn whiskey), and Jackknife Gin (potato-corn gin). Bottles of these spirits can be sampled and purchased at the distillery. They are also available at the distillery’s online shop and in a selection of private BC liquor stores. As for the future, a blackberry liqueur is in the works, an unnamed bourbon is aging, and other liqueurs are on their wish list.
I sat down to learn more about the distillery from Rebekah, the head distiller.
When you started, what was your mission?
To create quality over quantity, so craft was the obvious answer. Rob and I didn’t set out to make mass-produced products, but instead, we wanted to create spirits that stand on their own before mixing. I believe we have accomplished this in our core spirits. However, it turns out the spirits are also amazing in cocktails, so I designed a variety of craft cocktail recipes for everyone’s enjoyment. I’m by no means a master in mixology, and I will leave that to the professionals, but I love a good cocktail!
How did you come up with the name Roots and Wings Distillery?
It comes from the saying that the best thing you can give your kids are roots and wings; roots of responsibility and wings of independence.
Why did you want to become a distiller and how did you get started?
I wasn’t a home brewing hobbyist or a wine kit maker, and I didn’t have any previous experience in distilling; my background is in sales for a technology company. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a distiller but more that I’m just better in the kitchen than Rob and it naturally worked out that way. I also had the free time to take the Canadian Master Distilling program at Urban Distilleries & Winery (Kelowna) and came away with the practical knowledge. We wanted to start a distillery because of our appreciation for fine spirits. It started as an experiment but after investing the money into the equipment and the passion to perfect the spirit, we knew we had to turn it into business.
What makes your flavours unique?
The uniqueness comes in part (to start) from our farm and the soil in which we grow the potatoes and corn to the spring water which we use to proof the spirits down and everything in-between. Is it something that you can pinpoint on your palate? Maybe not, but I do believe it gives an added layer of interest and quality.
How are your artisan products different from others in BC?
Most BC craft distillers use winter wheat and barley for their spirits. These are most common grains in BC. Being designated craft, one must use 100% BC grown products. What makes us different is that we are located on Agriculture Land Reserve (ALR) and the regulations state that we must grow 50% of what we want to distill. Not only do we fall under the 100% BC grown products but half of that must be grown on our own farm. We opted to use Kennenbec potatoes and Jubilee corn for our base spirits over wheat or barley because I am a fan of corn vodka and Rob is a fan of potato vodka, so we just combined them.
What is the timeline from planting crops to distilling the finished spirits?
Rob plants the potatoes and corn in the early spring, then they are harvested at the end of September early October … all weather dependent. The raw material is placed in onsite storage. From the storage it will be cleaned in the distillery then ground up before it goes into the mash. Once the mash is done, it will ferment from 4 days to a week then put through the still for the stripping run. We do several of these runs to collect enough spirit for a spirit run and then again for a third time which will then get proofed and polished depending on the type of spirit. If it’s vodka its takes about a month from the first mash to the bottled product. If it is Rebel it takes about 3 months from first mash to bottle. We are currently working on our bourbon which will take much longer.
How much corn and potatoes are used for your distilling?
2/3 potatoes to 1/3 corn for the vodka and for the Rebel and it’s all corn for the bourbon.
Other than your own crops, what other local ingredients do you incorporate into you spirits?
There is a local hop farm called Crooked Stick Hopyard here in Langley that we use as well as local honey, and Fort Langley’s Republica Roasters’ coffee beans for Double Vice. We, of course, use as much as we can from our farm and garden, like the blackberries (for our blackberry liqueur) or cucumbers (for our gin). We are happy to collaborate with local producers when possible.
What is your current capacity?
Our still is 400 litres and we produce about 500 litres per month. We started out with a 30 gallon still from HBS copper from Barlow Kentucky and have now moved into a 100 gallon still from the same manufacturer. We also have an 80-gallon mash tun from Specific Mechanical Systems, in Victoria BC. The other equipment in our stillhouse is from various places throughout BC – bottler, fermentation and blending tanks.
Are your spirits gluten-free or organic?
Since potatoes and corn are naturally gluten-free, which are used for our base spirits, then we are gluten-free. However, the Canadian labeling standards still require us to get it tested for the claim to be on the label; so, we also passed the official gluten-free test! We feel our spirits are organic based on our ingredients, but we are not aiming to be certified organic.
Why did you choose vodka as your first product?
Vodka is the water of life… the base of many great spirits. It’s also the only spirit Rob consumes so that was the deal – to make great quality sipping vodka first and then we will discuss what comes next.
Which spirit is your favourite?
Jackknife Gin! I love the flavor that comes out in the spirit. When it is blended with soda and fresh mint, it’s the most refreshing cocktail.
What is your favourite cocktail at present?
That would be the whiskey-styled Cardomom Rebel Sour!
What is currently the most popular product in your spirit line?
The Rebel seems to be the go-to spirit as its not a whiskey and its not a white spirit either – it has the taste of oak and honey with no age behind it. It’s an interesting spirit that can blend nicely in cocktails or stand on its own greatness.
How did you come up with Double Vice, the coffee infused vodka?
The day before opening I realized we needed a few more options for the tasting bar so I infused a vodka with coffee beans, one with sweet tea and one with cucumber and jalapenos. The coffee was a hit, so we stuck with it and made a label.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
Since we are new to this distilling process I would say that being able to put out four different spirits in the first 7 months of opening is a huge accomplishment that should be given its due. There are of course many other accomplishments that got us to where we were able to do that. In the end, our success is mostly the result of hard work.
What is in your bucket list for the distillery in 3-5 years?
That bucket is full of ideas, from new recipe development to larger equipment to hiring full time staff and expanding our presence in other provinces.
Who do you feel is the innovative force behind the local craft distilling industry?
BC Distilled does an excellent job of promoting the local distilleries as well as showcasing new talent and hosting spirit competitions amongst Canadian craft distillers.
Is there a local distillery that inspired you?
When Rob and I started out, Sons of Vancouver were wonderful at sharing their story and helpful insights. Like them, we started as a very small batch distillery. They have made a great name for themselves in the industry and continue to share their knowledge with the industry.
What is one thing you feel people should know about the craft spirits industry in Greater Vancouver?
Its better to buy local from any of us then from the big guys like Absolute, Smirnoff or Stoli because you are personally being part of our journey to build a locally-owned business from the ground up.
Visit Roots and Wings Distillery as part an outing to Fort Langley or while exploring Langley on a self-guided Circle Farm Tour. Weekly classes or pop up shops will begin in early 2018 and tours of the distillery will start in Summer 2018 on a scheduled and pre-booked basis.
*Images marked with a star are by Katie McTierman.