Like the word whisky, the English word for gin derives from another language. The Dutch word for juniper, “genever,” gives English “gin.” Juniper has associations with alcohol as far back as 70 A.D., although it was in a “medicinal” capacity. It was also not an English drink in origin, but one that would become associated with the English through the Dutch William of Orange who became William III of England in 1689. The 16th-century Dutch produced a spirit called “genever” (they still do), and it seems inevitable that it accompanied the new king or members of his court.
The gin craze
During a political disagreement with France, William III imposed heavy taxes on French wine and cognac, and simultaneously introduced the Corn Laws – a tax break on the making of spirits in England. Both of these events prompted the English populace to make their own spirits and the “gin craze” was born. Needless to say, things got out of hand, especially considering a pint of gin was then significantly less expensive than a pint of beer!
Much public drunkenness ensued as cheaply, questionably produced gin became available.
Gin was clearly the problem, said the powers that be – and not the poverty, disease and desperation amongst the poor – and so The Gin Act of 1751 raised taxes and fees for retailers and imposed rules about how spirits could be made. By 1830, beer was cheaper than gin for the first time in a century.
Wherever you go in the world or the galaxy for that matter
You can’t keep a good spirit bottled up for long, and there’s one more component to the history of gin that’s inextricably linked: tonic. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams notes that “it is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85 per cent of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynan tonyx, or gee-N’N-T’N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks…”
Greatness is made, not born!
Intergalactic hitchhiking aside, here on Earth we have Schweppes and the British Navy to thank for the classic earthly version of the cocktail. Malaria was a massive issue for British sailors in hot climes such as India, and as Quinine tastes disgusting, Schweppes introduced their “Indian Tonic Water,” which somewhat masked the taste of the Quinine and was quickly adopted by the Royal Navy. This fact, combined with gin travelling better on-board ship than beer, meant that it was inevitable that sailors combined the two liquids, and thus, the gin and tonic was born.
Odd how it all circled back to the medicinal again.
Closer to home, many of Vancouver Island’s distilleries are today part of gin-making tradition but have put their own spin on this classic, producing an amazing variety of spirits utilizing local, Island flavours to create unique gins of every hue and flavour to enjoy.
(And if scotch is your thing, check out the West Coast Traveller feature A neat discovery: Savour a taste of Vancouver Island’s whisky distilleries)
Victoria Distillers – Located in Sidney, Victoria Distillers is one of Canada’s oldest small-batch sprits companies. This seaside distillery is best known locally for their award-winning Empress 1908 gin, a collaboration with the world-famous Empress Hotel that combines traditional botanicals with the Empress’s own blend of black tea botanicals. Adding butterfly pea blossom gives the gin its unique and natural indigo colour.
They also produce a classic Victoria Gin, with a notes of citrus, floral and spice, and an Oaken Gin, their flagship gin, matured in oak until it’s amber and imbued with a vanilla flavour and caramel sweetness.
Tastings are not currently available.
Moon Under Water – This distiller and brew pub offers a variety of spirits, from gin to schnapps. Blueberry Gin is exactly what it purports to be, and is made from local barley, wheat, juniper berries, and, of course, blueberries. The Citrus Gin has a similar beginning, but contains orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit peel, making this triple-distilled gin refreshing in every way. The limited-release Spruce Tips Gin is finished with hand-foraged spruce tips from Tofino. They offer a pub and the Distillery Lounge with a full pub menu. The pub is kid-friendly, and dog-friendly on the patio, which is fully tented in the rainy season.
Devine Distillery and Winery — This craft distillery is located in the heart of the Saanich peninsula. They use only BC-grown grains, fruit and honey and distill onsite using traditional methods, crafted into a variety of gins, including two versions of Genever. Dutch Courage is aged in their Ancient Grains Alternative Whiskey barrels, giving this gin a unique flavour that includes vanilla and caramel, while a straight Genever uses a traditional recipe that dates back to the early 1600s. Devine also produces a Sloe Gin, an English traditional gin, with flavours of dried fruit, black liquorice, candied orange, sugar plums and lavender.
Sheringham Distillery – Established in 2015, this Sooke distillery has a sustainable and traditional approach to producing unique products. The original site of the distillery has ties to local lore, including production of moonshine in the notorious Jordan River Hotel and local rum runners who used the route through the Strait of Juan de Fuca to legally export whisky from Canada to the United States, where it was illegal to import it! Sheringham’s logo is a ship, a nod to the coastline that inspired it.
Their award-winning Seaside Gin is uniquely infused with hand-harvested local winged kelp. Kazuki Gin marries Eastern and Western botanicals, including cherry blossoms, and gin-making techniques. There’s a whole gamut of flavours here, as well as unique vodka, liqueurs, and Akavit. They’re open daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Merridale Cider Distillery – This distiller began with cider but branched out into spirits and in 2013 became the first provincially certified craft distillery in BC — and they’ve won awards in every competition they’ve entered since. Like their cider, their collection of gin, vodka and rhumb are made with BC-grown fruits and botanicals.
Merridale offers a tasting bar, and an eating area that opens onto the orchard. Also available, Orchard Yurts for your glamping pleasure.
Goldstream Distillery – Local ingredients are the focus of their products. On offer are a gin made from a unique mix of nine botanicals: juniper, coriander, cinnamon, angelica root, orris root, cubeb pepper, liquorice, grains of paradise, and grapefruit, an exceptionally smooth vodka, and their latest creation, a Canadian whisky made from 100-per-cent-Canadian ingredients, blended with Goldstream spring water, and finished with toasted Brazilian cherry wood.
This small distillery offers a recently opened tasting patio and tours by appointment.
Ampersand Distillery – Ampersand Distillery makes no bones about which is their flagship product. The Ampersand Gin is “an award-winning instant classic that brings together BC-grown wheat with eight cultivated or world-harvested botanicals and our own spring water.” In addition to their flagship product, they also offer a vodka with a creamy mouth feel best sipped solo, but also delicious in your favourite cocktail.
The tasting room is open by appointment only. If you just can’t wait, head to Duncan Farmer’s Market on Saturdays to partake of a sample at the portable tasting room.
Stillhead Distillery – With a small product line, Stillhead Distillery offers a tasty juniper-forward gin in their London Dry Gin, and their Wild Blackberry Gin goes back “to the traditional seasonal gin liqueurs of the English countryside, using local picked wild Cowichan blackberries and Canadian honey.” Also infused with the local Cowichan Valley blackberries, Wild Blackberry Vodka stands very well on its own or adds a twist to any classic cocktail. Tour and tastings can be booked online.
Arbutus Distillery — Everything here is local, and some of the botanicals are grown on site. Their Blue Gin is inspired by the West Coast, and is distilled with lots of juniper, coriander, locally grown hops, lavender, rosemary and lemon verbena steeped in butterfly pea flower, which gives it its brilliant blue. The Forest Dweller Gin has notes of pine and spruce and was a 2020 gold medal winner at the Canadian Artisan Spirit competition. For a floral flare, the Empiric Gin blends classic botanicals with West Coast staples. Citrus Gin is a contemporary London Dry Gin but layered with the botanicals are notes of lemon, orange peel, kaffir lime leaf and dried salted limes.
Bespoke Spirits House – Understanding the “balancing act between two worlds of science and art,” this new distillery crafts vodka and gin. Jezebel Gin is a London dry gin, great for cocktails, as a sipper, and in the universal gin and tonic. Returning this fall is the limited-release Winter Gin, featuring warm winter spices and a pomegranate flavour – yum! Virtue Vodka is a classic any time of the year. While the opening of the lounge has been delayed, the tasting area is open.
Pacific Rim Distilling – Owner and fourth-generation distiller Luke Erridge shares family recipes that date back before the prohibition era, tweaked to suit modern tastes, with every ingredient from BC. The Lighthouse Gin is made with nine botanicals hand-foraged and local to Barkley Sound, for “a true expression of our terroir.” Humpback Vodka has a floral finish and 200 years of history behind it.
Tofino Distillery – Certified organic spirits are the focus here. Five gins are available, and range from a Navy Strength Gin – high proof and smooth – to an Old Growth Cedar Gin, a unique flavour experience, to the traditional West Coast Gin. Beach Fire Liqueur is a cinnamon spirit made from a bourbon base and The Psychedelic Jellyfish Absinthe is a blast from the past. The tasting room is open daily.
Wayward Distillery – Support your local bees! Wayward Distillery bases its unique spirits on locally made honey and note that they “do not hide our base product by filtering mechanically or chemically during distillation.” The Unruly Gin starts with honey that’s later paired with traditional and West Coast ingredients for a stand-out product. Additionally, try their Bourbon Barrel Aged Gin, Unruly Vodka, a variety of liqueurs and even a Drunken Hive Rum. A portion of all sales help protect and promote the bees and other pollinators. They offer complimentary tastings and tours that showcase their unique product and ethically minded production – visitors can even check out the demonstration honeybee hives.
Shelter Point — 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. Shelter Point’s Hand-Foraged Botanical Gin is hand-crafted and distilled in small batches with a balanced body of citrus and delicate spices, giving it a warming, spicy finish.
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