Gin cocktails at the Sheringham Distillery in Shirley.

Gin City, Summer Sipping at its Finest

Gin cocktails are more than just gin and tonic now

  • Aug. 31, 2018 10:30 a.m.

Some summertime letter combinations are so familiar as to appear wedded in natural harmony. Your spouse might want DIY chores completed ASAP, or at least before AM turns into PM. Myself, I prefer to RSVP an invitation to BYOB, especially when a P.S. indicates G&Ts will be served.

When the mercury rises, the cognacs and bourbons are pushed aside for the more refreshing spirits to be found in a liquor cabinet. Heat and humidity mean it is time for mojitos, margaritas and mimosas. It is also the season to enjoy a G&T. Ah, gin and tonic, a highball pairing two copacetic ingredients, the sum greater than the parts, a drink whose very name conjures images of the Empire, Kipling, and pith helmets.

In recent years, we have on the south island become home to a number of distillers, a millennial response to the rise of microbreweries and boutique wineries in the preceding decades.

The first of these, Victoria Spirits, now Victoria Distillers, caused a stir eight years ago with the launch of Victoria Gin, featuring on the label a portrait of the monarch whose name graces our city, displaying her not as the dour, unamused, mourning queen of popular imagination, but as a graceful, wistful young woman with flowing luxurious hair. She looks like she’d not be averse to a sip of gin on a hot summer’s night.

Valerie Murray is responsible for the local boom in spirits. After a series of developments, she and her husband, Dr. Bryan Murray, bought full control of the distillery. Her son, a molecular biologist bored with his job as a DNA splicer, became the master distiller. A daughter, who had studied design at Concordia University in Montreal, came up with the label. Another daughter helped launch the brand in Eastern Canada, where the attitude was “nobody drinks gin until the 24th of May weekend,” Murray says.

In a short time, Victoria Gin became available at bars and liquor stores across the land, a triumph for a family-owned artisanal product in which, as she says, “everything was done by hand — bottling, labelling, everything.”

They even hand-chopped the wood for the still, like backwoods hillbillies producing moonshine.

The Murrays sold their company last year and the new owners moved the company from a barn on a farm on West Saanich Road to a striking waterfront location in Sidney. The wood-fired still was replaced by a state-of-the-art steam system, gleaming copper cauldrons on display.

The new home includes a tasting room, though the distillery looks like the operation of a mad scientist, or an underground scene from Breaking Bad without the hazmat suits. Best of all, the old master distiller (Murray’s son) remains.

Vic Gin now shares shelf space with several British Columbia-bred gins, including Stump Coastal Forest Gin, produced by the Phillips Fermentorium. Known for an excellent line of craft beers and sodas, the Victoria company uses a 1920s British-made copper still dubbed Old George and a modern German-built still to produce the gin, as well as a hop liqueur.

Gin drinks on a summer day. (Don Denton photograph)

Along the isolated southwestern coast of Vancouver Island, Jason and Alayne MacIsaac blend British Columbia-grown grains with water from a natural spring on their property at 2631 Seaside Drive in Shirley, near French Beach.

The proprietors of Sheringham Distillery — he a former chef, she a sales and marketing whiz — make small batches of vodka, grain spirit and a Seaside Gin whose unique ingredient includes hand-harvested local wing kelp (Alaria marginata). It does not get more artisanal and West Coast than the taste of sea foam in your gin.

Alayne and Jason MacIsaac with gin drinks at their Sheringham Distillery in Shirley. (Don Denton photograph)

For those of my generation, a late Boomer, born in 1960, gin has been considered an auntie’s drink, a bottle brought out nightly for sipping. You got the sense it was drunk as a matter of habit, rather than revelation, or delight — hooch for the parlour set.

The history of gin is far more interesting than my petty prejudices might indicate. In Georgian London, gin madness swept the common people, who for pennies found temporary relief at the bottom of a glass from the travails of poverty. Women drank alongside men at gin joints, leading to a moral panic about neglected children coming to harm as mothers lost themselves to drink, a horror depicted in a famous Hogarth engraving of drunken deprivation.

“Gin, cursed fiend, with fury fraught, makes human race a prey,” a minister wrote. “It enters by a deadly draught and steals our life away.”

Gin has been part of Victoria’s daily life since the founding of the city. The second edition of the British Colonist included an advertisement placed by Alphonse Kaindler, a French-born wine and spirits merchant known for his “business probity and urbane social character.”

As Christmas and New Years neared in 1858, he let thirsty readers know he had quantities of cognac, whiskey, sherry, port, bourbon and claret, as well as gin from Holland and Old Tom Gin from England.

Gin lends itself to exotic and time-tested drinks from the Tom Collins to the Singapore Sling. There’s the Gin Rickey (gin, lime juice, chilled club soda), Bee’s Knees (equal parts lemon juice, honey syrup and gin, a recipe from the Prohibition era of bathtub gin), Cucumber Gimlet (gin, lime juice, simple syrup, rosemary, a thin cucumber slice), Salty Dawg (gin, lime juice, grapefruit juice, pinch of salt), Gin Fizz (gin, lime juice, club soda, honey) and the Negroni (gin, Campari, vermouth).

To mark the first days of summer, we held an impromptu tasting with a bottle of Vic Gin (batch No. 151) ($44.99 at government stores). Our guests included a language student from Korea and another from Japan, both with limited exposure to gin.

“Kind of sweet with a floral taste,” said Hiroko Kataoka from Japan.

“It doesn’t smell too strong, but has a distinct taste. Some berry,” added Eunbi Kim from Korea.

Ah, the berry. That would be juniper. With notes of citrus, floral and spice. The secret ingredient, of course, is Vancouver Island’s peerless, pristine water. The gin did not drive us mad, but left us with an eagerness to try building some cocktails, especially the sweeter ones.

Perhaps our visitors will remember this as gin summer.

Gin cocktails for a summer day. (Don Denton photograph)

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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