Shelter Point, Vancouver Island
From farmland on Canada’s Vancouver Island, the SMWS is delighted to welcome Shelter Point distillery into our ever-growing roster of exceptional international whiskies. Charlene Rooke reports on the distillery’s background and the introduction of the Society’s first bottlings from a Canadian location with a distinctly Scottish influence
Whisky lovers make pilgrimages here, often crossing a narrow strait by ferry or seaplane before driving up-island to a farm perched on an oceanside bluff. Sunlight gilds fields of barley, ripening on ground so fertile and special it was previously a prestigious university’s research farm. Inside a barn-style building (more like Kentucky than a pagoda-topped stone distillery), sloping light illuminates the patinaed glow of copper pot stills from Forsyths of Speyside.
The single malt that emerged from one of the thousands of barrels maturing on-site bears some hallmarks of this place: it’s golden in the glass then crisp on approach and creamy on the palate, with a shimmering whiff of sandalwood or driftwood, flavours of warm ginger spice and a mouth-wateringly maritime finish.
But we’re not in Scotland anymore. This very Scottish-influenced distillery is just south of Campbell River, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Shelter Point distillery is home to the first Canadian bottling to ever appear in an SMWS Outturn. Though some of the 230 bottles of release 152.1 appeared in UK Outturns in the autumn of 2022, the landmark bottling debuted in Canada this past January, sporting an aptly descriptive name: Vibrant and vigorous.
A GLOBAL WHISKY CONTENDER
“It’s a feather in our cap and we’re very proud of it,” says Stephen Goodridge, Shelter Point’s recently appointed general manager. In 2013 this veteran Barbados rum distiller founded one of Canada’s earliest small-batch distilleries, Goodridge & Williams, in British Columbia. (It was acquired by brewing giant Labatt in 2020.) “We express a classic Scottish style,” he says – with a measure of Canadian innovation.
Stephen lists some of the qualities that make Shelter Point a global whisky contender. Though the distillery has experimented with everything from unmalted barley to wheat and rye, “our malted barley has qualities that are special,” he says. Grain grown on the farm and sourced from other British Columbia growers create a 100 per cent local mash. It undergoes a patient, one-week fermentation to create a wash rich in complex esters. A down-sloped lyne arm on the still helps create “a very nice mouthfeel” according to Stephen: even tasted at 63 per cent, the new-make spirit has a notably creamy texture. Aquifer water sourced on the farm property is used at every stage of production. A former barn turned maturation warehouse is near an oceanside bluff on the longest stretch of privately owned waterfront in these parts. “There is coastal and seaside influence, for sure,” Stephen says
BACK TO THE SOURCE
The story of three Shelter Point casks acquired by the SMWS (Cask Nos. 152.2: Tropical Cornucopia and 152.3: A Fistful of Bananas have since also appeared) dates back to the infancy of this 12-year-old distillery. “It was a privilege to be involved in the first Canadian bottling by the SMWS,” says Leon Webb, an SMWS member and Shelter Point’s master distiller back in 2020, when the casks were sourced. Adam Bradshaw, spirit lead at SMWS retail partner Strath Liquor Merchants in Victoria, British Columbia, originally pointed Canadian SMWS branch founders Kelly and Rob Carpenter to Shelter Point, a few hours’ drive north of Victoria. “We’ve always thought it was part of the Canadian SMWS branch’s remit to help try to identify new distilleries and promote Canadian whisky,” says Rob, of the couple’s decade-long quest to discover worthy Canadian casks.
Leon and Shelter Point distillery manager Jacob Wiebe did a fireside tasting of cask samples with Rob and Kelly in March 2020 – shortly before the pandemic brought much global travel and trade to a screeching halt. Rob had planned to soon return to Edinburgh, where he co-founded Holyrood distillery in 2019. With those travel plans delayed, the Carpenters settled for shipping several promising cask samples to SMWS head of whisky creation Euan Campbell and the Spirits Team at SMWS headquarters in Leith, from which three were selected.
“The inaugural Shelter Point expression fits well into the traditional philosophy of the Society: exceptional single cask malt whiskies,” says Leon, who is now back in Scotland, as distillery manager at Tamnavulin.
ABOVE: Rob Carpenter from SMWS Canada joines Jacob and Leon for a fireside tasting
FIELD TO FLASK
Shelter Point has been gathering a buzz in the whisky world for years. When I first visited the distillery in 2017, I toured around the farm in a pick-up truck with James Marinus, right-hand man to Shelter Point founder and third-generation family farmer Patrick Evans. James, who distilled the liquid that became these debut SMWS releases, had pointed out hundreds of recently arrived casks awaiting filling, and explained that former Diageo distiller Mike Nicolson had originally been coaxed out of retirement on Vancouver Island to help with the start-up.
“This has always been a field-to-flask distillery, run by farmers,” current GM Stephen Goodridge proudly says today. After more than a decade of operation, an ambitious maturation and blending programme is levelling up the distillery’s output. There’s a bold exploration and reinvention of the Canadian whisky category currently underway nationwide, in no small part due to the so-called 9.09 per cent blending rule, which is famously flexible to New World-style innovation, allowing producers to add up to 1/11th of another spirit or wine into their blend.
Shortly after Stephen’s arrival, a new vatting of the distillery’s signature malt bottling won Double Gold in the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
“We’ve now got a lot of diversity and a lot of different wood,” he says – everything from British Columbia wine barrels to Barbados rum and Caribbean rhum agricole casks to more traditional sherry, port and peated-malt vessels. “And now we’ve got different ages [of whisky] to play with.”
SHARING THE LOVE
Though awards and the renown of an SMWS bottling will certainly help acquaint global whisky aficionados with Shelter Point, “our challenge now is to raise awareness domestically,” says Stephen. Many visitors to Shelter Point are not even whisky tourists, but locals or travellers who are in the Campbell River region for its world-class salmon fishing, whale-watching or to explore the heritage of Canada’s Coastal First Nations/Indigenous people.
Though tasting room patrons might not enter as whisky fanciers, most leave with a bottle. “Canadians like to support Canadian products,” Stephen says. The inaugural SMWS Cask No. 152.1 bottling was premiered at the Victoria Whisky Festival in January and at February Outturns in Canada. But much of the first and subsequent 152 releases will be available around the world – and that’s deliberate.
“The intention is to spread the Shelter Point love around other international branches,” says SMWS Canada’s Kelly Carpenter. Vibrant and vigorous: consider it Canada’s love letter to the whisky world.
Charlene Rooke is a Vancouver-based drinks journalist, consultant and spirits educator. You can find her leading Outturn tastings each month for the SMWS at Legacy Liquor Store in Vancouver.