When retired CPA Blair Wilson bought his property in South East Kelowna as part of a semi-retirement move from Vancouver, he decided to try his hand at orcharding because his 20-acres came with 6,000 ambrosia and about 300 Spartan apple trees.
He soon realized time and energy required to farm for the financial return through co-op marketing weren’t enough and started exploring a new opportunity. Cider perhaps? However, canning costs were too high. Still searching, he decided apple vodka might make the numbers work after talking with a copper still manufacturer at a whiskey conference in the northwest U.S.
Hiring a chemist, and after months of working to create a winning recipe and process, the result was premium apple vodka.
“Typical vodkas tend to be distilled between three and ten times,” Wilson says which is why Forbidden Spirits vodka, being distilled 25 and 50 times depending on the product, produces a smoother-tasting spirit. It takes about 25 pounds of apples to make one 750 ml bottle of Rebel Vodka which is 25-times distilled while Forbidden Spirits is distilled 50 times. The company uses a proprietary yeast and their own apples, as well as apple concentrate purchased from Kelowna’s SunRype juice plant. Their unique, high-end, glass bottles come from Vernon while stainless steel tanks are made in Penticton.
In 2019, Forbidden Spirits built production facilities and opened a tasting room, with a soon-to-be-opened patio for 75 licensed this spring. Through marketing efforts, the company secured orders from China and the EU.
“When you have a great tasting quality product that's made in Canada, foreigners are willing to buy. They love the Canadian reputation of being safe and producing things that are safe clean and good for you and that's helped with marketing,” he says.
Wilson was plowing his way through challenges like shipping alcohol. For example, different ports have different rules about receiving alcohol and some just don’t.
“Navigating the continually shifting sands of economic politics and trade, like Brexit, also takes persistence and agility but Canada has an advantage in the EU because there's no 25% markup that there is like when the U.S. ships products there. The Chinese market is evolving from a sweet to a dryer pallet and that also means potential business,” says Wilson.
But for spirit producers some of the challenge are also at home. Wilson was in the preliminary stages of trying to put together a Canadian Craft Spirit Association, a national group to be able to lobby for changes to the $3.51 federal excise tax per bottle that craft distillers have to pay when producing limited quantities using local Canadian agriculture products.
Meanwhile, he and his wife had travel plans booked to be part of a BC government trade mission to Seoul, South Korea in May until Covid-19 became reality in March.
Not to be deterred, in early April, Forbidden Spirits retooled to produce alcohol to be used as sanitizer. That came after BC’s Liquor Control Regulation Board authorized brewery, winery and distillery license holders to manufacture and/or package, sell or donate alcohol-based sanitizer until July 15, 2020. Forbidden is joining the likes of Okanagan Spirits and Wise Acre Distillery in Kelowna and others across BC to help out.
Wilson hopes production, estimated at 1,000 litres per day, will be enough to rehire staff laid off around the beginning for March when normal business halted. He’s thankful for the increase to the Covid-19 federal government wage subsidy from 10% to 75% to help pay employees and cover interim carrying and operation costs to help the distiller weather the storm.
“We have all the paperwork done and the licenses and continue to work to source bottles (for the sanitizer), which is the common challenge. I’ve managed to find some in Kentucky,” he says adding they still need more.
While they are still selling vodka online, Wilson says there’s also vodka in tanks ready for the shipment overseas when the Covid-19 crisis passes.
Written by: Myrna Stark Leader, COEDC Agriculture Specialist