If there is one interest that draws me to a place, it’s the food. Food is a necessity, I agree, but there are places in the world I’ve travelled knowing that I would purposely carve out time to explore the local culinary scene and Sooke is no exception. If there is one thing that I’ve learned from my explorations, it’s that the best things I’ve tasted are the creations of food artisans who are using local, fresh ingredients and treating them with simplicity and respect.
My journey into the Sooke culinary scene, a small community of a little over 11,000 people situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, began just a few kilometres away from my home base at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, to the French Beach Provincial Park.
A wide swatch of green lawn fronts this sand and pebble beach, where visitors can relax and enjoy a picnic or take a cool dip in the ocean. In addition to offering fabulous views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains, the 1,600-metre beach at this park is an ideal location for exploring and whale watching. The magnificent Gray whales pass by this park in the spring as they migrate to northern feeding grounds, and return again in the fall. Roaming pods of resident killer whales can also be seen offshore, as well as otters, seals and sea lions.
Just up the road from this little gem of a beach, sits a boutique distillery I wanted to visit, but first, I thought I’d sit on the rocky beach for a few moments, close my eyes and let the sound of the waves flood over me.
As I reached the end of a long driveway leading up to the top of a small hill in the heart of Shirley (just a few kilometres from Sooke) I spotted the smiling face of the man I was slated to meet. Jason MacIssac, chef turned distiller, was leaning on an old Harley just a few feet from the small barn that housed Sheringham Distillery.
Run solely by MacIsaac and his wife, Alayne MacIsaac, the distillery, specializes in vodka and white whisky forged with water from a on-site natural spring and local organic grains and malted barley.
Jason was taking a short break while in the middle of prepping for a private dinner he was cooking for that evening (he still works as a private chef ) when I pulled in, but his quick smile welcomed me as he invited me into what is possibly one of the smallest distilleries in the province of British Columbia. “I like the fact that I don’t have a large operation at this point in my career,” he tells me, “it allows me to experiment and test my product on a select market of consumers who I often meet face-to-face and see their reaction to our whiskey and vodka.” “I can really oversee the quality of the product which is important to me.”
As a chef he takes the same attitude in producing his product as he does when he cooks - his philosophy is to take top notch, local ingredients and treat them with respect. “In the case of our whiskey, for example, we let the grain speak for itself.”
Even Sheringham Distillery’s on-site natural spring originating from a crystalline rock aquifer is the source of water for their Coastal Craft Spirits. They are surrounded by flora and fauna of the West Coast Temperate Rainforest dependent on this water.
The inspiration for Sheringham Distillery was found in an empty bottle. In 2003 Jason lived west of Sheringham Pt. in a cabin. There he unearthed a number of old glass moonshine bottles from the notorious Jordan River Hotel which was rumoured to have had a still operating in the cellar. With a “wild west“ reputation, it was the nearest liquor establishment to Sheringham Pt. The hotel was built in 1935 at the river mouth where ocean swell pounded at its door, and in 1984 it burned to the ground. The cabin that Jason lived in was built in the late 1930’s and the original owners of the cabin operated a sluice box at a nearby creek. At the end of a successful year they collected enough gold to buy whisky for the local community’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Those found bottles and their storied past planted the seed for what would become Sheringham Distillery.
Sheringham uses time-honoured distilling methods and B.C. grown grains to achieve their sustainable and traditional approach to the production of their spirits. Their small batch hand-crafted spirits are all made with 100% B.C. agricultural products. Jason tells me they source local ingredients from Vancouver Island whenever possible and work to keep their environmental footprint as small as possible. All their products are mashed, fermented and distilled at their distillery, an intimate space not much larger than a typical two-car garage. Imagination, not space, is what drives Sheringham’s success.
To date two products have found their way out of Sheringham’s beautifully-chromed stills: a smooth vodka (40 per cent alcohol) and William’s White, a white whisky that’s clean, yet exhibits a slightly spicy flavour. The name “William’s White” is named for his father, Joseph William MacIssac (it’s also Jason’s middle name) but also plays tribute to Royal Navy Captain William Kellet, who explored and named Sheringham Point back in the mid-1800’s.
I love the sense of history the MacIssac’s have embraced. They recount the tale that Sheringham Distillery overlooks the infamous rum running route of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. During the prohibition era (1920‘s - 1930‘s) ships ran the Strait to Washington‘s Olympic Peninsula smuggling Whisky on a regular basis (by coincidence Sheringham Pt. west to Sombrio Pt. is a designated Naval practice range called “WH ~ Whiskey Hotel”).
While I won’t get into the detail of how Sheringham makes their spirits - suffice to say that the clear, potent and tasty products start with local products which are cooked, strained and run through the buffed chrome stills and lastly becomes a fine balancing act that involves an extraordinary ability to smell and taste - all of which under the direction of Jason - become spirits which have been getting great raves from consumers and critics across the Island.
For Jason, the reality of owning and operating the distillery has been an eye-opening experience which involves a lot of hard work and many long days in the distillery - but he tells me “it’s a passion … a dream come true.”
He told me the Sooke community has shown a lot of support, and Sheringham Distillery spirits can be found on the shelves of local restaurants and liquor stores in Sooke. Before leaving, he mentioned they would be pouring that night at the Sooke Fine Art Show and said that it would be a great event to stop in at. Not sure whether I felt like extending my day, into the evening, I thought “why not” and decided to make the trek to the community centre where the show was being held. I discovered that the Sooke Fine Arts Show provides the opportunity for the finest artists from Vancouver Island and BC’s coastal islands to showcase and sell their work. The Show, coming into its 30th year in 2016, is Vancouver Island’s longest-running juried fine art show and the Island’s premier summer arts event. The 11-day art show and sale draws more than 8000 art lovers. Upon arriving at the community centre where it was being held, I saw there was a lineup running down the side of the building. Obviously this was one event in Sooke that was well-attended. In the end, I’m glad I went and I urge anyone who makes the trip to Sooke, and is in the area when the Fine Art Show is on, to go, it’s well worth the visit. Food, great art, local wine and yes, even a tasty vodka and whiskey produced by Sheringham is there to sip on and experience.
Even though the distillery is tiny and staffed with only a few people, Jason warmly welcomes visitors to the distillery. You just need to contact him through the distillery’s web site.
You have to admire people who can walk the shoreline and see more than just the birds, boats and whales off in the distance - Jeff and Jessica looked out at the horizon and imagined the sea could be a business - one that was based on natural resources with no impact on the environment.
It was early morning when I met Jeff and Jessica. He was standing out in the cool, rugged pristine waters of the West Coast of Vancouver Island ready to toss a mid-sized hose into the ocean. Meanwhile, Jessica was standing in the back of a pickup truck, hose in hand, ready to pump sea water into a large tank.
Interestingly enough, they were working off a small beach just down the road from Sheringham Distillery and French Beach. Here they found cold, crystal clear waters and a fast moving current that yielded a snow white, mineral rich, smooth tasting salt. “It’s true,” Jeff says, “it’s all about the location.”
The concept is simple - take sea water and extract salt using a combination of desalinization and solar evaporation.
When they started their company the vision was to one day produce a solar sea salt, using the sun and the wind only. A big challenge. Vancouver Island is known to be wet and windy through the months of October to April. There is a bright side however, the summers are mostly hot and dry and their advantage is that their harvestry is located on 2 acres, 391 metres above sea level giving them a micro climate which is extra hot, sunny and dry from May to September.
On their web site, they explain the process of turning sea water into salt. They write: “Once we have our brine concentrate the salt takes one of a few different paths. Some will be flooded directly into the only solar green house in western Canada built to evaporate sea water, where mother nature and patience take over. Other salt will make its way to our smoke house to take on the apple and maple wood smoke, becoming our world class smoked salt blends. The final path takes it to our commercial kitchen where we infuse gourmet organic herbs, spices, citrus fruits, and even wine, into the salt to become some of our signature blends such as, roasted garlic and onion, lemon dill, or even pesto!”
Jeff and Jessica had a dream: live a sustainable life and contribute positively to their local economy. You have to admire their simple lifestyle and their commitment to build a business that’s growing beyond the Sooke borders. Bit by bit, they are finding retailers in farm markets, pharmacies, natural food stores throughout B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Now, I don’t normally like to feature “product shots” but the day we arrived they had just taken delivery of their brand new colour coded packaging for the salts - so if you see their product on the shelf … try it, I guarantee you’ll like it. My favourite is the rimmer salt … perfect for the edge of a cold Caesar after a long day of photography.
I had driven up to Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery after noticing their sign on the side of the road just down from where Jeff and Jessica (Saltwest) were on the beach sucking up Pacific Ocean water.
Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery is a favorite with both visitors from afar and from the Island as well.
On meeting Bob, he told me he became interest in bees at the age of 6. He helped a neighbor in East Vancouver keep bees and was rewarded with pieces of fresh honeycomb. Bees became his lifelong passion and along with big wall climbs, incredible mountaineering feats, and several years with Outward Bound, he always found a way to keep bees. He earned a masters degree in Entomology and has been experimenting with making mead for over 30 years. As well as working full-time on the farm, Bob taught a couple of classes at Royal Roads University.
He and partner Dana LeComte started the first meadery in Western Canada in 2003 and have never looked back.
Diana, found usually behind the wooden bar countertop in their tiny retail space, came out of the East. She went to Ryerson University in Toronto with dreams of being a fashion buyer. After several years in the fashion industry she became disenfranchised and went to work for Mountain Equipment Coop in Vancouver. After meeting Bob there he became her outdoor guru and she became the marketer that would make his dream of owning a honey farm and meadery a reality. Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery was the first meadery in Western Canada.
I’m sure one of the first questions Bob and Dana get is “what is mead?” I know it’s one of the first questions I asked. I’d heard of mead, but wasn’t quite sure what it was … a honey drink? A wine? Something on it’s own? Bob told me to relate mead to wine and beer. “Beer comes from fermented grains and wine is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting fruit (grapes), but mead - which we like to say is the “nectar of the gods” - is made from fermented honey.”
He told me how mead was the oldest alcoholic beverage known to man and likely discovered before the wheel was invented. As in other fermented drink, mead occurs naturally when honey is mixed with water and yeast. On the day I spoke with Bob, he told me he had just been ‘down the road’ to pick up apples to make juice which they were going to add to the honey mixture to add another flavour into their mix of product.
I never thought of it before - and don’t think I even knew - but mead’s real claim to fame is in its origins in wedding celebrations, hence the word “honeymoon.” Mead was traditionally drunk during the month-long celebrations following weddings to insure fertility and the birth of sons.
At the moment Tugwell Creek has nine different types of mead they sell. If you can’t make it to the Farm, you can also order online.
As I left Tugwell Creek that afternoon, happy to escape unscathed, I vowed to see what else was just down the road from my ‘home’ at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort. It was no surprise, that I would find a few other culinary discoveries on the Island … I’ll post those in my next story.