Pemberton Distillery

I'd like that with a twist: highlighting two unique Canadian vodkas by Jason Hambrey

A flyer from the Dairy Distillery in Almonte, ON.

A flyer from the Dairy Distillery in Almonte, ON.

I don’t write much about vodka, largely because I don’t value the style much. If the goal is to distill most, or all, of the flavour out of a distillate then there is no need for careful flavour development before distillation - perhaps my favourite part of spirits. Plus, as a mixer, I don’t value much a spirit which gets lost completely, other than the alcoholic hit, when mixed.

However, this is a post about vodka - two in fact, which i find interesting. The interest is mostly not the flavour - it is related to the story and impact of the production. The first is an earthy vodka made from potatoes in the only protected potato growing region in North America (the Pemberton Valley in British Columbia) and a the second buttery vodka is made from unusable milk by-products in the small and lovable town of Almonte, Ontario.

Tyler Schramm, the head distiller at Pemberton Distillery in British Columbia is a bit of an anomaly. He is passionate about distilling...potatoes! He became interested in distilling these once his brother bought a potato farm twenty years ago. He got his masters degree in potato distillation at Heriott-Watt university in Edinburgh. Can you imagine being a student interested in making potato vodka at the education epicentre of Scotch distillation?

Schramm completed his degree and returned to Pemberton valley, an area that is agriculturally protected so that “Pemberton Potatoes” can be preserved. Most potatoes grown in Pemberton are “seed potatoes” which are cut up and sent all over north america to grow into table potatoes. Each strain of potato grown there (standard ones like yukon gold, russet, german butter) has to be checked every few years to make sure it remains a pure strain and hasn’t hybridized: it is important that each strain remain pure. Unlike many agricultural products which have increased in value, potatoes haven’t. Schramm wanted to highlight the Pemberton Potato. Inspired by the Polish potato vodkas, Pemberton Distillery started distilling vodka from potatoes - from potatoes which can’t be sold from the farmer they source from. At first it was a heavier, double-distilled product with a big earthy character but, given that customers craved something lighter, the vodka is now triple distilled to provide a lighter character but one which still has good character and earthiness. Some heavier vodka drinkers loved the original stuff, so it is released at times in small batches. As the palate is growing largely towards bigger flavours, more people are becoming interested in the original style - perhaps Pemberton was ahead of its time with its original style.

Distilling potatoes is not as easy as distilling grain. They don’t store very well (compared to grain) and change as they are stored as the starches degrade to sugars. They are about 90 percent water, with only 10 percent starch to ferment to alcohol. Schramm learned that distilling a combination of varieties results in a more balanced production process, so currently four types are used. The process is similar to making a whisky - you need to cook the potatoes (as with corn), add an enzyme, and ferment away. Each bottle of Schramm Vodka takes 15 pounds of potatoes to make. The potato gin made at Pemberton takes 18 pounds of potatoes per bottle!

The gin is good, and the vodka has nice earthy undertones that come out nicely in cocktails. But the best part here the most is the story - a distillery nodding to their environment and making something unique. Also, they are peating their own whisky with Pemberton malt and a home-made malter. As far as i know, they were the first distillery in Canada to use Canadian peat (2014).

Speaking of unique, the Dairy Distillery has it. Located in a small Ontario town, the distillery makes “Vodkow” out of milk permeate. Milk permeate is a milk by-product, essentially lactose and water once all the cream, cheese, and other milk products have been extracted. This milk permeate is not the same product as whey, as all the proteins contained in whey have been extracted. It’s a useless product to the dairy industry and is difficult to dispose - it cannot be dumped into the drain because it is full of sugar (lactose). So, usually the milk permeate is put into lagoons where the liquid cam evaporate off.

Omid McDonald had a brilliant idea - why not ferment the permeate and distill all the flavour out to make a “vodka”? It isn’t technically a vodka as it isn’t made from grain or potatoes, but it tastes like one. (Note that Canada is currently revisiting Vodka regulations). The Dairy Distillery, opened this year, gets permeate pumped directly from delivery trucks into fermenters where a special strain of yeast is used which can directly break down lactose into alcohol. In that way, it’s a very different process from grain which needs to be milled and mashed with solid by-products. Part of the production is done in partnership with the university of ottawa which helps manage the fermentation. Once it is double distilled to 96 percent ABV, and diluted to the bottling strength of 40 percent it is a clean, creamy vodka which isn’t reminiscent of milk at all. The liquid which doesn’t make it through the still is now safe to dispose of and can be dumped down the drain. The vodka goes into a milk bottle to be sold (soon to be at the LCBO). What a great idea to make a good product out of a waste by-product!

My reviews are posted separately.