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Dubh Glas Distillery: A small distiller with big ambitions

Dubh Glas Distillery: A small distiller with big ambitions
Grant Stevely, owner of Dubh Glas Distillery at Gallagher Lake north of Oliver, holds up a glass of his award-winning Noteworthy Gin. His ultimate goal, however, is to develop the best single malt whiskey in the world. (Richard McGuire photo)

Grant Stevely, owner of Dubh Glas Distillery at Gallagher Lake north of Oliver, holds up a glass of his award-winning Noteworthy Gin. His ultimate goal, however, is to develop the best single malt whiskey in the world. (Richard McGuire photo)

Grant Stevely, owner of Dubh Glas Distillery north of Oliver, has very high ambitions.

“My goal is to produce the best single-malt whiskey in Canada and that is my first goal,” he says. But he doesn’t stop there.

“Then eventually, the best single malt whiskey in the world.”

Considering that Dubh Glas hasn’t yet produced any single malt for sale, that may sound farfetched, but Stevely is a hard-working, meticulous perfectionist who spares no attention for detail.

And he’s driven by a passion that began some years ago when he produced small batches of single malt and later toured the distilleries of Scotland.

“I really got the bug when I was in Scotland and trying the different styles Scotland had to offer,” Stevely says.

He chuckles when he recalls that his first distilling efforts were done in the staff accommodation washroom at the Banff ski resort where he worked.

“I ran my condenser from my bathroom sink and we drained the condenser out through the bathroom drain and that’s where I started making single malt and small-batch whiskey,” he says. “I was very discreet about it. That’s an understatement.”

When Stevely began looking for his own business to start up, his passion for single-malt whiskey came to mind. And the timing was good as the craft distilling industry was starting to emerge.

In the fall of 2010, he purchased some property at Gallagher Lake and began the rezoning process and developing a business plan.

“I wanted to build a distillery from the ground up, which is distinctly different from a lot of other distilleries,” he says. “So we built the distillery with expansion in mind.”

At the heart of the operation is a German-made Arnold Holstein still. Stevely travelled to Arizona to undergo training on its use.

No sooner did Stevely open Dubh Glas Distillery in the spring of 2015, when he began winning awards for his first product, Noteworthy Gin.

The distillery had only been open for a week when Noteworthy won the award for best gin in British Columbia at the annual B.C. Distilled event in April 2015, the main craft and micro-distillery festival in the province.

This year Noteworthy was also named one of the top 75 spirits available in B.C. at the Vancouver International Spirits Competition.

“Dubh Glas” is Scottish Gaelic for “from the dark water.” It’s pronounced “Douglas,” which happens to be Stevely’s middle name.

It also reflects the importance he gives to the water used to make spirits, which he draws from a well on his land.

The problem with single-malt whiskey is that it takes at least three years to mature in barrels. So it will be a while yet before Stevely can start selling it.

“I looked at other spirits that I could make in the interim while our whiskey is aging so we can pay to keep the lights on,” says Stevely. “I began researching gins.”

He decided it must be unique to stand out from the crowd. It couldn’t be the same style of London dry gins that everybody else is making.

In the end, he chose eight botanicals that give Noteworthy Gin its unique flavour.

These are full fresh oranges, coriander seed, French lavender and yellow yarrow flower to provide the citrusy, floral forward nature of the gin.

To back it up with a bit of a spice note, he includes Ceylon cinnamon and allspice. For the juniper, a key ingredient of gin, he chose a sweet Eastern European juniper berry from Bulgaria. As a backing sweetener, he uses Madagascar bourbon vanilla beans.

Most recently Dubh Glas has introduced a new product called “Virgin Spirits.” It’s 100 per cent malted barley, unfiltered, un-aged and bottled at 50 per cent alcohol.

Although he can’t call it a whiskey – to be a whiskey it must be aged – it is the same spirit that is being put into barrels at the distillery to become future single-malt whiskey.

Stevely said he was receiving demand for a vodka and when he shared the new spirit with people, they wanted to buy bottles right away.

“It’s a really complex new spirit. It’s really polished, so I’m very proud of that,” he said.

Nothing is added – it’s just barley, yeast and water. But Stevely said the complexity is achieved by starting with 100 per cent B.C. barley, using a whiskey strain of yeast, and putting it through a double distillation process.

From there it’s a question of running the still at the right speed to produce a complex-tasting spirit.

When Stevely talks about his future ambition of producing the best single malt whiskey in Canada and eventually the world, he acknowledges that he’s never going to make a lot of it. He’s going for quality rather than quantity.

“I want to produce the best and that comes with new innovative maturation techniques,” he said. “We have a great base spirit right now.”

The warm climate of the Okanagan lends itself to accelerated maturation, Stevely said, adding that he also has unique barrels that he’ll use in a traditional way.

He echoes the words of a veteran distiller, John Hall of Forty Creek Whisky in Grimsby Ontario: “We can respect tradition, but we don’t have to be bound by that tradition.”

Stevely says that will be his approach as he seeks to innovate.

“For me I want to be known for complex spirits,” he says. “Our single-barreled products are all going to be unique, in their own right.”

Stevely, who regularly offers tastes of his products at local farmers markets and in the Dubh Glas tasting room, is grateful for the support he’s received from the local community.

But his ambitions extend beyond the South Okanagan.

“I want to be known on a bigger stage than just locally,” he says.

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