Artisan distilling is still in its infancy as an industry in B.C. but Cobble Hill’s Merridale Ciderworks saw their artisan Stair’s Pear brandy win gold and best in class at the American Distilling Association’s eighth annual competition.
They beat hundreds of other entries from all across North America.
Stair’s Pear brandy is made from B.C. Bartlett pears distilled in 2007 and aged in new French oak barrels for more than six years.
Merridale head distiller and coowner Rick Pipes said he thinks it’s still possible "to taste the skin of a pear through the smooth liquor; we think this is North America’s oldest barrel-aged pear brandy."
Merridale’s Cowichan Cider Brandy, the company’s first release, was also recognized with a silver medal.
They were thinking of going into distilling back in 2005 and by the summer of 2007, they had their distillery open.
Brandy and Merridale’s apples were a natural fit.
"There’s that famous calvados brandy from Normandy and we’re growing apples from Normandy anyway," Pipes said.
Adding a pear brandy was not a big step, Pipes said. He actually prefers the taste to apple.
Merridale is riding a wave with popular products, based on quality.
"We likened it to the idea you wouldn’t go to the grocery store to buy grapes to make your wine, why do you use grocery store apples to make cider? The distinction is the body and the flavour," he said, adding, "That same distinction in the cider comes through in the cider brandy."
As Merridale moves towards distilling vodka and, now, whisky, it is important to remember that quality ingredients affect even those products in a remarkable way.
"I remember learning about alchemy back in science class and I coined the phrase ‘distilling is not alchemy’. The concept of vodka, for instance, has always been, you are going to distill it so intensely that you are going to take all the flavour out anyway. But, people like smooth tasting vodka and you get that from good quality inputs. That’s why we started making vodka."
It’s a very marketable product, too. "I always say to people, ‘how often do you buy a bottle of brandy?’ But vodka? You drink that regularly."
After entering in Seattle he waited, and by the end of March he got an email saying the pear brandy had won.
It was a nervous wait, but well worth it; proof that the route he was travelling was the correct one.
"At Merridale, we’re focused on fruit," he said.
With apple and pear brandies and vodka now out there, he’s working towards a malt whisky, which will be made unique because it’s aging in a cider brandy barrel.
"We’ve given it a rounder edge, like an apple," he said. "But it is a true whisky and it will be six years old when it’s released."