Victoria: a spirit, a destination

article and photosby Pamela Irving


If you liked sodas when you were a kid, you might just guess the secret ingredient in Victoria gin. While it's only one of ten botanicals used in this gorgeous handcrafted spirit, you can taste the 's' for secret if you hearken back to those heady days with frothy foam in a frosted mug.

Do not be fooled however. Victoria gin is a sophisticated spirit, not for children or childlike palates. The wild-gathered organic botanicals and natural Island spring water imbue a complex flavour profile.

The founders of 'Vic Gin' or VG enjoy a cheeky relationship to the Victorian influence still visible in the namesake city. Even the VG labels portray a rather blousy, brazen Queen Victoria, not the stuff of postage stamps or the Buckingham Palace photo gallery. They take this cheeky attitude to the penultimate English drink-gin, and re-dress the drink as a quixotic elixir.

Try it with just a few rocks to release the viscosity as you would a single malt, and you will be transported to a lofty juniper high pairing well with foods that feature the botanicals. This is a playful gin, so play with it. Try it as an aperitif or dessert drink. The Angelica, while protecting you from witches will also enhance any fennel to licorice-y foods you might nibble on-like real licorice pure and simple. The citrus would pair well with lemon chiffon Angel food cake.

Strong on the nose with aftertaste to match, the peppery notes are coriander, so try it with your favourite curry. Historically, London style gin and Indian cuisine were forced to cohabitate through colonization.

Get a modern day taste of colonial India at the Bengal Lounge in Victoria's Fairmont Empress, with a skinned tiger on the wall, falling short of the staff calling you Sahib as you enter the opulent room. The Fairmont Group has taken cocktails more seriously than most, and established a relationship to VG early in the game, launching it in May 2008 with The Empress 1908 cocktail specially designed for its release. The frothy egg white is the icing on this full-bodied cocktail featuring VG spirits. I recommend it late afternoon after sightseeing or a visit to VG distillery.

To get to the 'root' of the gin, nip by for a tour of the wood-fired copper pot still, conducted by master distiller and molecular biologist Peter Hunt, 31.  Download the map at VG's website to insure you find it amid the maze of backroads on the Saanich peninsula. Adjacent to a small vineyard, the distillery and tasting room are in a barn, giving it a lovely illicit still quality that all Victorian spirits should have. Use the breathtaking in-house 'Twisted and Bitter' in your cocktails. If you live in Victoria, Valerie, Peter's mom, offers free delivery on her bicycle. As if this were not enough to keep the small family-owned VG operation racing to keep up with the demand, EAT magazine just gave it the Gold Award for the 'favourite local beverage Victorians love to introduce friends and visitors to.' Slated to tie the knot in July to Natalie, whom Peter met while volunteering at a hospital in Africa, Peter tells us that he is looking forward to married life and new marketing ventures.

VG is introducing hemp vodka soon-using hemp grown by Peter's uncle. Hemp-the ultimate botanical is bold and nicely bitter against a neutral spirit. "VG is only available in BC and Ontario now, but in the future, we hope to be available across Canada, but must ensure we can keep up with market demand," says Peter while offering us a wee taste of VG spirits, his arm around Natalie.

For a total VG destination experience - stay at the Chateau Victoria (same queen, different venue) in downtown Victoria. The penthouse suite has deluxe 360 views of Mount Baker and the Inner Harbour, perfect for cocktail parties.

On the main floor, you can sip VG at Clive's Lounge with mixologist Shawn Soole presiding. Clive's is a must for any cocktail crawl. Savoski Crystal lamps shed little rainbows of light on the bar while special evenings pay homage to the world of cocktails with Shawn as a one-man show with the shaker. The Chateau Vic feels like family, in part due to GM Michelle LeSage's personal style.

Victoria is really a village with big city aspirations and architecture. Get a sense of the underbelly of 'Victoria the Staid' with Victoria Gin in your hip flask while trouncing through Trounce Alley or nipping into Silk Road Teas in Chinatown for a lesson in tea infusions in spirits from owner Daniela Cubelic for a new twist on High Tea.

Nobody really takes Victoria the Staid seriously any more except the secret society of Loyalists, but it's no secret that Victoria is a hotbed of hip cuisine and cocktails with Victoria Gin on the best menus in town.