By Steve Hubrecht

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An independent Columbia Valley distillery earned some eye-catching results at one of the world’s foremost spirits shows.

Taynton Bay Spirits’ all-natural vodka won a gold medal and a ‘best in show by country’ at this year’s London Spirits Competition. It was the top-scoring vodka from Canada, the top-scoring vodka from North America, and the third-highest scoring vodka in the world, out of a field of more than 170.

The distillery’s gin got a silver medal, and its popular raspberry vodka got a bronze at the London, England event.

“It’s one of the biggest international competitions we can enter, and it’s a really big deal for us. It’s open to everybody, so there are big brands there as well as independent craft distillers like us,” said Taynton Bay Spirits co-owner Justin Atterbury. “This is a big feather in our cap.”

Taynton Bay’s all-natural vodka scored 93 out of a possible 100 points.

What’s the key to making a top-notch vodka right here in the Columbia Valley?

According to Atterbury it’s all a matter of patience.

“It really comes down to having a slower process. You have to take a lot of time with the product. It takes time to learn how to make it right. The vodka we make now is night-and-day different than what we did five years ago when we started,” Atterbury told the Pioneer. 

Atterbury was quick to add that “people who know me” know that patience is not my strong point” and said credit for the awards belongs mostly to his fellow partners Chris Genovese, Jason Powers, Steve Kuffler and Ricky Ebuenga.

“It really is a story of learning,” Genovese told the Pioneer, adding that the company entered the same contest in 2020, and its all-natural vodka earned a bronze then.       

That just fired up the local distillers to do even better, he added.

“You are constantly taste testing all the big brands (of vodka) and then going back to the books, so to speak, and refining. You’re always tinkering, refining and changing things, until you have a product that is so clean it becomes outstanding,” said Genovese. “We keep improving the filtration process, improving the equipment, and trying to make each batch better.”

Taynton Bay Spirits uses local ingredients as much as possible, and begins its vodka with wheat grown on Schutter Farms just south of Invermere.

“Having Egbert (Schutter)’s ‘magic wheat’ certainly helps make our vodka what it is,” said Atterbury.

Taynton Bay Spirits is especially proud to score so well with its vodka, because vodka is one of the trickiest spirits to do well, noted Genovese.

“There’s nothing to hide behind. With gin, for instance, you add botanicals, so you do have a little bit of room for error. Not with vodka. It is the rawest form of the art of distilling. If it’s not good, it’s not good. You simply have to be good at making it. There’s no flavours to mask anything,” said Genovese.

He explained that distilling wheat creates its own subtle natural flavours at each point of the distilling process. Some of these flavours come off at the start of the process, and others at the end. Some are good flavours and others are “off flavours, almost like nail polish.”

Figuring out exactly which parts of the process create which flavours and tweaking the vodka recipe accordingly is how Taynton Bay keeps improving its vodka, said Genovese. “The key seems to be learning what flavours you don’t want, and then figuring out how to take them out of the vodka. It’s a long process, and it’s a real team effort.”

“It is kind of overwhelming to get gold. It is such a great honour,” Powers told the Pioneer.

“The Taynton Bay family is so proud of this accomplishment. We couldn’t have done it without the support of all our valued clientele Canada-wide. We can’t wait to take it to the moon,” added Kuffler.

Just getting the spirits to the competition in the first place is no small feat.  When Taynton Bay first entered the contest three years ago, the duties, customs and paperwork ran to more than a thousand dollars just to get four bottles of vodka and gin into the United Kingdom. Then the shipment ended up stuck in a customs warehouse, because the total payment was a few dollars off.

The only way to get the shipment out of that warehouse was to pay in person, or to have someone with an address in the UK pay by credit card. Luckily Atterbury has an English brother-in-law living in Toronto. That brother-in-law has a sister living in the UK who was able to go to the warehouse, pay the extra money and get the spirits to show “just in time,” explained Atterbury.