Craft distilleries are popping up throughout the Pacific Northwest at a rapid pace. And while many feature gin and vodka — just as Ampersand Distilling Company does — those who can say that they’ve also crafted their own stills is few and far between.
After spending three years building the business (with one full year of recipe development), Ampersand Distilling Company opened its doors in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island in October of 2014, back when the idea of craft distilling was still somewhat new to British Columbia.
“We may have been around the tenth or twelfth at the time, but there are close to 50 or 60 licenses now,” said Jessica Schacht, one of four co-founders of the distillery. Much of that boom was due in part to an overhaul of British Columbia liquor control laws implemented by Minister Rich Coleman in 2013. According to CBC News, the changes allowed brewers and distillers to apply for on-site consumption in a tasting room, as well as the exemption of marked up direct sales for distilled liquor products consisting of 100-percent British Columbia agricultural raw materials distilled in the province.
Building a family business
Jessica Schacht and her husband Jeremy were living in Victoria when they decided to move to the Cowichan Valley. With a degree in chemical engineering, Jeremy knew he wanted to apply the knowledge of chemical processes he had learned to craft distillation. His parents, Stephen Schacht and Ramona Froehle-Schacht, both entrepreneurs in their own right, had moved from Victoria to a 5-acre organic vegetable farm in the valley before retirement, and the location seemed like the perfect fit.
“We approached them with our idea of opening a distillery on the farm, and it just went from there. We had a plan B filed away, but luckily we didn’t need it,” said Jessica. “It has allowed for a deepened relationship and respect that we have for each other, bringing all of our different skill sets together.” And those skill sets certainly came into play when designing their own stills.
Building the stills
According to Jessica, part of the reason for crafting their own stills was out of practicality. “Stephen and Jeremy are both very talented and knowledgeable in design and have the ability to build things,” she said. “That’s something Stephen instilled in Jeremy growing up.”
But the result was far more interesting than just for practicality’s sake.
Ampersand Distilling Company currently utilizes a 1000-liter pot still, as well as a 500-liter packed column still, both built thanks to the craftsmanship of Jeremy and Stephen. They used stainless steel for building due to its ease of workability, and the column still is packed with tiny coils that were made by hand to maximize surface area. And — while this technology isn’t new — the scale at which it is being used at Ampersand may be the largest in the world.
“We are able to produce an alcohol of nearly 97 percent. It easily fractions the heads, hearts and tails of the spirit run, resulting in removing all impurities and producing a high-quality product,” Jessica said.
The ability to offer a product of the highest quality was always at the forefront in developing the business, and Jeremy and Jessica were unwavering in making sure that their product would play a role in crafting the most delicious cocktails.
“We were driven by our love for craft cocktails when we developed all of this, and we’ve always loved the versatility of gin,” Jessica said. “We always said it had to make as good of a martini as it did a negroni.”