As a high school summer project, Graeme Macaloney worked in the Black & White Whisky factory in Scotland. He didn’t know it then, but this would eventually lead him across the world to Victoria, British Columbia, to open his own single-malt distillery and brewery.
After he graduated, Macaloney attended a prestigious four-year university in Scotland for microbiology. From there he went to the University of London — one of the top two programs in the world for bioprocess engineering — which specializes in the manufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals. This eventually led him to a Ph.D. in fermentation.
Macaloney explains that after receiving his degrees, he actually had trouble finding work as a brewer or distiller. “That sad irony is people saying, ‘Graeme, you’re overqualified, we don’t need a Ph.D. engineer,’” he says.
PH.D. TO VICTORIA, BC
But all of those years of hard work and study were bound to pay off, just on slightly different terms at first. Macaloney began receiving offers to work in the medical field and put his knowledge of bioprocess and fermentation into antibiotics, which took him to Alberta to work in biotechnology. Here, he says he got connected with a number of venture capitalists.
“I knew how to raise money, I had big corporate training on how to manage a company and I’d watched a startup company,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just go and create a job for myself?’” Taking his past work experience, and combining them with his current status as a well-connected person in Canada, the lifelong single-malt whisky connoisseur did exactly that.
Macaloney crowd-sourced funds from over 270 independent Canadian investors to get a distillery up and running, while simultaneously explaining to the Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada how this distillery would be using Canadian barley to make a high-caliber single malt whisky. Together, Macaloney successfully raised more than $2.4 million to start his production and decided to do so in Victoria, BC.
The results of his years of work and dedication is Victoria Caledonian Distillery, one of the largest single-malt distilleries on the continent, and its sibling, Twa Dogs Brewery. The joint operation opened its doors in 2016, capitalizing on Victoria’s thriving tourism economy.
“We knew that hosting tours and tastings for tourists would be massively valuable in creating ambassadors, people that come and have a personal attachment to the distillery,” he says.
When he was building the distillery, Macaloney knew he wanted to have control over smoking his own barley. He was able to achieve that through designing his own full-scale commercial smoker to have onsite.
“When [we] commissioned our first peat run here, I sent samples back to Scotland to get tested and it came back at 54 parts per million,” the Scotsman says, noting the famous Lagavulin Scotch whisky tests in at around 50 parts per million. “We hit the ball out of the park.”
THE STRONG STUFF
Single malt whisky takes years to mature, some even mature for half a century. So how do you start a new brand if you have to wait decades before you can sell product and make any money? Macaloney had several solutions to this problem and it is one of the reasons why he built the brewery as a joint project — also he says not everyone is a whisky drinker and having the brewery is a great entry point to the stronger stuff.
Dr. Jim Swan — fellow Scotsman and legendary whisky distiller — provided Macaloney with the resolution to his battle against time. Macaloney brought Swan on what he calls a “Canadian exclusive,” so no other distillery in Canada would be able to use Swan as a consultant.
“He told me that he’d have me a solid, approachable whisky that people will appreciate within two years,” Macaloney says. “I thought that was far too brash of him, I’ve had five-year single malt, but two years, no way.”
It turned out the doctor was right: Macaloney reports the whisky was already incredible after one year. He bottled 50 bottles at the company’s one-year anniversary party and sold out that night. He next put a 15-month whisky into a blind tasting contest at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and it scored 91 points next to some of the most well-known makers on the market, like the 17-year Highland Park Scotch.
Victoria Caledonian Distillery currently offers a number of guest Scotches alongside the Mac Na Braiche, the one-year aged whisky. The guest list includes five Scotch whiskys, distilled in partnership with some of the best whisky makers in Scotland. The distillery also offers a cask owner program where customers can choose from 10 different cask types and design their own whisky, returning to taste the spirit as it ages and sealing with a bottling event.
Now more than three years later, Victoria Caledonian Distillery is going stronger than ever. It was named Best Canadian New Make in the 2018 World Whiskies Awards. The distillery is the first in the country to peat-smoke its barley at the distillery, making it the first Canadian peated whisky using local ingredients, and it is also Canada’s first crowd-funded distillery. The part-ownership investors receive comes with all sorts of perks, like whisky tours, brandy jackets and an academy.
The man that helped Macaloney design his flagship whiskey, Dr. Swan, passed away in 2017. But the batch he helped make is still rolling out and getting stronger with age; and Macaloney is continuing his legacy and churning out exquisite whisky with scientific precision.