On my first trip to Vancouver Island, I visited the northeastern part of the island. When I returned in April 2023, the first item on my agenda was to visit to Victoria Distillers. Located in Sidney, British Colombia the distillery was one I followed virtually in Instagram when travel between the US and Canada was suspended. Looking at the views from the distillery while sipping Empress 1908 gin at home, gave me something to look forward to. By the time travel was permitted again, Victoria Distillers had closed its cocktail lounge in order to expand production. This also discontinued public tours, but I was still able to sneak a peek and have a tasting. Special thanks to Tomás and the team for the warm welcome.
I love visiting distilleries. Even though the methods of distilling spirits are similar, I think the nuances are interesting to explore. Victoria Distillers has the distinction of being one of Canada’s oldest small-batch spirit companies. They use the crystal-clean local water and a highly sustainable distilling process. They even created a closed-loop geothermal system that provides heat to the rooms in the hotel next door. The distillery has a tasting room where you can sample and purchase all of their spirits.
The Tasting Room
We tried four of the Empress 1908 gins, including a brand new product. The Elderflower Rose Gin is as beautiful as it is flavorful. It’s currently only available at the distillery, but should be hitting the US later this year. During our visit, we learned more about the most-recognized product in their gin line, the Empress Indigo Gin. Known for its beautiful violet hue, thanks to butterfly tea blossom, the gin has become popular for cocktail photographers in particular. Not only is it pretty as is, changing the pH of the gin with the addition of citrus brings a magical color-change effect to your glass. Best of all, it’s completely natural, with no color additives. Another interesting tidbit is that the color was a secondary benefit, since the ingredients were selected primarily for flavor.
In addition to the gins, we also tried their whisky, which was quite good. When you’re primarily into distilling gin, you don’t need to hurry your whisky to market. This has allowed them to wait until just the right time to release small batches of it. We also tried the hemp vodka and the chocolate liqueur, which is made with a local chocolatier’s leftover cacao nibs and husks. Both were smooth and delicious. They also produce a spiced molasses spirit and a brandy which is only available in the tasting room. All of the spirits were really lovely.
Other Places to Go When you Visit Victoria Distillers
After a spirits tasting, some food is always a good idea. Luckily, there’s a very popular and delicious restaurant just a few steps away from the distillery. If you come in the off-season, The Surly Mermaid isn’t too crowded, but be prepared to wait in the warmer months. They serve really tasty food, like the calamari and Korean-style cauliflower wings. I also enjoyed “The Girl Next Door” which features Empress 1908 Indigo Gin, passionfruit tea syrup, lemon, and bubbles. It was light and refreshing.
After lunch, I suggest a 35-minute drive into Victoria to check out the Empress 1908 Gin’s namesake, the Empress Hotel. (Now the Fairmont Empress.) Founded in 1908, and overlooking the harbor, the hotel was built when the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to build grand hotels across the country. The city of Victoria formed around the hotel. Today, the hotel is still a big draw for tourists and locals alike. Enjoy afternoon tea or a spa treatment to round out your day.