Stills alive and well

Every year, 761,000 litres of wine and spirits are sold within the Yukon territory, a quantity equal to 24 litres per person, or one and a half shots per person, per day. Until 2007, every drop of this $14-million worth of...

Every year, 761,000 litres of wine and spirits are sold within the Yukon territory, a quantity equal to 24 litres per person, or one and a half shots per person, per day.

Until 2007, every drop of this $14-million worth of wine and spirits had to be imported from southern markets.

For some Yukon entrepreneurs, importing wine, whiskey and gin into the Yukon territory was like importing snow.

“It’s a perfect place to have a beverage industry, especially a high quality vodka industry,” said Dorian Amos, co-founder of Klondike Vodka, the territory’s first distillery, launched late last year.

By an archaic government decree, any homegrown manufacturing of wine or spirits was deemed strictly illegal, to the chagrin of would-be whiskey makers.

“Certainly there was interest, both for the production of wines, and the production of spirits,” said Virginia Labelle, vice-president of the Yukon Liquor Corporation.

“We had people approaching us on a regular basis,” she said.

While engaged in the early stages of developing a whiskey-distilling business plan, the Yukon Brewing Company suddenly discovered that their spirit ambitions were prohibited by law.

“This is an issue,” the brewing company reportedly told the Yukon Liquor Corporation.

In June 2007, the law was overturned, finally allowing Yukoners into an industry long practiced by all 10 Canadian provinces.

Dawson City residents Bridget and Dorian Amos first heard the news over the radio.

“Because it was a new industry coming to the territory we thought we better look into it, because we’ve never been in a place where a new industry’s actually come up,” said Amos.

With their legal quandaries removed, Yukon Brewing placed an order with a German firm to obtain the equipment to spearhead the company’s distilling realm.

Beer breweries—even microbreweries—typically have to be relatively large-scale operations, incorporating complex networks of manufacturing, and distribution.

A distillery or winery, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be large—or even accessible by road.

“The distilleries in Scotland that have done so well with their full-flavoured scotches are tiny,” said Yukon Brewing Company president Bob Baxter.

“And what could be more in the middle of nowhere than Scotland?” he said.

Klondike Vodka has a staff of only two—founders Dorian and Bridget Amos—and is located in an isolated log cabin in the community of West Dawson City

Of course, while Scotch distilleries can draw upon Scotch ingredients, the near non-existence of Yukon agriculture means the base ingredients of any Yukon wine or spirit has to come from the south.

Wines by Design owner Coreen Wells batted around the idea of expanding her you-brew business into a full-fledged winery, but geography had other ideas.

“To try and grow grapes up here is impossible,” said Wells.

As a result, any would-be winery would need to import its grapes, which would need to be done on a refrigerator truck.

“That becomes pretty costly when you’re trying to make a living off of it—for the price increase that you would have to charge on the finished product,” said Wells.

Both Klondike Vodka and Yukon Brewing must import their wheat, barley and rye—but the water is local … obviously.

“We believe a great portion of the quality of spirits is the water,” said Baxter.

“But we’d certainly look at some of the herbs and wild botanicals that grow here,” he added.

Gin is essentially a vodka that is redistilled with juniper berries—a prominent feature of any Yukon boreal forest.

Absinthe—the legendary green fairy—may also one day be produced at the Yukon Brewing Copper Road plant.

“We think we can make it with indigenous ingredients, and it’s full of flavour, so it lends itself to a craft approach,” said Baxter.

Wormwood, the legendary active ingredient of absinthe is also an abundant member of Yukon flora.

The manufacture of spirits enables Yukoners passage into a potentially lucrative export industry.

“Beer doesn’t like to be exported: It doesn’t like heat and cold, it’s carbonated, it goes stale,” said Baxter, who exports beer to BC and Ontario.

“None of those factors apply to spirits—and there’s also a lot more attached to the value of the product for its weight,” he said.

Companies in Germany and England have already contacted Klondike Vodka in the hopes of importing some of the Klondike’s first non-gold export.

The international fame and mystery of the Klondike is essentially a “massive marketing machine,” said Amos.

“The Yukon name carries a tremendous amount of equity, and while we may think that it’s a little worn out because we’ve used it for beer for a long time, it’s not worn out for markets outside the Yukon, that’s for sure,” said Baxter.

In addition to name, the Klondike Vodka distillery stays religiously close to the Yukon’s quintessential frontier image.

Small quantities of placer gold are pinched into every bottle, and the bottles are sealed by an old-fashioned black wax process. The labour intensive distillery tries to manufacture 24 bottles per day, although the demands of frontier existence can cause that number to fluctuate.

“It’s manufactured in the bush, so you have to live with the fact that nothing’s going to be fairly smooth,” said Amos.

“Except the vodka, of course,” he added.

Contact Tristin Hopper at