Grape-free guzzling in Canada’s wine country
Verdant hills surround Kelowna, the Okanagan's capital city. (John Lee)
A one-hour flight from big-city Vancouver, British Columbia’s bucolic Okanagan Valley has long been one of Canada’s top wine destinations. But while thirsty oenophiles can merrily weave their way around the more than 100 wineries that radiate from the regional capital Kelowna, there is also a full menu of additional libations to whet your whistle – if you know where to look.
The focal point of downtown Kelowna’s Okanagan Spirits is the gleaming steampunk-style copper still that sits in the corner and cranks out a wide array of artisanal booze. Deploying British Columbia-grown fruit to full effect, the company concocts 25 spirits on site, including fruit liquors such as blueberry and sea buckthorn, and a taste bud-popping prune brandy called Old Italian. But the biggest lure might just be the company’s wormwood absinthe. Smooth, warming and laced with liquorice flavours, it is usually one of the tastings that curious visitors partake of.
Spirit fans also belly-up to the tasting bar at across-town Urban Distilleries. Alongside hand-bottled tipples like amber rum – with its lightly-fruited palate and sweet finish – and rich, chocolate-noted espresso vodka made with coffee beans from a local roaster, the distillery’s highlight is the smooth, highly-sippable Spirit Bear gin, flavoured with apple and citrus. An ideal sunny afternoon quaff, its rainy day equivalent is the company’s velvety single malt whisky; a block of oak barrel bobs in each bottle, deepening the liquor’s hue as it ages.
Beer by nature
Reflecting British Columbia’s surging craft beer renaissance – the province is arguably
Canada’s top region for microbreweries – the Okanagan is home to popular ale producers like Penticton’s Cannery Brewing and Oliver’s Firehall Brewery, as well as smaller neighbourhood spots like Freddy’s Brewpub, where the dark and nutty Brownstone Ale is recommended.
But the star of the local beer scene is Tree Brewing. Headquartered in Kelowna, its top-selling tipples include the smoothly-malted Cutthroat Pale Ale, the crisply-quaffable Thirsty Beaver Amber Ale and the near-legendary Hop Head IPA, a lip-puckering, hoppy brew.
Visitors can sample beers at the tiny tasting room bar or take a behind-the-scenes tour with tastings and a souvenir glass (Fridays and Saturdays by appointment only). Whichever way you swing your visit, be sure to try the latest seasonal brews: the Halloween period’s nutmeg-noted Jumpin’ Jack Pumpkin Ale and winter’s smooth, vanilla-flecked Vertical Winter Ale.
Cider houses rule
Settled by pioneering fruit farmers long before its wine region reputation kicked in,
Okanagan locals have been making their own cider from the area’s bounty for decades. But while historic home-based cider is hard to quantify, several commercial operations open their doors to visitors.
Tree Brewing makes its own dry apple variety under the Dukes Cider brand, while the signature drink at South Okanagan’s Orchard Hill is a crisp Red Roof Cider.
But the Ross family has been doing their thing at the orchard-striped East Kelowna
Cider Company for longer than most. Samples in the farm’s cabin-like tasting room run from non alcoholic peach, cherry and apple ciders to the signature “hard” variety. This dry cider blended from local apples, including Spartans and Macintoshes, is joined by an alcoholic ice cider made from Golden Delicious apples that are left to freeze on the trees and are harvested in winter.
If you are feeling delicate the next morning, grab a restorative applewood smoked bacon breakfast wrap at Kelowna’s Okanagan Street Food or a large, frothy cappuccino at the coffee shop favourite Bean Scene. The three-venue, family-owned operation roasts its own java at its flagship location on Kelowna’s Dickson Avenue.
If a more extensive hangover cure is required, the region’s Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm offers refreshing – and rehydrating – lavender lemonade plus a fresh air wander through its carefully cultivated flower-strewn grounds.
Finally, make a beeline for nearby Arlo’s Honey Farm where you can peer at the buzzing hives and sample a sweet tasting or two – go for the recuperative wildflower variety. Before leaving, pick up some puff-reducing honey eye serum in the farm shop to apply behind your sunglasses.