Fernie Distillers: Thinking Outside the Box

By: Adrienne Roman

cozy bar facility

The first licensed craft distillery in Fernie, East Kootenays, British Columbia, opened its doors July 1, 2018, and there’s a good reason why their vodka, gin and liqueurs are flying off the shelves. Husband and wife team Jillian Rutherford and Andrew Hayden dedicate themselves to expanding sustainable practices, preserving Fernie’s industrious history, and providing small-batch, high-quality spirits individually created with local, seasonal ingredients.

The Present Is The Key To The Past

  Fernie’s name originated with prospector William Fernie, founder of the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company, who, along with Colonel James Baker, was influential in the development of the first mine in Coal Creek, just east of Fernie, in 1897.

  By 1898, the Canadian Pacific Railway also came to Fernie, transporting coal and supplying goods. With the rapid growth in mining, logging quickly became the second-largest industry. Unfortunately, with its mainly wooden foundations, two tragic fires in 1904 and 1908 completely devastated the town, but it was rebuilt using brick and stone in 1910.

  Rutherford told Beverage Master Magazine how this relates to the distillery. “In Geology, looking at modern environments like beaches and reef systems helps to find and identify similar features in the rock record. The present is the key to the past. If we flip that around, we feel that Fernie’s past informs our present. We are here because of what Fernie used to be—a mining- and rail-influenced community—and it’s important to remember how we arrived here, not just what we are now. We decided to incorporate Fernie’s history in our branding because as great as the outdoor recreation is here, the town is more than a one-trick pony. We have history.”

A Focus on Fruit

  Collaborating with local talent who also support their community, Rutherford and Hayden understand the importance of initiatives in place that keep both the people and the wildlife of Fernie safe. With a large number of fruit trees in East Kootenays, local Initiatives like “Apple Capture” and “WildsafeBC” help to ensure appropriately controlled harvests. Fruit is picked and managed to avoid falling and rotting, which can attract large deer and bears to the area. The mash supply from the production of their vodka and gin also helps to feed local farm animals. 

Mixology Manifestos

  The bar and tasting lounge at Fernie Distillers has a welcoming atmosphere and unique cocktails, where traditional takes a sharp turn in favor of modern creations with a twist. “The big window into the production room gives our guests the opportunity to see the stills and other tanks,” Rutherford said.

  Plastic does not feature in any of their cocktail presentations. Instead, decorative garnishes are made from an array of fruit, including apples, kiwis, strawberries, lemons, oranges, and pineapples. “A really great garnish should be clever, it should elevate a drink, and it should enhance the carefully mixed flavors. It should surprise and entice, and most of all, it should look and taste fantastic. In short, it should be an integral part of the drink, not a limp afterthought,” Rutherford said.

  There are several interesting DIY garnish ideas listed on the Farewell Umbrellas blog post on their website. Their cocktail menu changes with the seasons and is known for its creative approaches.

  Andy Ward, Fernie Distillery’s bar manager, named the FD G&T as the most popular cocktail. Rutherford added, “It doesn’t sound exciting, but it’s so delicious, and a familiar and approachable choice. We get people from all walks of life visiting us, and not all are adventurous for the first drink. When they come back after a great first experience, they often branch out, maybe with a stinger or a martini.” The FD G&T is made with gin, lemon sherbet, lime juice, and house-made lavender bitters topped with tonic.

Tools of Transformation

  Recycled materials are seamlessly incorporated into a number of the distillery’s features.

  A section of the old Calgary Molson Brewery bottling conveyor belt acts as the front face of the bar. It was given to the distillery by a friend who reconditions brewery equipment. Repurposed doors are part of the decor. The bar shelves are refinished slabs of British Columbia Douglas fir, previously part of horseshoe pits where the patio now sits. Similarly, their bar top is salvaged British Columbia Douglas fir timbers from 1903, once used as power pole cross beams by AltaLink in Southern Alberta.

Sustainable Spirit

  True sustainability is much more than just a word. Visibly expanding its many branches through smaller steps, together with the implementation of new and innovative ideas, remains an absolute priority for the team at Fernie Distillers.

  They’re actively working to reduce their environmental impact in many ways, and hope that their efforts will influence others to follow suit. By locally sourcing ingredients and reducing their carbon transportation footprint, they’re building connections with their community, and in turn, supporting the economic structure of the area. The distillery has also gone green with their Yarai acrylic barware, and only use recycled paper bags for all the sales in their shop. Neighboring businesses have also abandoned plastic. Rutherford and Hayden believe that spreading the word about these initiatives will help create an environment where sustainable practices are increasingly accessible, better understood, and more easily implemented.

  A project in sustainability was Rutherford’s latest brainchild. She wondered what could be done with the distillery’s hundreds of continuously used barley bags. After speaking with the sewing room teacher at The Fernie Academy School, a progressive student project took flight. Starting in September 2019, students will work to reconfigure them into attractive reusable shopping bags, and 100% of the proceeds from the sales will go directly to the school.

Fernie Fog and No.9 Mine

  A Fernie Distillery best seller, Fernie Fog liqueur was born from the idea of creating a black tea and bergamot infused blend with just the right amount of demerara sugar and vanilla. “It’s versatile and unique, and has really struck a chord with our customers,” Rutherford said.

  Their No. 9 Mine Vodka is wheat-based and rich in flavor, acknowledging the history of the Fernie miners who toiled below ground during the mine’s prosperous operation. Although dismantled in 1958, the mine’s remnants still sit along the Coal Creek Heritage Trail. Visitors to the area can still view the conveyor building, decaying ventilation fans and blocked tunnel entrances. 

  Infused with juniper, citrus fruit, and botanicals, the distillery’s blog deems Fernie’s Prospector Gin, “a clean, pure spirit, which can be perfectly flavored by the distiller or mixologist, or enjoyed in its most honest and raw form.”

  The distillery produces new spirits and liqueurs seasonally. They recently released 5th and Park Damson Gin, made with locally grown damsons that are picked just 500 meters off the property in Fernie Gardens.

The Usual Suspects and The Oddballs

  There’s a little something for everyone at Fernie Distillers, from that refreshing daiquiri made with pineapple and green cardamom-infused vodka, to an old fashioned stinger on hand-cut ice. Looking for different and unusual? They’ve got that covered too. Try the vodka espresso, a smooth mix of their No. 9 Mine Vodka, Fernie Fog, cold brew coffee, demerara sugar, Miraculous Foamer bitters, house coffee, cacao bitters and nutmeg.

  Whether skiing the slopes in winter or biking the beauty of the Elk River Valley trails in the summer months, Fernie Distillers offers guests excellent service and products. Their success is fueled by the dedication of those who live and work in a vibrant and historic town dripping with myth and legend.

With less than 200 bottles per batch and one of the industry’s few female distillers at the helm, Fernie Distillers proudly recognizes and celebrates all that Fernie has to offer, one exceptional spirit at a time.

  Fernie Distillers is open every day of the week except Tuesday. Fall cocktail hours are 4-10 p.m. on weekdays and 2-10 p.m. on weekends throughout ski season.

For more information, visit their website at…https://www.ferniedistillers.com


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