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B.C.'s original craft distillery donates to help the crisis in Ukraine, equity and diversity efforts and LGBTQ rights

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a lot of B.C. businesses were looking for ways to help out—and the province’s original craft distillery, Okanagan Spirits, was no different. Early on, the distillery announced that for the month of March, it would donate 100 percent of proceeds from vodka sales to the Ukraine Emergency fund, via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

According to Okanagan Spirits’ CEO, Tyler Dyck, sales spiked immediately after the announcement—and by month’s end, over $25,000 had been contributed to UNHCR. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s not going to change the world,” Dyck admits, “but hopefully it will be of some help in a really horrific situation.”

Okanagan Spirits, with distilleries in Kelowna and Vernon, was founded in 2004 by Dyck’s father, Tony, and two other investors (since bought out by the family). While the Ukraine donation was a modest one, the effort is consistent with the family’s commitment to giving back—a commitment rooted, says Dyck, in his father’s hardscrabble upbringing.

“If you look at moonshine country—the Lumby and Cherryville area—that’s where my dad’s from,” he explains. It was a meagre existence, Dyck adds, and his father got kicked out of every school he was in. Tony (now president of Okanagan Spirits) often reflects on how things could have turned out differently. “My dad threaded the needle and lucked out in a lot of ways,” Dyck says. “Yes, he was rewarded for hard work, but he also grew up around people for whom things didn’t work out—who didn’t get a fair shake from the beginning.”

That has translated into a philanthropic focus on lifting up people who aren’t getting a fair shake. For the past several Christmas seasons, Okanagan Spirits has donated the equivalent of three hot meals for every full-sized bottle or spirits advent calendar sold, partnering with the Kelowna Gospel Mission and Vernon Upper Room Mission to get food to the region’s hungry. In 2021, around 1,800 meals were delivered in both cities.

Perhaps the biggest cause at Okanagan Spirits—one that hits close to home for the CEO—is supporting equity and diversity issues. Dyck has a twin sister, Melissa, who handles marketing and PR—and he says that, growing up, he became hyperaware of the fact that she was treated much differently when she entered the world.

Five years ago, the siblings were having a cocktail and talking about the inequities. “The gender pay stats had just come out, and my sister said, ‘You know, if we were working at some other company and not the family firm, I’d be getting paid 70 cents on the dollar what you’re getting for the same work.’”

After a few more G&Ts, the idea for Evolve—a colour-changing gin—was born. The blue hue of the gin turns pink when tonic is added—which, Dyck notes, is an apt metaphor: “The gin is the same, no matter what—but when you take it from an alkaline base to an acidic base, you’re changing the environment that gin lives in.” Proceeds from each bottle are donated to organizations championing educational and empowerment initiatives for women, or to those affected by gender discrimination.

The distillery has also become a big supporter of LGBTQ issues and Kelowna’s annual Pride event in recent years. Still, sticking their necks out on these issues in the still-conservative community hasn’t been without blowback for the family, Dyck concedes.

“In the early years, we definitely had comments on our social media and emails from people saying, ‘This is wrong,’ or ‘I thought you guys were good country folk like me.’ But we never considered not supporting these causes—it’s just well past due.”

The Push to Level Up

In addition to his responsibilities with the family firm, Tyler Dyck is president of the Craft Distillers Guild of B.C., which is fighting for equal treatment to craft breweries and wine producers on issues of taxation and production.

In B.C., says Dyck, craft distillers are only allowed to make 50,000 litres before the government imposes a 160-percent markup–“and if you go above 100,000 litres, they take away your craft licence.” As well, craft distillers pay a $3.81 excise tax per 750 mL of alcohol produced, while craft beer makers pay two cents and winemakers pay nothing.

Dyck is hopeful that, within the next few months, the province will change its rules, arguing that it’s not just a matter of fairness but economic necessity for B.C.’s 41 craft distillers, who use more agricultural inputs than wineries or brewers. “A small- to medium-size craft distillery should be able to produce around 250,000 to 350,000 bottles a year—the cost of production is just so high.”