Island Spirits Distillery: For the Love of Gin

Pete Kimmerly couldn’t stand gin until he made his own.

Image: Nik West
An ex-ship captain with 43 years of distilling experience brings B.C. Gulf Island charm to bar shelves 

“I used to hate gin,” says Hornby Island-based Island Spirits Distillery Corp. owner Pete Kimmerly with a laugh. Not a comment you’d expect from the owner of a gin-producing distillery, but then again the 61-year-old ex-icebreaker captain is full of surprises. After working for 18 years as the captain of Gulf Oil’s arctic ship the CCGS Ferry Fox, Kimmerly headed south to the Gulf Islands, taking the senior master position of B.C. Ferries’s Hornby Island ferry for 14 years before opening Island Spirits in 2007.

While the move from navigating ships to opening a distillery may seem like a bizarre one, Kimmerly’s long-time love of liquor production made it an obvious step post retirement. “I’ve been distilling for a long time. I built my first still when I was 18, with my Portuguese neighbour. Every few years we would figure out an improvement, which has resulted in dozens of stills, culminating with the current design,” he says.

A far cry from an 18-year-old’s basement project, Kimmerly now has six stills producing approximately 8,000 bottles of spirits annually. However, despite receiving orders from far-flung places such as Dubai as well as some closer to home like the U.S. and Ontario, Kimmerly plans to keep the operation small, saying that a 25 per cent jump in production to 10,000 bottles annually—with a focus on serving Western Canada—is as much as his current set-up can sustain, and therefore as much as he’d ever like to see the business grow.

Hornby Island isn’t the ideal location from which to supply 50 stores across B.C. and Alberta, and Kimmerly confirms that “freight is horrendous.” Still, a steady stream of tourists looking to fill occasionally rain-addled days has ensured that the tasting room is one of Hornby’s hot spots (it and the distillery have hit impressive one-day record sales of $6,000).

Following Kimmerly’s corporate philosophy—“make the best product we’re physically able to, while remaining retired”—the company’s Phrog Gin leverages B.C.-grown ingredients to create a drink that has what Kimmerly describes as a religious following. “It’s comforting to see people come and buy one bottle, then come back the next year and load up their truck,” he says.

Despite his initial distaste for the juniper-flavoured liquor, Kimmerly now counts it as his favourite of the 15 different tipples produced by Island Spirits, which include grappa, vodka, brandy and elderflower liqueur, the latter made from flowers grown on Kimmerly’s Hornby Island property. Straying from gin’s typical consort—a healthy pour of tonic— Kimmerly insists that his spirit is best served simply. “We were after the single-malt experience. We drink the gin with two-thirds gin and one-third water, just like a good scotch.”