Weekend Warrior: The surf is often up for Jason MacIsaac

The Sheringham Distillery co-owner catches waves off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Credit: Nik West

MacIsaac learned to surf after moving to Vancouver Island as a teenager

The Sheringham Distillery co-owner catches waves off the coast of Vancouver Island

Don’t ask Jason MacIsaac where he likes to surf. Apart from “mostly on Vancouver Island,” all he will say is that surf culture is territorial and protective of its locations.

As it happens, for nearly two decades MacIsaac lived in Jordan River, a small community west of Sooke known for the sport. What brought him there was a job as a chef at Point-No-Point Resort in 2000, but he’d surfed since moving to the Island 10 years earlier. “It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to learn to do,” MacIsaac confesses. “It’s always challenging, but it’s also enjoyable.”

Born in Nova Scotia, MacIsaac relocated with his family to Alberta at the age of three. He grew up and completed most of his schooling in Fort McMurray, attending Grade 12 in Victoria, where the MacIsaacs moved in 1990. After graduating from Dubrulle French Culinary School in Vancouver three years later, he studied with master chefs locally and abroad, reading cookbooks and experimenting with recipes to develop his own style. MacIsaac cooked professionally for 23 years, the last 10 or so as a private chef in Abu Dhabi, Australia, Germany, Vietnam and elsewhere.

“As a chef, I always had a burning curiosity about distilling,” he confides—and Jordan River was once a hotbed for that, too. Behind the house where MacIsaac lived was an old moonshine shack. He showed some bottles he’d found there to a former resident of the area, who told him distilling was once a common local activity.

“In fact, when [that person was] younger, in the ’60s, they saw a still that was cooking up liquor in the basement of the Jordan River Hotel,” MacIsaac reveals. “They’d be selling it upstairs illegally in the pub. I said, OK, I’m building a still.” He sent away to a chemist in New Zealand for plans, and so began a new hobby.

“Fast-forward to I was cooking for a private party at a mansion in Victoria, and they were discussing the change in policy where the craft designation would be implemented,” says MacIsaac. In 2013, the provincial government eliminated the markup on distilled liquor made from 100-percent B.C. agricultural products if directly distributed by the producer, similar to the regulations for wineries. “You could do a smaller scale without having to jump to a commercial level,” MacIsaac explains.

In 2015, following a couple of years of research, he and his wife, Alayne, launched Sheringham Distillery in Shirley, near Jordan River.

Apart from distilling, MacIsaac has a passion for vintage Harley-Davidsons. He owns two, having sold a couple of others to buy more stills when the distillery expanded and relocated to Sooke. He also likes fishing and hunting: mule deer in the Chilcotin, white-tailed east of Vernon and Columbian black-tailed on Vancouver Island.

“I love cooking and eating and enjoying wild game,” he says. “It’s fantastic. It’s the fact that you can harvest it yourself, and then the whole procedure from hunting to field dressing, butchering, right to the plate. You can control it the whole time, so you can have respect for it, the whole process.” He, Alayne and their daughter live off wild game for most of the year, sharing anything extra with extended family, friends and colleagues.

As for surfing, the timing always depends on when conditions are right. “It dictates when you go,” MacIsaac admits. “You can’t really schedule it in.”

Warrior Spotlight

Sheringham Distillery takes its name from the small community west of Sooke on southern Vancouver Island where the business was founded in 2015. The area was originally called Sheringham, shortened to Shirley to fit on a postage stamp in 1893, when the first post office opened there. The location also plays a role in the ingredients for the distillery’s spirits. Former chef Jason MacIsaac, who co-owns the business with his wife, Alayne, sources agricultural products from local farmers.

In 2018, Sheringham Distillery expanded and moved to a new facility in nearby Sooke. Last February, the U.K.-based World Gin Awards judged the company’s Seaside Gin the best contemporary gin. The distillery’s newest product is non-alcoholic Bright Light Alt-Gin, available since November at select private liquor stores and specialty food markets.