Blair Wilson looks up at the steam wafting from the crown of his copper still. The sweet smell of apples enters the nostrils as the vapour passes through two shiny plated columns that resemble giant flutes. The steam condenses back to a liquid, drops, then evaporates before continuing its journey. The process repeats and repeats.
As the owner of an orchard, Wilson has churned his Okanagan apples into liquid gold, producing quality 25-times and 50-times distilled vodkas at his Kelowna distillery, Forbidden Spirits.
The fruit of all this labour has been well worth the effort. Wilson is now set to export his vodkas to international markets, thanks to the help he has received from Community Futures.
“I heard about the program through the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce and met with Ken MacLeod at Community Futures, who has been coaching us since the very beginning. He has been especially helpful in helping us deal with all the documents and the certificate of origin that are needed to export products overseas. There are at least 12 different documents you need to prepare when exporting an item, so it’s a lot of paperwork to get through,” Wilson says.
Fermenting an Idea
Before fermenting fruit into alcohol, Wilson ran a chartered accounting practice in North Vancouver and started a software company. He even served as Canada’s first elected Green Party MLA. However, it was an investment made overseas that got him into the food and beverage industry.
“A client of mine from Poland had a pizza-making company. I was doing the books for him, and after seeing the location and how people were lined up for pizza, I decided to invest. This took place after the Berlin Wall came down when the demand for anything western was huge,” Wilson says. “I drank a lot of vodkas when I was in Poland but never thought then that I would ever own a distillery.”
After retiring in Kelowna with his wife more than four years ago, Wilson says he soon became restless.
“I wanted to do something that I have never done before.”
That’s when Wilson decided to invest in an apple orchard. However, he soon found the market for the fruit to be less than fruitful.
“I didn’t think it would be this much hard work. Let’s say we were happy when the snow hit the ground,” he says. “There was no money in apples as the market price was too low. I had to find another use for them. I thought about a cidery, but when I did up a business plan and looked at the financial statements, I found the cost of cans to be too high and the results of all that labour to be too small, plus the competition was fierce.”
Searching for options, Wilson experienced a revelation while attending a whisky conference in Seattle.
“I was told I could turn apples into vodka,” he recalls. “I then encountered other distilleries at a trade show in New York who were making vodka from apples. Whenever there is a craft distiller, they use the sugar source that is the most available and least expensive. In the Prairies, it’s wheat. In the Caribbean, it’s sugarcane. In the Okanagan, it’s apples.”
After hiring a chemist to conduct the research, Wilson started looking for equipment and found a state-of-the-art 1,000-litre copper column still from Germany.
“We spent more than a year in the laboratory perfecting the recipe, getting the fermentation right, and investing in a still that would offer us the very best product on the market. Now we spend half our time cleaning it,” Wilson laughs.
That was three-and-a-half years ago, and today business is booming.
The first bottle of Forbidden Spirits vodka came off the line in January 2019. In May, Wilson opened a tasting room on his property and also started offering tours so that visitors could see the still in action.
“We had a hugely successful summer and were able to hire someone to market our product in Vancouver and Whistler. All I have to do is get people to try our vodka. The price point is competitive, and the quality is superior. It is some of the best-tasting vodkas in the world.”
Infusion of Interest
With domestic sales on the increase, Forbidden Spirits is now ready to hit the shelves in Europe and Asia.
Earlier this year, MacLeod encouraged Wilson to apply to Anuga, one of the biggest food and beverage trade fairs in the world. Sponsored by the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture, Forbidden Spirits was accepted, and in October, Wilson travelled to Cologne, Germany, setting up a booth to promote Forbidden Spirits.
“It was incredible. It was a huge show that took place in eight buildings the size of BC Place. We had importers and buyers from different countries learn about our vodka, and we came back with a fistful of business cards,” Wilson says.
At Anuga, Wilson connected with a food and beverage broker in Europe as well as an importer from China. In December, he travelled to China to meet with a national chain of department stores interested in carrying his vodka.
Now the real work has begun, as Wilson is packaging, marketing, and shipping his product overseas
“The language and size regulations have to meet EU standards. We have to repackage our quantities from 750 ml to the EU standard of 700 ml,” he explains. “There are also the requirements for language, the percentage of alcohol, and where the product is made that have to go on the label. We’ve been lucky to partner with a company that helped us get our first container shipped.”
A Smooth Finish
With Forbidden Spirits ready to liven taste buds around the world, the next hurdle is to keep up with demand while remaining profitable.
To do this, Forbidden Spirits is working with local companies such as Kelowna’s SunRype for more juice concentrate and Vernon bottle printers Universal Packaging to help with the brand expansion.
“We have also looked at our pricing. Rebel Vodka was originally priced low to break into the market. It’s been below our craft competition and our multi-national competition. Now we’re able to raise our price because we’re competing with international premium brands. We’re at that level,” says Wilson.
During this whole process, one of the essential things Wilson says he’s learned is to be willing to take risks and not take no for an answer.
“It’s critically important that your product is top quality before you get it out there. If the label isn’t right or the cap doesn’t work properly, then you’re going to have problems. Your product has to be ultra-premium from the bottle design to what’s inside the bottle. You need to be better than your competition to break into new markets.”