By Ezra Black
A Calgary couple is turning to the Royal Canadian Legion to realize their dream of opening Fernie’s first craft distillery.
Jill Rutherford and her husband Andrew Hayden, owners of Fernie Distillers Inc., want to lease or purchase the Fernie Legion’s hall to house their artisanal liquor producing business.
Rutherford said they chose the location for their distillery because of a shortage of commercial space and a desire to help the Legion.
“We understand they’re suffering the same as Legions are across the country,” said Rutherford. “We think [Legions] have a very important role in the community and it’s good that they’re starting to get creative in their business strategies to help them stay open.”
The lounge section of the Legion would remain unchanged.
Fernie Legion president Jennifer Cronin said she and the executive are supportive of the venture, but it would require membership approval, and that the addition of the distillery “would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
Rutherford said their distillery would produce about one hundred 750 millilitre bottles per batch.
“We were looking for a way to justify spending more time here and mulling over different business ideas,” said Rutherford, a mother of two. “We want to move our family here.”
They were attending a Christmas party when it was suggested they open a craft distillery and decided to run with the idea.
“I figured with our backgrounds we could figure out how to do this.”
Rutherford has taken courses in distilling and has completed work terms at Sons of Vancouver Distillery.
She said they would be using a selection of grain to make vodka or a neutral spirit. After that they’ll be able to turn the vodka into gin by adding botanicals and down the road she has plans to make whiskey.
“I’m trying to come up with a delicious gin liquor recipe. Something to please all the U.K. folks who live in town,” said Rutherford. “You want to be different. Almost every craft distillery out there is making a vodka and a gin. The challenge is to differentiate yourself.”
In 2013 the province exempted B.C.’s craft distilleries from the more than 160 per cent markup applied to all other B.C. spirit makers on the first 50,000 litres they sell. They get the discount if they sell from their own shops, at private liquor stores or at farmers’ markets and provided they distil the spirits from B.C. grain or fruit.
This means you won’t see the Fernie Distillery’s product at the BC Liquor Store. Rutherford said they would sell their product on-site and to private liquor stores and restaurants.
She said the distillery would have a tasting room, lounge and even a patio.
Rutherford and Hayden still have a number of hoops to jump through.
They submitted their application to the City of Fernie in August.
On Oct. 20 the city received a preliminary building code review for the proposed distillery from Technovation Engineering. The report stated that the Legion was suitable for conversion to a distillery. Rutherford said she hired a consultant who laid out a number of steps to bring the building up to fire code.
On Nov. 28, council heard first and second reading of an amendment to the City of Fernie Zoning Bylaw to allow for distilleries in commercial properties.
On Dec. 12, council will hear third reading and public consultations.
The couple will have to address a number of health, safety and infrastructure concerns.
They will need approval from Interior Health and the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Branch. Then they’ll need to deal with the federal government regarding excise tax.
They also need to deal with the leftovers from their distilling process and Rutherford said she has contacted an agricultural operation to remove the by-products to use as fertilizer.
“It’s very overwhelming actually,” she said. “All I want to do is make booze and there are all these hoops I have to jump through to do it legally.”
Assuming there are no delays Fernie Distillers could be open as soon as July 2017.