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Okanagan Spirits of Vernon seeks to curb food waste and develop local industry

Frank Deiter, Master Distiller at Okanagan Spirits Distillery, displays Taboo Absinthe, his top-selling product.  All photos courtesy of Rodney Goodchild at Okanagan Spirits

Okanagan Spirits, Western Canada's first and most premium craft distillery, opened its doors in autumn of 2004 in the city of Vernon, BC. Since then it has distinguished itself as a world-class producer of fine spirits, bringing home multiple World Spirits Awards from competitions in Klagenfurt, Austria.

Probably best-known as the makers of Taboo Absinthe, the only authentic absinthe produced in Canada, Okanagan Spirits also distills a variety of other specialty alcohols and fruit liqueurs from 99% BC-grown produce, much of which would otherwise go to waste.

Preventing Food Waste

 “Orchards,” explains Okanagan Spirits Master Distiller Frank Deiter, “...can only make money on the fresh fruit, that goes to the fresh fruit market. And the fresh fruit market is very harsh... They have their absolute criteria [by] which they are buying fruit.”

This means that if a piece of fruit doesn't have the desired colour, shape, or size, or it is scratched or damaged in any way, it is usually discarded on the spot (read: dropped on the ground) without even being sent to the packing house, because the grower must pay a sorting fee for all of the produce sent there.

“For me,” says the German-born Deiter, “Coming from Europe, [this] was absolutely a no-no. I mean, how can you throw food away?”

Okanagan Spirits employees process pears for distillation

Along with Sun-Rype, which makes juice from apples that are rejected from sale in the fresh fruit market, Okanagan Spirits tries to provide a secondary market to prevent these and other produce like cherries, plums, and pears from going to waste. 

In the Okanagan Valley, with its extensive orchard industry, the potential for waste is huge: “Last year,” says Deiter, “we [grew] about 10 million pounds of cherries here in the Okanagan Valley. Our normal harvest is around 5 million, [so] about 4 million of that went to waste. You cannot blame anybody for that, because usually you do not have the personnel that are capable of now doubling up their sorting skills...

The time frame [before spoilage] is too short, and you do not have the customer lined up because [you have] a customer base that every year takes about 5 million pounds. You cannot ask your customer all of the sudden to take twice as much.

So that always will happen; you always will have bumper years of something. Now, in Europe, what you do is you distill it... That means you get it from perishable [form] into non-perishable.” Even when the resulting fruit alcohol does not meet Deiter's standards for flavour of fruit brandies or liqueurs, rather than discarding it he re-distills it, adding herbs such as anise, fennel, and wormwood to produce Taboo absinthe, which is far and away his top-selling product.

Frank Deiter inspects the quality of a recent batch of spirits

Challenges to the Industry

Unfortunately for Okanagan Spirits and other BC craft distillers, the way liquor distribution laws are structured in BC has made this a very difficult enterprise to maintain. Forbidden by law to distribute their products directly to local consumers or other licensed distributors, craft distillers must market all of their spirits through the BC Liquor Distribution Branch, or LDB.

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