With some 200 opened in the last decade, craft distilleries have quickly become a feature of Canada’s drinks landscape. Some are known for the diversity of their spirits, others for gin or vodka or rye-based whisky. But a few have developed reputations for whisky made from barley, the grain used for Scotch and Irish whiskies. And one of them, Macaloney’s Island Distillery, in Saanich on Vancouver Island, has been cleaning up in international whisky competitions.
Competing against 1,500 whiskies from around the world in the 2023 World Whiskies Awards in London, Macaloney’s Island Distillery scooped up four gold medals for three of their products: World’s Best Pot Still Whisky and Best Canadian Pot Still Whisky, for Kildara Signature Selection, an Irish-style whisky; Best Canadian Single Malt Whisky, for Siol Dugall Signature Expression; and Best Canadian Single Cask Single Malt Whisky, for The Peat Project: Single Cask Portuguese Red Wine Barrique With Washington Peat.
The road to this distinction was unconventional. Graeme Macaloney had a summer job bottling whisky when he was in high school in Scotland, and he dreamed of making his own. After completing a PhD in fermentation at the University of Strathclyde, he emigrated to Canada to work in the biotech industry, where his work included lining up startups with investors.
At a certain point, he says, he realized he had the know-how to start his own distillery, “but I’m not a wealthy man and a venture like that costs millions of dollars.” Crowdfunding wasn’t known in Canada at that time, so he found a way to attract investors: tasting excellent whisky. Macaloney had tasted a fine malt whisky made in Taiwan, and he took it to whisky clubs for blind tastings against a highly regarded Scotch whisky. Overwhelmingly, people preferred the Taiwanese product, and Macaloney told them he could make whisky of that calibre in Canada.
Before long, hundreds of people had invested, and with a loan from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Macaloney opened his distillery in 2016, only two years after beginning to raise funds. “It was crowdfunding before crowdfunding,” he says. Today there are 700 investors and Macaloney says there is room for more.
He brought top talent on board. One was the late Jim Swan, a maturation expert who had worked with distillers in Scotland for decades and in his later years advised distillers in Taiwan and India before consulting with Macaloney’s. Another is Mike Nicolson, a master distiller who had worked in 18 Scottish distilleries and retired to Victoria before joining Macaloney’s Island Distillery. Macaloney himself is the founder-whiskymaker.
Not only the leading personnel are Scottish. Macaloney’s whisky is distilled in Forsyths copper pot stills, hand-hammered giants made in Scotland. And some of the barrels for maturing the whisky also come from Scotland, although others are from Portugal, France, Kentucky, Spain, and elsewhere. But the barley is Canadian, sourced from British Columbia and, Macaloney says, superior to barley from England or Scotland.
It is too early for Macaloney’s Island Distillery to have mature whiskies, of course, but Graeme Macaloney has whiskies aging in wood until they are ready for release. He says his whiskies mature earlier than others: Kildara, which won World’s Best Pot Still Whisky, was only three or four years old and was preferred to whiskies more than 20 years old.
Meanwhile, the younger whiskies embrace a range of styles. Kildara is triple distilled and aged in a mix of casks that have held Kentucky bourbon and oloroso and Pedro Ximénez sherries, together with new American casks. It’s a complex maturation process that renders a complex whisky, where you’ll find a spectrum of fruit, dried fruit, and spices on a slightly viscous texture. An Loy, a single malt whisky matured in Kentucky bourbon, sherry, and Portuguese red wine casks, is lighter in colour and body but delivers well-defined citrus, floral, and spice, while Kirkinriola Portuguese Re-charred Red Wine Barrique, a single cask triple-distilled whisky, shows some viscosity and a basket of flavours that include tropical fruit, honey, and floral top notes.
Macaloney is starting to export his whiskies to Europe and Asia, and he has the capacity to increase his production to meet demand. “We don’t distill in the summer, but if I started to, I could add 50 per cent. And we have no night shift. That would double production.” The distillery already houses 1,000 barrels, and another 350 are on order. The path of growth seems clear.
Macaloney’s distillery is paired with his brewery, Twa Dogs, and together they offer an integrated experience for visitors. There are tours of both facilities, and whisky and beer tastings (with local pizza and snacks). For a new operation, Macaloney’s Island Distillery has gone places quickly, and it’s already making a splash in the rarified world of fine whisky.
Some Macaloney Island Distillery whiskies
Kildara Canadian Island Triple Distilled Potstill Whisky: Whiskymaker’s Signature Expression
An Loy Canadian Island Single Malt Whisky: Whiskymaker’s Signature Expression
Killeigh Canadian Island Triple Distilled Potstill Whisky: Whiskymaker’s Signature Expression
Kirkinriola Single Cask Series: Premium Re-charred Portuguese Red Wine Barrique