Turning spuds into spirits

Schramm launching Pemberton potato vodka distillery

Passionate about distilling and the Pemberton-Whistler area, Tyler Schramm is launching a bold new venture: the potato vodka-producing Pemberton Distillery. Construction is scheduled to begin this week on the building in the Business Park that Schramm, the company owner and future master distiller, hopes will start producing spirits in December.

Schramm, 30, has invested a great deal of time and effort in the development of the business since the idea blossomed during a 2002 conversation between himself and his older brother Jonathan, who had just bought a property in the Pemberton Meadows. Given the availability of potatoes in the area, Schramm's interest in distilling and his desire to be part of a new local business, potato vodka production seemed like a great fit.

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"I wanted to see a new business start in the Whistler and Pemberton area," said Schramm, a Vancouver native who lived in Whistler for 10 years and now lives in Pemberton. "I wanted to be involved in something new, an industry that really hadn't been present in this area before, and this seemed like a great way to do that."

The seeds for the idea germinated for a few years before Schramm decided to get serious about it in 2005. When he first started researching how to develop a distillery, Schramm said, he started to realize how much is involved and how little he knew then, leading him to take a Masters of Science in Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh, Scotland's Heriot-Watt University.

"I went there with the intention of coming home to start the Pemberton Distillery," Schramm said.

The university's program and International Centre for Brewing and Distilling are well recognized in the field for their teaching, facilities and comprehensive instruction, Schramm said. He learned about every aspect of brewing and distilling, beginning with studying the raw materials used to create spirits and ending with discussion of the packaging and marketing of the finished product, plus all those vital steps in between.

For his required final project, Schramm concentrated on the production of potato vodka.

"I had the opportunity there to fully run through the process of distilling potato vodka on the school's equipment," he said.

Potatoes contribute the necessary starch to the vodka-making process. Schramm said virtually any starch source can be used to make vodka, but 96 per cent of the world's supply of the spirit is made using grains, so his Pemberton product will be something of an anomaly in the vodka world.

The starch is converted into simple sugars, which are then metabolized by yeast to produce the ethanol desired by the distiller, Schramm said. The ethanol "wash" is repeatedly run through the still, becoming more purified each time, and eventually producing the refined product.

Schramm said he's "quite often" asked about the potato's relationship to the vodka process.

After the intensive studies, Schramm returned here to begin work on the complicated process of sorting through the B.C. liquor laws to acquire the necessary permits. "Starting a distillery is an extremely challenging process - it is a heavily regulated and taxed industry and requires great desire and perseverance," Schramm wrote in a post-interview email to The Question.

He also recently secured a development permit for the design of the distillery itself.

Schramm, who studied environmental sciences and geography in his undergraduate degree, said he feels it's important to incorporate green design elements into the distillery itself. Distilleries and breweries have traditionally been intensive energy users because of all the hot water they need, Schramm said, so he's seeking to balance that by outfitting his distillery with geothermal heating and cooling, both for the hot water and the building's climate control.

"I always had the intention of trying to make it a sustainable business, in the holistic sense of the word," Schramm said. In the future, he also hopes to pursue other green measures such as a means of recycling the processed water and waste products from the still, which can be good agricultural products.

Naturally, Schramm said he also plans to use all locally grown, organic potatoes. He said he can use Grade B potatoes that would otherwise have been destined for the trash or burying, because those spuds are still good, but not pristine enough on the outside for grocery-store sales.

Schramm's business could benefit from the growing local food movement as he markets his product to bars and restaurants in Vancouver and the Whistler-Pemberton area, as B.C.-made spirit products are scarce, he said.

"There's a fair amount of B.C. wines available now, but if you go to the liquor store there's virtually nothing available that's made in B.C., currently," Schramm said. "I definitely saw a bit of a void there, and I know there's a bit of a growing movement in B.C. to start these micro-distilleries to supply these spirits - I definitely wanted to be involved."

Schramm is fortunate to have the backing of his family, all of whom live in Whistler or Pemberton, for the endeavour. The distilling equipment isn't cheap, and Schramm has ordered his from Bavaria Holstein, a German manufacturer well known in the distilling industry for its micro-stills. Jonathan will also be involved in the business in some fashion, but the exact capacity has yet to be determined.

Schramm said he hopes production will begin some time in December, followed potentially by sales starting early next year, after the bottling and labelling is completed to get the spirits into stores for sale.

He said he's excited about developing the industry in Pemberton.

"I chose to locate the distillery in Pemberton because I absolutely love the Pemberton/Whistler area. I have been part of the Sea to Sky region's growth since I was a young child and I am very excited to be part of the future growth and development of the area," he wrote in his email. "Locating the distillery in Pemberton was a personal choice because I want to be part of this community."

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