by Klay Dyer
Klay’s profile appears in episode 26 of The Dirty Spoon Radio Hour.
Tucked in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia, Canada is the small town of Revelstoke, named in appreciation of Lord Revelstoke, the head of a British investment bank that saved the Canadian Pacific Railway from bankruptcy in the summer of 1885. Revelstoke’s injection of much-needed capital ensured the new country’s transnational railway would reach completion. It is a classic railway-cum-resort town, gritty around the edges and home to a community of outdoor enthusiasts, avid mountain bikers and rock climbers, and even more avid snowboarders and heli-skiers. It is also prime grizzly and black bear territory, a fact reflected in the art and sculptures that adorn the town’s streets.
In a small, unpretentious building on one of these streets is Monashee Spirits, a family-owned, small-batch artisanal distillery that Forbes magazine has called Canada’s Best Après Ski Distillery. Indeed, the space serves double duty as the town’s signature cocktail bar with a classy speakeasy vibe.
But mountain legends are like archaeological digs. While the discoveries near the surface are always exciting, the deeper layers of the backstory are inevitably where some of the fascinating stuff lies.
But mountain legends are like archaeological digs.
A Vancouver-based underwater welder and deep-sea diver by trade, Monashee’s Josh McLafferty suffered a near-crippling injury in 2014 while riding motor cross in the rugged mountains north of the city. Only 33-years old, he was confined to a wheelchair for a few months, his deep-sea career over, and his wife Jen pregnant with the couple’s first child. With their future still uncertain, the couple moved inland in 2015, settling in the small town of Sicamous, about 45 miles west of Revelstoke. While Jen continued her work as a nurse, Josh picked up occasional welding jobs, doing what he could to keep his hands and mind busy. As the newcomer’s unique skill in pressure-welding copper became known, his shop became a destination of choice for local moonshiners.
One project did not go quite as expected, however. When one mountain entrepreneur arrived to claim his repaired still, Josh heard the words that every freelance worker fears: “I don’t have any money to pay you, but….” So, in exchange for his work, Josh took home a five-gallon bucket of molasses along with a passing suggestion to distill it and make rum.
The bucket sat around for about two months, so the story goes, until the couple, frustrated at being reminded of bad debt, decided to take the moonshiner up on his challenge. They had made home-brew beer and wine in the past so had some basic knowledge but neither had ever attempted to distill a spirit like rum. Undaunted, Josh fit a small copper still that was lying around his shop, and the couple experimented, tested, experimented some more until they ended up with a more-than-passable spiced rum. The seed for Monashee Spirits was sown with that serendipitous batch of rum.
The bucket sat around for about two months, so the story goes, until the couple, frustrated at being reminded of bad debt, decided to take the moonshiner up on his challenge.
During a trip to the mountains in early 2017, the couple noticed a building for sale in Revelstoke’s historic downtown. They acted quickly, selling almost everything they owned and bought the building, with the plan to turn their idea of an artisanal distillery into a reality. In March of that same year, Monashee Spirits Craft Distillery opened. It quickly gained notoriety through word of mouth and an enthusiastic community of followers across social media. Always with an eye on the bigger picture, the couple turned the upper floor of the building into staff accommodations, recognizing that rental housing in a resort town is limited and expensive.
Initially one of the few certified organic distilleries in Canada, Monashee gave up its official certification, in small part, due to the ongoing cost and, in larger part, so that they could begin to harvest and use their own honey from their four-hive rooftop apiary. (Securing organic certification for honey is still a tricky business in Canada, given the range that bees travel while collecting pollen.) The plan is to partner with other local beekeepers to produce a “Reve Rum” (as in Revelstoke Rum) to raise some money for bee awareness and keep the local apiaries healthy and producing for years to come.
Still, Josh is resolutely committed to sourcing as many of his ingredients as possible from local organic farms or for more exotic components like citrus through certified organic suppliers. A local farm, Fieldstone Organic, grows about 30 acres of grain just for Monashee on land only “58 miles as the crow flies from our doorstep,” Josh explains. The distillery also partners with local farmers who can use the spent grains for nutrient-rich soil additives or as compost.
Still, Josh is resolutely committed to sourcing as many of his ingredients as possible from local organic farms or for more exotic components like citrus through certified organic suppliers.
Monashee’s vodka provides the foundation for much of what they create. It is clean and crisp, made simply so that the spirit’s authentic flavors can speak for themselves. It is also the base of Monashee’s Vulcan’s Fire, their trademark liqueur concocted from a vodka base infused with Ambrosia apples, cinnamon, honey, maple syrup, and red Thai chilies. They also offer Big Mountain Creamer, a vodka-based riff on an old Irish standard that is made with organic BC cream infused with chocolate, caramel, almonds, vanilla honey, maple syrup, and locally roasted coffee. Most recently, they have added a Lime Cocktail Bitters to their growing catalogue.
But Monashee’s crowning achievement to date has been its aptly named Ethos Gin, the result of almost thirty trial batches that never hit the exact flavor profile that Josh had in mind. “It’s so unique, our flavor profile,” he says. “There is so much depth to what we are making, and it reflects the two years of work we put into it before releasing a single bottle.”
“There is so much depth to what we are making, and it reflects the two years of work we put into it before releasing a single bottle.”
His obsessive diligence paid off. Ethos Gin was not only voted the best-in-class Canadian gin in the 2019 Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition but scored the highest of any entry in the entire judging. The judge’s notes burst with praise, calling it an “expertly balanced” gin that “shows off the direction Canadian Distillers are going with innovative flavor profiles without losing touch of the category.” One judge waxed poetic about the delicately floral nose that evoked white blossoms, rose petal, orange blossom, a note of elderflower tinged with light pink grapefruit.” Another said simply: “A gin with tons of finesse.”
Monashee extended its winning streak in 2020 with Ethos Gin taking the Gold Medal with Distinctions along with an Excellence in Terroir award. Their garlic-infused vodka, another collaboration with a local grower, won Gold plus Best in Class Canada, and their Bitter Hearts Cocktail Bitters also took home Gold for Best in Class Canada.
As Josh likes to say, these innovative flavors are part of the mountain twist that drives the Monashee philosophy. Taking full advantage of the mountain’s bounty, the distillery draws freely on locally sourced juniper, coriander, huckleberries, spruce tips, and wildflowers as well as a full range of organic botanicals. These are spirits that are genuinely terroir-driven. “When you are out in the woods, walking on a trail after a fresh rain,” Josh explains, “or when you are skiing in a glade and stop and are talking with your friends. I wanted to put that alpine mountain smell into a bottle.”
During the COVID crisis, Josh and Jen switched gears right away so that they could continue giving back to the community. With hand sanitizer in short supply locally, they took the “heads” from the distilling process, reduced the alcohol content to 80 percent, and started delivering bottles to local not-for-profits and residents with mobility issues or who found themselves homebound during the pandemic. They continue this project today, months into the pandemic.
“But I also filled up twelve barrels of whiskey during that downtime,” Josh smiles, “so we’re going to have a special series that comes out in about three to five years” to celebrate this year of challenges. Closed for 81 days during the COVID shutdown, Monashee Spirits never saw its ledger slip into the red. With new equipment on-site and an expansion planned, the distillery and bar have re-opened for business just in time for the prosperous fall and winter seasons.
And despite the success and accolades that continue to come the way of Monashee Spirits, Josh and Jen never forget where it all began. Displayed prominently in the front window of the distillery is the small copper still that started it all.
Original artwork by Ashley Iokamedes
About the Author
Klay Dyer is a former academic turned freelance writer and researcher based in Edmonton, Alberta. When he is not writing about food, popular culture, and business, he spends his time trying to convince his wife and daughter that freestyle rap is, indeed, a viable career choice for a man over forty.