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Distillery aims to lift local spirits

NANAIMO – Proof of success will lie in product sales for city's first distillery.
Michael Pizzitelli has been moved by the spirit

Nanaimo’s first distillery plans to raise profits from the spirit world.

Michael Pizzitelli, 28, who holds degrees in biochemistry, cellular biology and brewing and distillery, plus several years’ experience in the brewing and distilling industry, has built Nanaimo’s first distillery.

Arbutus Distillery, a grain-based micro distillery built around a German-made, 1,000-litre still on Boxwood Road, will likely have its first batches of vodka, gin and possibly even absinthe on store shelves by April.

Pizzitelli, originally from Ontario, got into brewing as a hobby, which ultimately led him to consider the distillery business as a career.

“I did my master’s in cell biology and afterward I wasn’t quite sure if wanted to carry on with that,” Pizzitelli said. “I heard you could do a master’s in brewing distillery, so I figured I’d do that and once I did that I just started getting jobs.”

After working in the rapidly growing craft brewing industry for several years, Pizzitelli knew he wanted to continue working in the business.

He liked the idea of living on Vancouver Island and since had family living in B.C., where legislation has shifted favourably for liquor production and sales, he opted to move to Nanaimo.

“You can technically put a distillery anywhere, but the legislation in the west has tended to be one of the more progressive places in the country,” Pizzitelli said.

Why build a distillery instead of a brewery? There’s a lot of crossover between making beer and spirits, but there are big differences between the two processes, and Pizzitelli said he finds the final processes of distilling spirits into products like gin, vodka and absinthe more enjoyable and interesting.

Coven vodka and Empiric gin will be the first products buyers will see on store shelves.

The label designs, created by Nanaimo design firm Hired Guns Creative, created a stir in the commercial design world with write-ups and commentary from various publications.

Coven vodka will appear on shelves in a white, frosted bottle with simple red text and a cap hand-dipped in red sealing wax, but when the lights go down the bottle’s white coating glows bright green with images of a gathering of witches.

Pre-launch attention like that has generated plenty of local interest that should help get the distillery, Pizzitelli’s first venture into his own business, off to a strong start.

“You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t think it would work, but you’re also not doing it for another reason other than that’s what you want to do,” Pizzitelli said. “There’s certainly trends in general across North America that are in my favour. I’m not the only one who’s doing it. There’s a whole bunch of people that are starting up.”

The target market for Arbutus Distillery products will be private stores specializing in craft products and cocktail bars and clubs specializing in niche market liquors.

The playing field for craft distilleries and breweries has changed, favouring new start-up operations. High taxes and small batch economics dictated prices of around $45 or $50 a bottle for specialty liquors, which left slim profit margins for some producers.

“If you’re buying a local vodka or something like that, it shouldn’t be $50 a bottle, but there really was no other choice in the past for some manufacturers,” Pizzitelli said.

New tax exemptions in B.C. allow for better profit margins and lower prices, meaning Coven vodka, Empiric gin or Baba Yaga absinthe, named for a witch from Slavic folklore, could be retail priced at about $35 a bottle, similar to what some other craft distilleries on the Lower Mainland are now selling their products for.

Pizzitelli also wants to try marketing a line of specialty liqueurs.

About 15 craft distilleries are scattered throughout the province and more are opening. A series of tax breaks could open the floodgates for a new wave of craft distilleries, similar to what has happened over the past 15 years with the growth of the craft brewery industry across Canada and the U.S.

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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