Like many people who get into the craft distilling business, Kevin Titcomb, master distiller at DEVINE distillery since late 2020, uses skills from his previous job to serve him well in his new career. The story of individuals, couples, and even whole families changing careers to open a distillery is almost chiché at this point. Yet each endeavour’s story is unique, important, and always worthy of being told.
Kevin’s wife, Kirsten, was already managing the distillery’s finances from Vancouver and was wanting to make the move to Vancouver Island and to Saanichton (just north of Victoria), DEVINE Distillery’s home. Kirsten’s parents, John and Catherine Windsor, who had established DEVINE first as a winery in 2007 and then a distillery in 2014, started stepping away from the business, and Ken Winchester, their first master distiller (who I’ll cover in a future review), was starting to eye retirement.
With Kevin and Kirsten’s move to Vancouver Island in 2017, Kevin started gaining valuable hands-on experience with Ken, who was already a legend in the wine and spirits business. Kevin’s nearly 20 year career as an independent contractor in the construction industry came in handy straight away. Distilling is all about project management and timing. Tasks like tending to their still (nicknamed Brünhilde), timing their mash and fermentations, and ensuring that all the materials and grains are well stocked all play well to his strengths.
With his distance education at Britain’s Institute of Brewing & Distilling complementing Ken’s mentorship, the transition from Ken to Kevin has been seamless. Although many of DEVINE’s releases are the brainchild of Ken Winchester, Kevin has already been making his mark in ways that complement Ken’s work, while adding his own personal touch. Examples include a three year release of the spirit under review today, a cask strength version of their now famous Glen Saanich Single Malt, new cask finishes, and a stronger focus on cocktail-friendly spirits.
DEVINE Distillery has been through a lot since its inception. The challenges of opening the winery, the establishment of their distillery, the handing of the business from one generation to the next, the pandemic, which caused the closure of their winery, and Kevin assuming the role as master distiller. Any one of these could have created overwhelming challenges for any business. Yet DEVINE has weathered all of this and has gotten stronger despite all of the challenges thrown their way.
In DEVINE Distillery’s own words, this Ancient Grains is a ‘Young Whisky’. Although technically not a whisky as it is only one year old (although they have recently released a three year old expression, which is), this spirit began as an experiment. It proved so successful that they decided to make it part of their regular releases moving forward. Building upon the instant success of their Glen Saanich Single Malt, this is something completely different!
This Ancient Grains is a single grain-style spirit with a mash containing malted barley, spelt, emmer, khorosan, and einkorn, all grown in BC. With the exception of barley, the inclusion of the other four grains in any new world spirit is extremely rare. To put a modern twist on this spirit, it is rested for one year in new, charred American oak quarter casks, which help to speed up the maturation process due to greater contact of the spirit with the wood. It’s bottled at 45% ABV.
Before I start in with the tasting notes, I would like to plug a fantastic resource for those that are interested in what Vancouver Island has been up to in terms of spirits. “The Distilleries of Vancouver Island: A Guided Tour of West Coast Craft and Artisan Spirits”, by Marianne Scott, is well worth seeking out at your local bookstore or online. Many of the topics covered in this introduction were inspired from her excellent section on DEVINE Distillery.
Nose: This does nose a bit on the young side, as it should! What I love about this is the fruity and rich biscuit character that I get straight away. This is what stellar new make spirit is supposed to smell like. This is freshly baked multigrain bread, sliced, popped in the toaster and smeared with orange marmalade. That citrus note speaks to a fermentation period that was not rushed, allowing those fruity esters to come into play. Dried strawberries and dark chocolate are coming up now. The former stronger than the latter. It varies between dark chocolate and cocoa powder, actually. The spicing isn’t all that strong, which is not all that surprising seeing as it’s only been in a cask for a year. I’m getting cinnamon and maybe a little bit of green cardamom. A light floral note is evident along with vanilla. There is some ethanol sharpness here and there. It will be interesting to see if water takes care of that.
This is still a youthful spirit at heart, but there are actual whiskies that don’t nose like this. Again, this is due to the care that went into fermenting and distilling the spirit prior to casking.
Palate: The experience is a little slow to evolve, but the oiliness of this spirit is pretty insane. It coats your whole mouth and doesn’t let go. The entry is light orange-infused honey, which gradually transitions into strawberries smothered in dark chocolate. It just builds and builds throughout the entire development. As I take more sips, the citrus takes over, transitioning the experience more towards a Terry’s dark chocolate orange. Near the end there is a bit of black pepper heat and it’s not shy on the cinnamon either. After quite a few sips, there’s a slight hint of high-quality black liquorice. There are fleeting glimpses of a youthful, floral bite, but the rest of the notes more than make up for it.
This spirit is a massive contrast when set against young whisky spirits that have very short fermentation times and are column distilled. You simply do not get the mouth coating sensation and citrus notes if you go down that path. This spirit is Millstone-level quality. And if you know that brand, you know what I’m taking about.
Finish: The dark chocolate transitions to cocoa powder and the liquorice fades pretty quickly. The pepper spice lasts till the very end.
With water added
The ethanol sharpness is still there, but it has been reduced slightly. The biscuit note is much stronger now. It’s waffling between a digestive and oat biscuit. The strawberry that I got without water is definitely blackberry now. Big time. At times, it’s almost like blackberry and apple pie filling, fresh from cooking down on the stove. There’s cocoa powder and cinnamon in the background. What a difference water has made to the entry. This is chocolate, laced with blackberries and a sprinkle of dried chili flakes almost straight away. After a couple of sips, that settles down and a slight floral character comes through again. The mouth coating sensation is still there and is more creamy than oily.
This is up there with the most tasting notes I have ever written on this blog, but it was for good reason. Look, I don’t want to over-sell the experience here because, at the end of the day, this is still just a one year old whisky spirit. What made this a delightful experience was how good this was, given its age. I’m sounding like a broken record at this point, but young spirits can be amazing when distilleries respect every detail that goes into making good whisky, without cutting corners.
This just became available in Alberta as of June 2023 and I would encourage you to seek this one out. Given its age, some hesitancy is understandable, but I assure you that you will be pretty shocked about just how rich this is, given that it hasn’t been in a barrel long. Hopefully you’ll be as surprised as I was!