Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery began making its own hand sanitizer in March 2020, with its first priority to supply organizations that work directly with local populations most at risk. (Facebook)

Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery began making its own hand sanitizer in March 2020, with its first priority to supply organizations that work directly with local populations most at risk. (Facebook)

‘It’s obscene’: Okanagan Spirits irked after government turns back on Canadian distilleries

Okanagan Spirits donated half a million worth of sanitizer; Ottawa awards offshore company $375M contract

After months of providing free hand sanitizer to health-care workers and businesses at the outset of the pandemic, an Okanagan distillery is miffed at the federal government’s decision to pay hundreds of millions to ship the product from overseas.

Not only that, Tyler Dyck of Okanagan Spirits Craft Distillery — based in Vernon with a location also in Kelowna — says the provincial government also turned its back on the province’s distilleries in a similar fashion, albeit on a lesser scale.

Dyck is the president of the Craft Distillers Guild of B.C. He first learned about the federal government’s payment of $375 million to an offshore sanitizer provider (China-based car maker BYD Canada Co.) in an interview with the CBC earlier this week.

“It’s obscene,” Dyck told Black Press Media Friday, Dec. 11. “Distillers across the country stepped up and kept their whole staffs working when they easily could have shuttered the doors and put everyone on CERB.”

Dyck said he’s been hearing from the dozen or so other distillers in the province that contributed to the sanitizer effort, most of whom feel blindsided by both the federal and provincial governments.

As the CBC reported, the province paid about $1 million to Vancouver-based Parallel 49 Brewing — which, as a brewery and not a distillery, doesn’t produce its own alcohol, Dyck said.

“They’re probably more notably upset at the provincial government’s purchasing of sanitizer and not supporting the distillers here as well,” he said of the province’s distillers. “That, to me, is more shocking because it’s more close to home.”

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Okanagan Spirits was among the first distilleries in Canada to start converting its craft whisky into charitable hand sanitizer. According to Dyck, the distillery has produced almost $700,000 worth of sanitizer to date, of which $500,000 worth has been donated to frontline workers and others most at risk during the pandemic.

“Even before there was a story that there was a shortage of hand sanitizer, we started getting calls from hospitals, emergency wards … even just doctors and nurses,” Dyck said.

If not for the distilleries in the first few months of the pandemic — and short of flying hand sanitizer into the country at a premium during global shortages — Dyck said shortages would have been lengthy and widespread.

“Once the other distilleries saw that we were doing it, I think the sentiment was, ‘if it’s not us doing it for the first three months, no one’s going to do it,’” Dyck said. “I don’t think any distiller in Canada thought that they would be butchering their whisky and gin and vodka to make sanitizer for more than the first three months.”

Dyck, who is in close contact with other B.C. distillers, said many are on the verge of bankruptcy after months of donating bottles of sanitizer in a year of economic instability.

“They (the federal government) paid hundreds of millions of Canadian taxpayers dollars and instead of putting that towards the 250 distilleries across Canada where dozens of them were already working and just donating it,” Dyck said.

Dyck said he’s hopeful the B.C. government is planning to support distilleries, and for now, he’s giving the province the benefit of the doubt that a deal will get done.

On Friday, the Greater Vernon Chamber of Commerce joined the chorus of censure directed at the federal government, with general manager Dan Proulx calling the recent revelations “extremely disappointing.”

“Distillers answered the call from government to do what they could to support Canadians during this unprecedented crisis,” said chamber president Krystin Kempton, adding the chamber is requesting future contracts for sanitizer be given to domestic producers across Canada.

Black Press Media has reached out to the B.C. Ministry of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation for comment.

READ MORE: Reform taxes to bolster job growth in distilling: Vernon chamber


Brendan Shykora
Reporter, Vernon Morning Star
Email me at Brendan.Shykora@vernonmorningstar.com
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