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Comox Valley ‘farm-preneurs’ see a golden future in single malt whisky.

When Brenda Lacasse was 14, page she had a strange experience: she woke up to find her grandmother at the foot of her bed.  What made it strange was that her grandmother, in fact, was not in the building, or even the vicinity.  Apparently, Lacasse was having a vision of some kind.

She found out later that day that her grandmother had passed away during the night.

Quite a number of us have a “strange” story like that in our past, but for Lacasse, this was neither the first time nor the last that she experienced psychic phenomena.  At the time, she didn’t quite know what to do with her abilities.  In fact, it took half a lifetime, including 10 years of intensive study and practice under the guidance of teachers and mentors, for her to get to where she is today.  Lacasse is a professional medium, providing readings for a roster of clients, giving talks, and teaching courses to others wanting to develop their intuitive abilities.

Lacasse will be one of 14 presenters at the third Comox Valley Spirit Fair, taking place Sunday, October 16, from 10am to 4pm, at the K’omoks Band Hall.  The Spirit Fair welcomes the public to a gathering of psychics, clairvoyants, mediums and others connected to that field.  Visitors can browse the booths, sign up for ten-minute mini-readings, attend lectures, receive Reiki treatments, and snack on vegan nibbles throughout the day.

The Fair is organized by Genevieve Stainton, Lacasse’s daughter, who has inherited her mother’s gift and her passion for using it to help others.

“I created the Fair for two reasons mainly,” says Stainton.  “The first was to give clairvoyant/mediums a bit more respect and visibility than they get as a sideshow in a mall.  This important work has lived in the shadows for too long and it deserves to be showcased.

“The second reason was I felt there was a real need in the Valley for an event where people who are interested in mediumship/clairvoyance can find other like-minded people.”

The event, which takes place each April and October, has been eagerly embraced by people with an established interest in the psychic arts, but it is also proving to be a great introduction for curious but cautious newcomers.

“For some people, this is their first introduction to mediumship/psychics,” says Stainton.  She takes great care to screen the presenters to ensure consistent high quality and professionalism.  “I believe that not all who identify as clairvoyant are skilled enough to be giving readings for people.  The ones I invite know their stuff.”

Stainton and Lacasse both say the Comox Valley is a wonderful location to pursue the psychic arts.

“So many people are moving here for a reason,” says Lacasse.  “It’s a marvelous place; a great place for spiritual development.”  With forests, mountains and the ocean all around us, and the hustle and bustle of the city significantly toned down, the Valley is a place where people can slow down, take time for eye contact, and appreciate nature’s healing qualities.

While there is a lot of enthusiasm for what the two women offer, there is also plenty of resistance, which is fed by a number of common misconceptions about psychic work.

Many people picture a psychic as someone exotic or occult.

“People have these ideas,” begins Lacasse with a gentle laugh.  “I can tell you, though, that what we do is not ‘Woo woo’ at all.  It’s as real as your heart is beating.

“My room is not weird and creepy.  It’s not dark; it’s not full of candles.”

Another common attitude is that getting a reading is a form of entertainment.   “It’s not a fun thing to do with your girlfriends,” says Lacasse.  “This is serious.“

Another common misconception is that a psychic reading will provide clear and simple answers.  It’s a bit more complicated than that, Lacasse explains.

“If anyone tells you they are going to predict your future, run, because they are controlling some aspect of your life,” she says.  “Free will is the number one law in the universe.  Your future is up to you.  I can see a situation coming up for you, and you can change your mind and move in another direction.”

A psychic reading provides a great deal of guidance and insight, says Lacasse, but it will not tell you what to do.  “Some clients come in with a specific question or wanting to contact a specific ancestor, but it doesn’t always work that way.  That may not be what comes through.  This isn’t dial-a-psychic!”

Stainton explains that someone getting a psychic reading is tapping into their own wisdom, and through that to an archetypal wisdom that underlies reality, with the medium or clairvoyant acting as a skilled guide.

“We are all connected to a sacred place not only within us, but all around us and within every living entity.  A vital and virtual spiritual web,” says Stainton.

“Our ancestors knew about this sacred place and stayed connected to it throughout their daily life, letting the messages they received guide their decisions.  The more we listen to the hints whispered in dreams, recurring themes in our lives, and the little daily messages we get, the more we allow spirit to take part and help.

“As an industrialized civilization we have become disconnected from this spiritual web.  Psychics and mediums are people we can turn to to get reconnected.”

She believes everyone can access their intuitive or even clairvoyant abilities to some degree.

“Just like playing an instrument, it takes time and practice and an awareness of our own egos to not let them influence the message being given,” she says.  “Great composers and songwriters know their instrument in a technical sense, but also remove their egos to let the music and art come from the same spiritual place where clairvoyants receive their messages.”

Both Stainton and Lacasse have worked hard, and continue to work hard, to develop their art.  Stainton also gives courses and workshops to other aspiring mediums and clairvoyants.  It is one thing to have a natural gift, as Lacasse realized back when she was a child, but quite another to know how to use it, or even how to live with it.

“There can be real alienation for those who have this gift.  We don’t do well in school.  We often have learning disabilities and mental health issues.  It can be very lonely.”

Growing up, she knew she was different.  “Originally, I just thought I was weird,” she says.  She used to provide readings for friends but didn’t fully understand the full context of what she was doing.  She pursued a career as an aesthetician, which brought its own challenges.

“Every time I touched someone, which was all the time, I’d be getting all this information.  It was difficult,” she says.

About 10 years ago she went to see a psychic on Salt Spring Island who told her, “It’s time.  You need to get to work.”  This woman became a mentor, explaining to her what she needed to learn and referring her to the right books.  And for the past five years, Lacasse has been studying with a Spiritualist Minister from England.

Lacasse’s specialty is psychometry, psychic readings based on objects, using photographs (psychometrists are sometimes used by police to help solve crimes).  She can work with just a photograph, even one sent over the internet as a digital file, and also likes clients to bring some photos to their sessions.  Not only do the photos help her connect more quickly and deeply to her field of information, they help the client relax, which aids the whole process.

“The rational mind puts up defenses that say this is not possible,” explains Lacasse.  Psychic knowledge comes most easily when those defenses are down, for instance in the transitional zone between sleep and waking.

A typical reading lasts an hour.  “The first thing I do is get you to close your eyes and breathe.  I can feel your energy and connect with your spirit.  I’ve already prepared before you came, done a meditation and connected to you,” she says.

Clients often have specific questions and Lacasse will answer them if possible, but above all she is open to whatever messages come to her.

“It’s a conversation with spirit.  You plug me in and I am the voice of the universe… or whatever,” she says, laughing.   “I’m a conduit.”

When she is giving a reading, Lacasse says she literally hears voices coming through.  “It’s unmistakable,” she says, noting that the voices may come from the client’s ancestors or other loved ones who have passed on, or they may be from other ‘spirit guides’—entities such as angels, animal guides or woodland creatures.

“They are very clear and direct, and very honest.”

While some clients particularly want to contact the spirit of someone they loved who has died, most people come because they are confused about their lives.  “They are asking, ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’  ‘What is my path in life?’  I like to bring my clients clarity about this and get to the root of what is stopping them from reaching their own potential.  When you’re doing what you’ve signed on to do with your life, you have peace and clarity.  There’s no more struggle,” she says.

Lacasse will only see clients once a year; she doesn’t want to support over-reliance on her services.  She has seen people become addicted to psychic readings and the last thing she wants is to support this type of dependence.  On the contrary, she hopes the experience she provides connects people to their own knowledge and power.

“To exist in our society, we tend to get stuck in our thinking.  We need to move to our feelings.  People need to learn to trust themselves and listen to themselves.  We are all powerful beings and know much more than we think,” says Lacasse.

Stainton works with the same goals, but in a different way.  She offers what she calls Soul Based Astrology readings.

“I cast a client’s chart, and as I’m providing the interpretation, specific examples and cues come in from spirit.  Messages are relayed in a way that the person really gets it,” Stainton says.

You can try out both Stainton’s and Lacasse’s offerings at the Spirit Fair.  You can also get your tea leaves read, receive a tarot card reading, learn about Feng Shui and Kiniseonics, and soak up the atmosphere created by a group of like-minded people gathering around a common goal.

“The shared energy at the Fair is very open and receptive—it’s palpable,” says Stainton.  “It makes for some very dynamic readings.”

For more information about Brenda Lacasse visit: www.brendalacasse.com.

For more information about the upcoming Spirit Fair visit: www.mysticvancouverisland.com.

Long before it became trendy to “eat local,” farmers in the Comox Valley had been feeding area families and the local economy for more than a century.  While some producers have remained committed to a particular farm product such as milk, beef, eggs or vegetables, others have—often out of necessity—diversified their operations.  Shelter Point Farm and Distillery, located halfway between the Comox Valley and Campbell River, is a prime example.

With the Oyster River bordering the farm to the south, and 2,000-metres of oceanfront on beautiful Oyster Beach and the Strait of Georgia to the east, Shelter Point is one of Canada’s few remaining oceanfront farms.  For decades, this 405-hectare (1,000-acre) property was known as the University of British Columbia’s Oyster River Research Farm.  In 2005, UBC made the decision to divest some of its collection of 14 different land titles that had been bequeathed to it in 1962 by New York stockbroker Barrett Montford.  Marking the end of an era, the Oyster River operation was one of the properties that the University elected to put up for sale.

Having spent his entire life in the Comox Valley, Patrick Evans was familiar with the farm and he and his family jumped at the chance to buy it.  Evans is no stranger to farm life and he foresaw a great future for this land.

Together with the support of his family and operations manager, James Marinus, a bold vision for a new type of farm was created.  They dreamed of a property where wild areas, native animals, and birds would co-exist with humans and farming; where fish habitat and natural ecosystems would be restored and preserved; and where innovative value-added agriculture would allow for a financially viable farm for future generations… a production model with a sophisticated ‘farm gate’ retail side.  A true testament to thinking outside the box, Evans and Marinus decided to focus on producing single malt Scotch, earning Shelter Point Distillery the distinction of being only the second of its kind in Canada!

For Evans, a third generation farmer, this foresight comes naturally.  He is a descendant of a family of visionary pioneers who had settled in the Comox Valley in the early 1900s.  His great grandparents acquired land from the original Soldiers Settlement in the Tsolum River area and the family has operated Evansdale Dairy Farm for generations.  It is interesting to note that, after close inspection of the original deeds following the family’s purchase of the farm, Patrick Evans discovered that his grandfather had once owned a quarter section of land encompassing a portion of this property.

Marinus also brought a wealth of experience to the venture.  He has been employed in the agricultural industry for almost 25 years, working with the Evans family on multiple key projects over the years.  This experience, combined with a love for architecture and an eye for detail, would soon be evident in every facet of the Shelter Point Distillery’s development.

Shelter Point whiskey

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

First on the agenda for these ‘farm-preneurs’ was a new name.

“We wanted a name that would reflect the farm’s unique geographic location on Vancouver Island,” explains Evans.  “The name ‘Oyster River’ did not resonate with us and,” he pauses to show me Kuhushan Point on an aerial-view map of the property and says with a smile:  “while we respect this historic name, we worried that people would not know how to pronounce it, so its marketing potential was limiting!  Ultimately, we decided on Shelter Point Farm.”

The idea to build a whiskey distillery at Shelter Point came about after several meetings with John Watson, executive director of the Comox Valley Economic Development Society.  “Economic Development has a mandate to support agricultural diversification,” explains Marinus. “But farmers, in general, can get stagnant and complacent by focusing solely on what has worked in the past.  We wanted to think well beyond the parameters of traditional farming operations and move from niche farming to a mixed operation that produced a product with a high return on investment.

“Through our on-going conversations with John, and a group of Scottish investors, the concept for a distillery was conceived.  Blessed with a near perfect mix of fertile soil, sunshine, abundant fresh water and mild weather, the ingredients to produce a true ‘Field to Flask’ single malt whisky were already in place.  The idea of a unique, high-value beverage that would be produced completely on the farm, and where the used barley waste from the production process would become food for dairy cattle, spoke to our vision of environmental sustainability.”

Shortly after the land purchase, Evans, his wife Kimm and their four daughters, and Marinus, along with his wife Pamela, two daughters and son, moved into two existing farmhouses on the property. The planning for the construction of a distillery and planting of crops began in earnest.  Andrew Curry, a distiller from Scotland, and Jay Oddleifson, a chartered accountant and a consultant on several local development projects, were instrumental in the development of the project.

Crop trials in 2006 produced a bumper crop and proved the viability of growing malting barley on site.

Along with the special strain of barley, which will eventually provide the basic ingredient for the distillery, raspberries have also been planted for the fresh fruit market and potential use in other distilled spirits.  Winter wheat and grasses are now sown in the fields, for the benefit of the many visiting waterfowl that overwinter on the farm.  Some areas remain in forest, providing alternative habitat for resident species of wildlife, as well as a sustainable source of wood for future building projects on the farm.

The architectural design for a distillery building that, according to Evans, is “reminiscent of an old dairy barn,” took years to perfect.  After three years of construction, the distillery was completed in December 2010.  The towering, 7,500-square-foot building that now stands near the front of the property is sure to become a local landmark.

While the building may have the outward appearance of a dairy barn, if cows were to be housed here it would be considered five-star bovine accommodation!  The Shelter Point Distillery ‘barn’ is solid timber frame construction, built with lumber harvested from the property and accented with an abundance of stonework and a copper roof.  Where possible, construction materials were sourced from Vancouver Island suppliers and skilled craftsmen from the Comox Valley—including father and son team, Chris and Kyle Henderson, and Hans Deneer—were contracted to do the work.  About the only items in the building that aren’t local are the oak barrels, ordered from bourbon distillers in Kentucky, and the custom-made copper pot stills imported from Scotland.

In addition to the all-important purpose of making whisky, the building has been designed to accommodate tours and special events.  This past summer, the first year they have opened their doors to the public, more than 150 groups toured the facility and an average of 400 people were guided through the distillery every weekend.

Visitors discovered meeting rooms and offices lavishly decorated with enormous leather chairs and wrought iron furnishings. The walls boast a collection of exquisite photographic art—all shot on the farm by local wildlife photographer Lee Simmons, whose work is also featured on the distillery’s website.

In the wall that separates the meeting/banquet room from the distillery area is a series of nine etched glass windows and a set of double doors that feature the work of local artist Robert Lundquist.  The etched glass art walks you through the distilling process step-by-step; starting with barley in the field and ending with the founders raising glasses in a celebratory toast.

As impressive as the building is, it is the immaculate distillery system that is most extraordinary.  You enter though frosted glass doors to find a high vaulted ceiling under which two enormous copper pot stills and five copper and stainless steel fermentation tanks glisten under the bright lights.  All are connected via a network of stainless steel tubing that runs behind the walls and under the floor to carry liquids in various stages of distillation from one tank to another.  All of this is controlled by a state-of-the-art computer system.

In July 2010, when they were ready to start their first batch of whisky, Mike Nicolson, a master distiller, joined the team to lend his expertise.  The art of whisky distilling is very much in Nicolson’s blood.  Both of his grandfathers were distillers on Islay, Scotland, and his father was a Lowland Grain Distiller.  Scottish-born Nicolson himself learned the trade over three decades at some of Scotland’s finest Scotch distilleries.  In 2003, he was recognized for lifetime industry achievement with a prestigious award from Whisky Magazine.  What a fortunate co-incidence that he had semi-retired and relocated to Vancouver Island and was able to lend his expertise to the Shelter Point Distillery!

Over the past few months, Nicolson has been teaching Evans and Marinus the art of traditional Scottish distilling methods.  They are using the best ingredients available and some of the purest water in the world with the intent of creating a medium-bodied premium single malt Canadian whisky.  It is being distilled batch by batch in the traditional copper ‘pot stills.’

As exciting as the whole process is for them, they will have to be patient before they see a finished product.   In an age when technology changes at rapid pace, their focus is on slowing down to do everything right from the beginning.  It will be August 2014 before they can make the premier release of Shelter Point Single Malt Whisky.

“Under Canadian law,” says Marinus, “whisky can’t be called whisky until it has been stored in an oak barrel for three years and a day.  In the meantime, because of our connections with other distilleries, we have been able to purchase small lots of specially selected whiskies to blend on site and bottle for the enjoyment of our customers.”

The whisky-making process starts with up to one ton of barley being ground and mashed for five hours in a ‘Mash Tun,’ as up to 6,000-litres of hot water are filtered through it to extract the barley sugars from the grain.  The spent grain that is created is then removed and transported to Evansdale Dairy Farm to be fed to the cows.  The sugar water or ‘wort’ is then pumped into one of five 5,000-litre fermentation tanks.

Yeast is added to the stainless steel tank to kick-start the fermentation process and, after five days ‘rest,’ it moves into the wash still where it is distilled for eight hours.  After the distillation and vaporization process the liquid—now called ‘low wines’—is about 25 per cent alcohol.

From there, the liquid is moved back into the spirit still where the magic of the final distillation process turns it to liquid gold—a product that can not yet be called ‘single malt whisky’ but is now more than 65 per cent alcohol.

The liquid is then siphoned through a testing station where the ‘head, heart and tail’—or in layman’s terms, the beginning, middle and end—of the draw is monitored for alcohol strength.  The ideal strength, explains Marinus, is about 63.5 per cent, which is generally at the ‘heart’ of the liquid stream.  The ‘head and tail’ go back in spirit still to be re-distilled and the premium product is pumped into a holding tanking before it is poured into single use oak barrels to age for a minimum of three years, plus a day.  That one ton of barley will ultimately produce about 900 750-ml bottles of single malt whisky.

“That’s an amazing return on investment… if you can hold your breath long enough!” says Evans.

While they wait for their first batches to come of age, Evans and Marinus are developing a range of other Vancouver Island spirits.  In addition to the single malt whisky produced from 100 per cent malted barley, products in development include aged custom-blended whiskies and fruit and berry-infused spirits and cream liqueurs made from berries grown in their fields and fruit grown on local farms.

“Shelter Point Distillery is designed to be an artisan distillery,” explains Evans.  “Right from the start, the concept has been quality over quantity, and we have put an emphasis on sourcing as many of the ingredients directly from the farm or the surrounding region as possible.  This in itself will establish us in the industry, considering that distilleries that grow their own barley and distill it on premise are very rare.”

When asked how they maintain their patience, having to wait several years before they can begin to bottle and sell Shelter Point Scotch, Evans smiles and says:  “Playing the waiting game is what farmers do best!  On a dairy farm you have to wait at least two years from the time a calf is born before she can produce milk.  With berry crops you have to wait three to seven years before you get a decent harvest.  Forests take 80 to 100 years.

“When you look at the big picture, three years—plus a day—for whisky to mature in an oak barrel isn’t so long to wait for a product that will retail for $50 to $80 a bottle.”

For more information visit www.shelterpointdistillery.com.