Spirited Endeavours

“It was just by chance,” Mike Beamish says of how he discovered he could use the ground apples from his u-pick orchard if he fermented and distilled the juice. Having stumbled upon an article that outlined how he could transform what had once been destined for the compost into a saleable product, Beamish set out to establish a distillery. Four years on, Deep Roots Distillery is producing a line of high-quality spirits and liqueurs available in PEI liquor stores, at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market and, for one night only, at the 2nd Annual PEI Spirits Festival on November 18.

We’re sitting in the small shop of Deep Roots Distillery, adjacent to the 2-acre orchard that Beamish and his wife, Carol, ran as a u-pick for 20 years. The orchard and distillery are located on the couple’s homestead in Warren Grove, PEI, where they have lived since 1988. The shelves are lined with bottles bearing names such as Island Tide, Maple Liqueur, Blueberry Fruit Liqueur and Spiced Apple Liqueur, which speak to the local flavours that are Beamish’s trademark.

Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

“We said geez it’d be neat if someday we could move here and then the next day I was reading the newspaper in Ottawa and Holland College had an ad for a computer instructor. It was kind of like somebody put it there,” Beamish says, relating how the couple came to move from Canada’s capital to its smallest province thirty years ago, after visiting family that had moved to the Island.

“We planted the apple trees in 1990, just as a hobby,” says Beamish. “We did a bit of research and found out apples grow well here and, in fact, at the turn of the 19th century apples were one of the biggest crops on PEI and it was an export crop to Great Britain.

That’s why you walk around in the woods and see all the old homesteads and old apple trees hanging around because of that.”
What began as a hobby became a small business, with the couple developing a u-pick operation named Beamish Orchard. While they raised five children and Beamish worked at Holland College, the couple experimented with different apple varieties and growing techniques, eventually transitioning to a certified organic operation in the early 2000s.

“At the end of a day, you’d go out on the orchard and the ground would be covered with apples,” Beamish tells me, explaining that he had to collect the ground apples to help with bug control. However, due to health regulations Beamish was not allowed to make juice from the ground apples unless it was pasteurized, and investing in a pasteurizer was not feasible given the small scale of his operation.

Apples grown on Beamish’s orchard are organic//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

“So here’s all these apples I’m collecting and giving them either to a pig farmer or into the compost pile, so it’s quite a waste. So when you’re out there on your hands and knees collecting these apples it’s always in the back of your head, there’s got to be something I can do with them,” said Beamish. Then he discovered an exemption to the health regulations: fermenting and distilling the apple juice for spirits.

At the time, Beamish was working with BioFoodTech on an apple butter pilot project. Through a casual conversation with the executive director, Beamish learned that BioFoodTech had been watching the growth in distilleries and breweries, and was interested in building up their skill set and supporting local producers. The organization ended up inviting an outfit from Washington to deliver a training course on distilling and fermenting in PEI, which Beamish and his son, Paul, took.

“After that we thought geez we can do this, so we started on this path.”

After eighteen months of work on the distillery (Beamish had ‘retired’ by this point), going through a regulatory process, and sourcing equipment, Deep Roots Distillery was incorporated in November 2013.

“We did start small and I know there are a lot of craft distilleries and they all say they’re small, but we started very small.” The distiller he purchased “at a very reasonable price” holds 100 US gallons. As Beamish noted, he didn’t want to put everything on the line just after retiring.

Mike Beamish owns and operates Deep Roots Distillery.//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

Despite the prolific supply of ground apples readily available to Beamish, his first distilled product didn’t contain a trace of apples. Rather, he started with Island Tide, a cane sugar spirit coming in at 45 percent alcohol.

Then a chance conversation with his then-neighbour at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market, Mike Newman of Newman’s Winery, resulted in a collaboration of sorts. Newman had an abundance of blueberry wine that he didn’t quite measure up to his standards for sale as a wine, but which he’d have to pay taxes on regardless of whether he sold it or dumped it. Beamish purchased a load of the wine and created Blueberry Eau De Vie (Water of Life), which is made by distilling fruit wine.

Finally, Beamish came full circle back to the ground apples that had first sparked his interest in distilling and created a spiced apple liqueur. Though the u-pick operation has closed, the Beamishes continue to grow organic apples in their orchard. Their son, Greg, also runs a small sugar shack in Hazelgrove, providing the inspiration and some of the raw ingredients for Deep Roots’ Maple Liqueur.

While he may have set out to build a retirement-scale distillery, Beamish admits that expansion is on the horizon, due namely to his family’s growing interest and involvement in the business. For Beamish that means more opportunity to experiment with new products that feature local ingredients.

“We’re doing a very non-common whisky, so it’s going to be made from buckwheat. So, you know, scotch whisky is made from barley from beer. There’s rye whisky made from the rye grain, bourbon whisky made from corn and buckwheat is not that common, there’s only a couple of distilleries in the world doing it and we chose to do that because buckwheat is fairly significant in the PEI agricultural community,” Beamish says. The first trial of the whisky is in production right now and will be aging in barrels for three years.

Beamish is looking forward to attending the 2nd Annual PEI Spirits Festival, having blazed a trail last year as the only local distiller at the inaugural event. “It was sponsored by Johnnie Walker, so that’s a big name, and the attendees there were all big name companies like Jack Daniels and then me, so it was very intimidating […] but at the end of the day people tried our products and the feedback we got was that they appreciated the fact that they could talk to the producer.”

Aside from attending the Festival, those curious about the local distillery can find Beamish at his Charlottetown Farmers’ Market booth every Saturday. Otherwise, you’re most likely to find him at his farm in Warren Grove, picking up ground apples or concocting a batch of Island-inspired alcohol.

Deep Roots Distillery headquarters//Photo Credit: Laura Weatherbie/Salty

About Shannon Courtney

Shannon is the co-founder of Salty and was its editor-in-chief for the publication's inaugural year. When she’s not writing about food, Shannon's either cooking, eating, talking, or thinking about it. Her food adventures have included milking a Jersey cow in Australia, almost overdosing on maple syrup in Prince Edward County, and studying local food systems in Vermont as part of her Master’s thesis research. Shannon is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and strongly believes you CAN make friends with salad.

View All Posts