How a renowned cidery began with a bottle of tequila
Even if you’ve never visited the Cowichan Valley, you may already be familiar with the name Merridale. Based on a picturesque orchard in rural Cobble Hill, Merridale has become a Cowichan institution, known primarily for its wide selection of artisanal, made-on-the-premises ciders and more recently, spirits. Since reinventing itself in 2000, Merridale has expanded considerably and is now both a respected brand and a bona fide tourist destination. How the company rose to where it is today is an intriguing story that begins, funnily enough, with a bottle of tequila.
Merridale Cidery is the brainchild of Janet Docherty and lawyer, Rick Pipes. Docherty, who had experience in finance and real estate, connected with Pipes by way of a mutual friend. While honeymooning in Mexico, the pair discussed possible business opportunities that could put their collective business experiences to good use. As it turns out, both were aware of a 20-acre apple orchard and small cidery that was up for sale between Mill Bay and Cobble Hill.
Some of the infrastructure was already there – all it needed was boundless energy, passion, and capital. (And how hard could it be to be to provide that?) With the clink of two tequila glasses, an ambitious plan was hatched.
“So many people told us we couldn’t succeed at making cider, that building a cider house was risky, and that overall we were a little crazy. We could be crazy, but we’re glad we didn’t listen!”
— JANET DOCHERTY, CO-OWNER, MERRIDALE
The plan involved a sizeable renovation and the addition of new buildings and equipment that would help them experiment with the bittersharp and bittersweet apples that the orchard bore. Shortly after the cider house was built, a bistro was added, spearheaded by a team of Red Seal certified chefs hand-picked by Janet and Rick. At the time, they sought counsel from Janet’s friend, the late James Barber, host of the CBC cooking show, The Urban Peasant.
The bistro’s concept was simple: to incorporate locally sourced ingredients into a menu that lacked pretension. Central to the bistro are large brick ovens that work overtime producing cider-leavened breads, fresh pastries and Merridale’s signature dish, pizza. Further landscaping of the property allowed for the addition of a pond, gazebo and two plushy-appointed yurts, creating yet another reason to visit Merridale: weddings.
Events are many at Merridale and often take place in a newly built lounge. Planned events for the first quarter of 2017, include a dinner series that will mark the release of “mystery cask spirits”, “Paint Nights” and seasonal cider releases.
In 2007, they made another quantum leap which elevated them from mere cidery to the first certified craft distillery in B.C. Reductions in government red tape and the purchase of a 200-litre copper pot still from Germany allowed Merridale to venture into the business of distilling and marketing small-batch aged spirits. Their “Cowichan Spirit” line of potables now includes Cowichan Gin, Vodka, Copper Gin, Cider Brandy, Stair’s Pear Brandy, “Whisky Jack’s”, Cognac Style Brandy and “Apple Oh de Vie”. All of their spirits are distilled at least twice before being aged in oak barrels.
Ultimately, Merridale emerged with an offering that’s embraced by customers and reviewers alike. The entire line of ciders have gone on to win international awards, and now the Cowichan line of spirits has been winning awards in every competition that they have entered.
What’s next for Docherty and Pipes? Another distillery of course. Yes, Merridale will soon be opening a second distillery in Victoria. It’s here that they’ll focus on the production of craft whisky, gin and vodka, along with craft beers made entirely from B.C. grains. The new operation will be powered by reusable and renewable energy as well as recaptured consumed energy. Such a consideration will make it one of North America’s only “green” distilleries.
Despite their expansion into Victoria, Janet and Rick’s hearts and home remain in the Cowichan Valley. They’re extremely proud of what they’ve created and the team they’ve assembled. They’ve never done a tally of their guests, but since Merridale began, the number of visitors is likely in the hundreds of thousands. Will tequila ever be part of Merridale’s product line? You wouldn’t think so, but judging by Janet and Rick’s enthusiasm and tenacity, who knows?