Malcolm Jolley meets Brock Shepherd and Dimitri van Kampen from DRINKLAB Inc.

DRINKLAB’s Dimitri van Kampen and Brock Shepherd make Hop Vodka.

It wouldn’t occur to me to make a vodka with hops. But it also wouldn’t have occurred to me to make beer with pineapples or watermelons either, which is exactly what DRINKLAB Inc. founders Brock Shepherd and Dimitri van Kampen used to do, respectively. In their previous lives, Shepherd was founder and principal at Kensington Brewery, and van Kampen the same at Spearhead Brewing. Both are pioneers in the Canadian craft beer movement, known for their willingness to push the envelope and think differently, and both found themselves divested of their respective ventures around the same time. So, they decided to combine forces and start DRINKLAB and very quickly launched their first product, Hop Vodka, at the LCBO ($24.85 for a 375 ml bottle – LCBO# 486720) and NLC in Newfoundland, where it’s distilled ($25.07 for a 375 ml bottle – NLC SKU# 188002)

Shepherd and van Kampen brought a bottle of their Hop Vodka to the GFR offices lately for a tasting debriefing. I’ll cut to the chase: Hop Vodka tastes a lot gin, although it’s not. It’s made from Southwestern Ontario Peaches and Cream corn, distilled several times, then infused with West Coast hops (they won’t say what kind exactly). The drink takes on herbal and citrus notes from the hops, as you might find in an IPA, but not the bitterness. It’s really interesting and works well in a “G&T” or a fizz with lemonade, or as a Martini base.

The initial recipe for Hop Vodka was Shepherd’s, who tried infusing some leftover hops into vodka at home. He was encouraged by the initial results and kept experimenting with different hops and combinations until he had the formula. Both he and van Kampen had made beer at other people’s breweries and were determined to find a distilling partner they could trust and could get the formula right. They settled on Rock Spirits, where Iceberg Vodka is made, because they have a long history of partnering with independent brands. Once the LCBO was on board, van Kampen explained, they had to find a bottle. Ever the pioneers, they took an innovative route with a clear 375 ml bottle that looks a bit like the ones used by Grolsch. The porcelain stopper reminds customers that the drink is flavoured with hops, while the smaller format, at lower price, encourages consumers to try it out, since it’s not as big an investment as a larger bottle.

DRINKLAB may be in the business of innovating the drinks industry, but Shepherd and van Kampen are also traditionalists. It’s very much a family enterpise, they explained: van Kampen’s wife Karen runs the marketing and communications, while his sister Saskia, is responsible for design. What will come out of DRINKLAB next? They wouldn’t say. We’ll just have to wait and see.