VOICE 143 - Scott Thompson, founder @Mad Laboratory Distilling
"Mad Lab is about creating something fantastic and having a vision come true. I have pushed, pushed, pushed for this, and the result is everything that I hope for and more."
Mad Lab Distillery is a small distillery in Vancouver, producing single malt whisky and other award-winning spirits made from BC-grown malted barley. The story of Mad Lab started with a guy who has fallen in love with the beauty of whisky and followed his passion throughout his adult life. Scott Thompson, founder and distiller of Mad Lab, made his vision come true by designing and building a distillery on a shoestring budget. "In my early days, I thought, people have been doing this for hundreds of years, it can't be that hard. Then, it was like a black box. There are lots of things that you can`t control." He learned everything there is to know about operations and techniques of distilling. Now, his products are truly handmade, employing his own unique techniques to ferment, blend, infuse, or age the spirits. It is the result of those fruits of the labor that this micro-distillery produces around 20 different kinds of products with lots of accomplishments. Their single malt spirit whisky is a finished product that takes a different path from here. When you sip their artisan spirit, you can tell that it is something very special, and that has been crafted with care and love. Like a fine whisky gets better with age, Mad Lab ages better with whisky. Now onto the eighth year in business and their third batch of whisky releasing soon, Scott shared with us his one-and-only whisky journey.
VOICE(V): How did Mad Lab Distillery come about?
Scott(S): "I have been in the liquor industry for as long as I can remember. I love being with people and engaging in conversations, so when I turned 19, I got into bartending. Then, I took a keen interest in spirit production at an early stage in my career. A lot of my friends were getting into craft brewing at the time, but I kind of always want to go off the beaten path, as most of the other craft distillers would. I started learning about all types of different distilling techniques and spent good solid 6 months before I attempted my very first distillation. With lots of try and error, it dialed me into the type of distilling I liked to operate, which, for me, was a pot still distillation with a thumper. It gave me the most control and made the best flavor.
I have been a hobby distiller for a long time, then an opportunity came while working in hospitality management, the BC government made changes to the Liquor Laws allowing more small producers to exist. I decided it was time to try and make a go at it myself."
V: What was it like to start up a small distillery business?
S: "I had no idea what I was doing when I was putting down the application. I knew how to make delicious spirits. That was it. I knew nothing about running a business but I just closed my eyes and jumped. It turned out that dealing with the Federal Government was easier than I thought originally. The Provincial was more difficult and the city was a nightmare! My big piece of advice to anyone interested in creating their own distillery in the city is just put down your application with your best effort and submit it, even if it is not complete. At that point, you will be assigned somebody to deal with it, instead of having different directions from different people. We began putting together equipment needed; a lot of them scrounged and borrowed, and re-purposed and rebuilt. A lot of manual labor! We even dug 6 feet straight down ourselves at the distillery site to secure the drainage! We finally received a liquor license in late 2014. Going 8 years now and we are still here."
V: How does "No Single-use Cup" work?
S: "Instead of single-use cups, customers are encouraged to bring their cup or buy one of the reusable and to-go cups for sale. You can also rent a Mason jar for a $2 deposit (refunded when you bring it back). I am super happy to see everybody brings back their cups or their own favorite cups. I think they feel good about themselves too.
Also, there are multiple practices put in place to become a more environmentally sustainable place. There is a customer rinsing station where you can clean your cup, we issue electronic receipts only, and there are recycle bins."
V: Tell us about your love for whisky.
S: "I have always loved whisky, and found it a very enjoyable drink. There is so much complexity and variation within it. You can have 20 whiskies and they are completely different. For our first filling of barrels, we filled four barrels on the same date, same liquid, and the same everything. When they came off, they were completely different. That is the magic of natural fermentation and so many variables at the end of the day. That is the beauty for me. A lot of people ask me how I know what will come out on the other end is going to be good. I know it will be good because what I put in the barrel is already good. It will only get better."
V: How is Mad Lab Distillery different from other local distilleries?
S: "One of the biggest differences is that we do a continuous fermentation, using 100% BC grown malted barley mash and our continuous culture of Champagne yeast. Our yeast culture is very unique, big, and robust, and it is about 250 generations at this point. The other main difference is our still design. We use a pot still, a more common style in Scotch whisky, and it gives the maximum flavor to the whisky. Over the years, one of the things that I learned is the difference in flavor that comes out of different heat sources. I wanted to make sure that I use an open flame. It requires a lot more manual maintenance, but it makes a beautiful whisky with a rich toasty finish and a robust character.
Double-wood blend is also one of our unique features. We start with the quarter casks for 1-2 years, and at the right time, we marry them into larger barrels to finish for another year or more, adding nice complexity. All those components make our whisky stand out."
V: How did you navigate your business through the Covid pandemic?
S: "It has been really tough, but on the positive end, we see a lot more people supporting local products. People are now getting aware that if we want to survive together, we have to support locally owned businesses. In the early days of the pandemic, we started giving away rubbing alcohol like many other distilleries. Within a couple of days, we started receiving 20-40 calls a day asking for sanitizers for different and sometimes wrong reasons. It had gotten to the point that we had to limit the number of sanitizers per person, and soon we switched over to making packs of alcohol wipes, which was easier for us to handle as a small distillery. Still, we had to limit 2 packs per person, and we always stocked and gave away for free to clinics and people in need. On sanitizers, we paired with Canask who helped with distribution of PPE. We linked up with Street Saviours Outreach Society(SSOS) and Health Initiative For Men (HIM) and distributed the boxes of wipes to them as well.
Also, we ended up being a sponsor for this men's mental health group called Whisky Wizards. They offer each other emotional and financial help for those especially hit hard by the pandemic. Last Thanksgiving, they put together a dozen of dinner hampers for families who couldn't afford to feed themselves. 10% of sales from our Smoked Old Fashioned Whisky goes to this group and their effort. Pandemic was a very interesting and stressful time, and the sanitizer story was one of the biggest takeaways from Covid."
V: And, how are the current world affairs affecting your business?
S: "I follow a lot of world news, and I think the world is on fire! Personally, when it comes to business, we just put one foot in front of the other. Everything is more expensive now and it is hard to get everything. We do our best to keep our heads above the water and not bring any negativity from our side of the business. Fortunately, we haven't had to raise our prices yet."
V: What is your favorite way to enjoy whisky?
S: "Straight from a glass. It doesn't need ice, just needs good company. That is the only way, and that is how I want my whisky to be. When I have my whisky, I don't want it to be rushed. I want to be relaxed by myself or hang out with some friends in a relaxing situation. Whisky is very special to me because of the time and effort that we put into it. I want to sit down with it, enjoy it, and be part of it."
V: What is the most joy in work?
S: "I love seeing something I created and people enjoying it. It makes my day when an unacquainted person tells me that they love my product. Aside from that, I like being my own boss and setting my own working pace."