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'I don’t want to be a dreamer': These former set decorators are disrupting the landscape of gin distilling in North Vancouver

Copperpenny Distillery looks like a stunning cocktail lounge but it's the behind the scenes work that sets them apart.

One of the statement pieces of Copperpenny Distilling Co.'s emerald and gold, peacock-esque cocktail lounge is a bunny lamp that made the 7,581 km trek from London to North Vancouver segmented in co-owner and mistress of distilling Jennifer Kom-Tong's hand luggage. The shade, stashed under the seat in front of her, forced Kom-Tong to spend the nine-hour flight with her legs shoved to the side - but it was worth it.

The commitment to one lighting fixture is emblematic of how Kom-Tong and her husband, Jan Stenc, designed their business. The couple isn't from the world of distilling or even hospitality; instead, they spent the last 25 years in the film industry travelling the world as set decorators, which heavily influenced the taste of their gin.

The decision to start a distillery was part dare, part compromise.

Stenc has been a lifelong brew fan, who grew up before the craft beer boom in Vancouver but watching micro-breweries come of age in Portland. He started making his own beer with friends in university and it was always a dream to start his own brewery.

He recalls the days when people would meet in the basement of Gastown's Alibi Room to compare homebrews: “It was like swapping contraband.”

The only problem? Kom-Tong doesn’t drink beer, not even a little bit.

Someone made the mistake of telling Kom-Tong she couldn't do it

The idea of a gin distillery had been in the back of their minds for years until someone made the mistake of telling Kom-Tong that she wouldn’t be able to do it.

Finally, she said, “I don’t want to be a dreamer.” She made Stenc pinky-promise to take a leap of faith with her and start actively looking for a space to make their dream a reality. The pair sealed the deal with a symbolic leap from their deck.

The name Copperpenny is an homage to Stenc’s beer brewing days and the handful of copper pennies he puts in every batch to this day.

Their previous careers prepared them for the long hours of building a business and their status as upstarts and newcomers to the industry also lent them an alternative perspective on what it means to be a gin distillery.

You won't find any wide shots of the room on social media because like with their gin, the couple aims to take people by surprise.

The pair are tenacious in their pursuit of perfection in every aspect of their business and incredibly specific in what they will and won’t use to distill. They hunted down a Bulgarian juniper berry that makes up the base of their spirit and came up with their blends in small batches using a six-litre still. When they find a recipe they’re happy with they run it again and again and again to be sure before making it in the large 600-litre still.

'We may be ass backwards compared to the other distillers'

“We may be ass backwards compared to the other distillers,” says Kom-Tong of their approach which included picking a tonic water before settling on the gin recipe but their approach is freeing too. Kom-Tong has big plans for the future of Copperpenny, which is located on brewery row in the Lonsdale shipyards area, such as offering local restaurants custom-made gins, like a cardamom forward one for an Indian restaurant. She also wants to hold gin and botanical classes where people can make their own gin with a custom label.

They already make their labels in-house and they resemble a prescription or nutritional facts graphic more than typical branding. It’s a nod to the intense amount of science and method that goes into making the gin.

“You never consider the uses of these botanicals,” says Stenc of the ingredients. Coriander is the seed of cilantro but people don’t necessarily make that connection. He thinks gin is such a neat medium to work with because of the spice trade's influence on the botanicals and the near-infinite combinations.

'It’s a social project'

Kom-Tong is passionate about having total transparency with their botanicals from grain to glass so people know what they’re drinking the same way they would with food. Eventually, the labels will have a QR code for people who are part of their members' club to scan and their tasting notes will appear alongside those of other members. “It’s a social project,” she says.

Kom-Tong designed the cocktail lounge space while working overseas on Magic Mike Live; it’s meant to feel like a living room albeit the one of someone with exceptional taste. She describes the dichotomy between the two businesses as distillery first and bar second. The bar offers the opportunity for clientele to give feedback in a more immediate way and helps to build the initial community.

Both Stenc and Kom-Tong were born and raised in North Vancouver so building community in the neighbourhood and industry is important to them. While the gin might be globally inspired, for now, they are focused on their own backyard with an attitude that results in innovation that may not otherwise exist.

Copperpenny Distillery is located at 288 Esplanade E, Unit 103, in North Vancouver