The Spirit of Alberta
Distillery owners are looking to ride craft liquor’s growing wave of popularity.
photography by Pop Winson
Robert de Groot had just built a seven-foot-tall copper still for his new business, Red Cup Distillery, located in Vegreville. Countless hours and dollars had been invested into the moonshine that was heating in that still. It was a defining moment; his first batch was nearly ready. But the look he gave his wife wasn’t one of excitement, but one of terror.
“I’m looking at her, going: ‘Honey, we’re going bankrupt,'” says de Groot. “Because the smell that came out of there was just repulsive.”
The metallic stench hinted at the terrible flavour inside. But Vegreville was part of the province’s moonshine trade during prohibition, so hooch is still as familiar to some long-time residents as the giant Ukrainian Easter egg rising from the edge of town. One of them told de Groot the smell was a normal part of the process.
As is customary with moonshine, that first batch needed to be thrown out, and the second batch was something entirely different. “It was the best booze I’d smelled in my life,” says de Groot. Since then, the liquor has been very popular, with people spending hours driving just to try it.
It’s no surprise that business owners like de Groot have a large learning curve when opening their craft distilleries. These businesses, after all, are completely new to Alberta. Before 2013, liquor laws required licensed wineries and distilleries to produce at least 2,500 hectolitres of absolute alcohol a year and breweries to produce 5,000 hectolitres of beer a year – far too much for the craft liquor industry, where product is made in small batches. (One hectolitre is equivalent to 100 litres.)
In the United States, the number of craft distilleries operating rose dramatically from around 50 in 2005 to 769 in 2015, largely due to the removal of minimum production capacities and changes to liquor laws. But, here in Canada, each province has its own liquor laws with which to contend. And, while some other provinces shed minimum production capacities, Alberta was among one of the last to remove them. In 2013, the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) reviewed the province’s manufacturing policies, resulting in the removal of production requirements and, according to Alain Maisonneuve, the AGLC’s vice-president of liquor services, several individuals immediately showed interest in starting small liquor businesses.
Geoff Stewart, owner of Big Rig Craft Distillery in Nisku, was among them. On this day, his still is full of rum, while barrels of vodka sit next to it. He lifts the lid on one of those giant barrels and the smell of garlic – the large pieces bobbing on the surface – permeates the area. Stewart uses grain grown just a few miles away, as well as locally grown produce.
In the corner, Stewart demonstrates how his four staff members use a small automatic dispenser that releases just the right amount of liquor into each bottle that’s a replica of the Leduc No. 1 drilling rig. Labels and wax are then hand-applied to each bottle. A huge amount of labour goes into each bottle – and that labour, along with the cost of supplies, means he can never compete with the mass hard-liquor producers like Smirnoff.
“That’s craft,” Stewart laughs.
Stewart, formerly a dental hygienist and tattoo artist, opened Big Rig’s doors in October 2015, but he began thinking about the business even before the liquor laws changed. Several others had similar ideas, including Wood Buffalo Brewing Company, a brewer in Fort McMurray; Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley; and Park Distillery in Banff. And Maisonneuve says at least four more businesses are interested in joining the craft liquor market soon.
“If that continues to happen, you’re going to see this wave continue to spread across North America. So, we’re hoping we’re at the front of that wave,” says Stewart.
Just because it has been illegal to sell liquor in small quantities across our country doesn’t mean it has never been done. Moonshine is as much a part of prairie history as the wheat from which it’s often made. It was illegal, but still very highly respected, even during the prohibitions of both Canada and the U.S. Police departments were understaffed across the province during Alberta’s prohibition from 1916 to 1924, but even those officers who knew about bootlegging, according to de Groot, sometimes turned a blind eye because it was the only way some farmers survived during tough times.
Today, de Groot makes moonshine the way it was done for decades on the prairies, using old recipes and ingredients from the area.
Stewart also enjoys the creative side of the business – he and his staff have done everything from creating the drinks to designing the labels and building the bar where he provides samples to those who tour the facility.
But since craft distilleries are so new, even the government is constantly learning. Over the past few years, rules have evolved – and will continue to do so – on what can be done with everything from zoning to taxation. The provincial government, for example, has talked about giving a break on markups to craft brewers and distillers similar to one that’s offered in British Columbia.
Currently, though, the evolving rulebook creates challenges for those starting out. For Stewart, those challenges included finding an appropriate building within zoning requirements that hadn’t been set in stone yet, along with securing funding and finding proper equipment.
“I did a 95-page business plan, took it to the bank and they said it was the best they’d ever seen. But they pushed it back across the desk and said they couldn’t finance it, because it’s an unproven business in Alberta,” says Stewart. After five other lenders said the same thing, he and his wife put their own money into the business.
They’re unproven in Alberta, but in the States, craft distilleries are thriving. While that’s a good sign, it also means there is a shortage of pre-made equipment – for a new distiller, it takes at least 18 months, if not two years, to secure all the equipment needed.
There is even a worldwide shortage of the barrels used to age whiskey or infuse it with flavour. Rather than viewing these shortages as obstacles, Stewart and de Groot see opportunities. If a local carpenter would make oak barrels or locally crafted stills, Stewart is confident there’d be a market for them.
Craft distilleries may eventually bring more jobs to the province, but one of the first issues to address would be a lack of education. Currently, there is only one course at Olds College for those interested in brewing, but nothing for distilling. Stewart is even willing to offer his facilities to a post-secondary institute looking to expand its curriculum. “It would be good for us, from a business perspective, to have educated people from Alberta that we could hire as staff,” he says.
Stewart and de Groot are both excited about the potential of an expanding market. In the future, tours of different distilleries in the area could be offered. “We’re not competition to one another; our competition is the big companies,” says Stewart. “The more of us little guys that get started, the better.”