In a pink building just south of Whyte Avenue, workers are crammed in a 740-square-foot workspace. Someone empties a vat of Seaberry Gin, while another worker fills bottles. Another hand signs labels, letting future customers know exactly which bottles out of the batch they’re getting.
This is Strathcona Spirits, a distillery that breaks all sorts of rules. Master distiller and co-founder Adam Smith calls it an exploratory distillery. He uses botanicals native to Alberta to flavour the gin; one is aged in pinot noir casks brought in from a British Columbia winery; the spirit is pink. Another gin is aged in whiskey casks and has notes of toffee. Juniper berries are sourced from the badlands.
But maybe the most punk-rock thing Strathcona Spirits did is make “baby” or “young” whiskey. Before Christmas, the distillery released three casks of experimental unaged whiskey; it produced wheat distilates that were aged under the prescribed three years. Officially, for a grain spirit to be called a whiskey, it must be aged a minimum of three years.
Strathcona Spirits’ latest release, Marsala’s Frontier Waltz, is a wheat spirit that’s aged for 15 months total, including seven months in Virgin American white oak barrels and eight months in marsala wine casks made from Hungarian oak.
“We’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” says Smith. “We want to spearhead a more honest explanation of the process, and there are things in the flavour profile that exist after a few months that won’t be there after three years.”
The story of how the distillery came to be also has some very punk-rock roots. Before opening the distillery in December 2016, Smith and a crew of friends had bands come perform in the space, then known as the Baby Seal Club. But bandmates move away, get day jobs. So Smith and his girlfriend, Andrea Shubert, decided to begin distilling in a tiny space that, well, shouldn’t be a distillery.
“It was a nice change, a way to make something that has permanence to it,” says Smith.
He says local distillers have only “scratched the surface” when it comes to the berries, plants and roots that can be used in spirits. Strathcona Spirits just purchased a 40-acre plot of land southwest of the city that’s filled with wild strawberries, raspberries and saskatoons. There are birch and willow trees. A plot of poppies has been planted.
Oh, and Smith plans to pave a landing strip on the distillery’s new plot of land. He is also a pilot and can fly a small plane to the new spot. Why not?