Distilling the Beast: Fort McMurray captures wildfire in a bottle

By bottling the black smoke which blanketed wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray, a northern Alberta brewery is distilling disaster into something delicious.

'It will produce a once in a lifetime kind of bottle. We'll never be able to reproduce it'

Spike Baker checks on a batch of beer of Wood Buffalo Brewing Company in Fort McMurray. (Wood Buffalo Brewing Co.)

By bottling the black smoke which blanketed a wildfire-ravaged Fort McMurray, a northern Alberta brewery is distilling disaster into something delicious.

The Wood Buffalo Brewing Company will create a new double-smoked whisky, using grain permeated with the fiery haze.

Their new blend will be aptly named the Beast.

Head brewer Spike Baker hopes the new whisky will embody some of the resilient spirit of Fort McMurray.

"This is was a heavily peated grain that's going to be mixed with this smoke flavour," Baker said in an interview with CBC Edmonton's Radio Active.

"So it will be a combination of the sweet peat flavour and campfire flavour and it will produce a once in a lifetime kind of bottle. We'll never be able to reproduce it."
After a month-long displacement from brewing beer in Fort McMurray, Spike Baker is at it again. (Wood Buffalo Brewing Co.)

After the flames forced the entire city to flee for their lives, Baker spent his first days back in Fort McMurray dumping fire-tainted beer down the drain.

While most of the beer survived, hundreds of litres had to be discarded.

While they were scrubbing the business clean of ash and smoke damage, they discovered a single pallet of peated malt which had been abandoned outside for weeks.

They thought it was destined for the landfill, but when testing showed it was safe to use, Baker knew they had something special.

They're now preparing to heap the double-smoked barley into their copper still.

"This grain we had was sitting out on our patio for the entire fire. And obviously the town was incredibly smoky at that time, so that grain has absorbed some of that extra flavour.

"It depends on each person's individual palates, but some of the predominant flavours (for whisky) are always peat and smoke, and this one should have both."

The Beast in a bottle 

But those keen to catch a taste of the Beast in a bottle will have to wait.

The brewery will auction off 10 of the bottles at an official launch party when distilling begins this Friday, but the aging process won't be complete for years.

"They will receive a labelled bottle with a scroll certificate inside of it, stating that they have purchased this numbered bottle of this specific whisky.

"And we will be aging it in bottles in the brewery and come five years, we will give them an additional bottle with the whisky inside."

From the whisky's name, branding and official launch, Baker says they've been working with local firefighters every step of the way. A large portion of the proceeds will be funnelled back into the community through the Friends of Fort McMurray Firefighters Charities Fund.

Wood Buffalo Brewing will also provide 10 bottles per year for auction at initiatives supporting victims of the wildfire.

"It's an opportunity to celebrate how far we've come as a community," Baker said.

"In honour of the firefighters saving the city and making this whisky possible, we want to move that legacy forward. That's where the give back comes in."


Wallis Snowdon is a journalist with CBC Edmonton focused on bringing stories to the website and the airwaves. She loves helping people tell their stories on issues ranging from health care to the courts. Originally from New Brunswick, Wallis has reported in communities across Canada, from Halifax to Fort McMurray. She previously worked as a digital and current affairs producer with CBC Radio in Edmonton. Wallis has a bachelor of journalism (honours) from the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S.. Share your stories with Wallis at wallis.snowdon@cbc.ca