Alberta craft spirits soar, stay true to local roots
More than 20 micro distilleries have opened since province changed regulation in 2013
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Craft spirit distilleries tend to be small family affairs, but they're making big statements with brands and flavours firmly entrenched in Alberta.
"When we told people we were starting a distillery, they asked us what kind of beer we were going to make," recalled Geoff Stewart, owner of Rig Hand Craft Distillery in Nisku, Alta.
"We had to teach people what craft distilling was."
Alberta's distilling industry has blossomed since the minimum production requirement for distilleries was removed by the provincial government in 2013.
Since the regulation change, 21 micro-distilleries have set up shop in the province, and 11 more are in the application process, according to the Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis Commission.
But the path hasn't been easy for Alberta's first craft distillers.
The bureaucracy, both at the provincial and municipal levels, can be hard to negotiate, said Adam Smith, who opened Strathcona Spirits in Edmonton in 2016.
"Over time we were able to overcome every obstacle that was presented to us, and here we are," Smith said.
With locally-sourced ingredients and packaging designed to reflect their distinct characteristics, Alberta micro-distilleries are setting themselves apart.
Rig Hand, for example, offers more than 40 products, including 18 kinds of flavoured vodka, and "brum"— a rum-like spirit made from sugar beets grown in southern Alberta.
Its bottles are shaped like oil derricks as an homage to the area's connection to the oil industry.
"The first principle of all craft producers is to source local," said Stewart. "We wanted to come up with a name and a package that represented the Leduc, Nisku area."
Over at Strathcona Spirits, local artists have created labels for each product. "We support arts and music here in Edmonton, and they support us," Smith said. "It makes our communities more sustainable."
Smith makes gin using local plants, like juniper from the Badlands area and seaberries hand-picked in Edmonton's Southgate neighbourhood.
Alberta's botanicals are begging to be discovered, Smith said. "These northern boreal botanicals have not been explored. We have a limitless supply of stuff that hasn't been tried yet."
'We picked our lane'
Andrea and David Scade embraced similar values when they launched their Black Diamond Distillery in St. Albert, Alta. earlier this year.
"The more we're into the food and alcohol scene in Edmonton, the more local we seem to be getting," said David Scade, who now buys the wheat he needs to distil vodka directly from a local farmer.
As newcomers to the industry, the Scades were mindful of finding their own niche while creating their flavoured spirits.
"We're not trying to be everything, but we picked our lane," said David Scade. "We're trying to stick with what we are good at and enjoy."
The more experienced distillers in the Edmonton area have been welcoming and supportive of their venture, he said.
"Everybody knows that nobody is reinventing the wheel, but you're going to create your own version of that wheel."
Personalization is an important part of Black Diamond Distillery's business model.
The Scades have marketed to the bridal industry and can create new custom flavours and individualized labels for their clients.
"We're happy with how it's being received," said Andrea Scade. "It's really resonating with people."
'Real competition is the big companies'
The growth in the craft spirit industry has been staggering, but Rig Hand's Stewart believes there's plenty of room for more players.
"I don't feel that craft distillers in Alberta are really competing with one another," he said. "There's enough market out there for everybody to be successful."
The more micro-distilleries there are, the stronger the industry becomes as a whole, he added.
"Our real competition is the big companies. We're all working together to steal market share from them."