Kindred spirits: Alberta's craft distilling industry growing alongside local breweries

The craft beer industry that started to ferment in Alberta a few years ago is now getting company from local distillers while it continues to grow. 

From 7 to 47, distillers in Alberta joining ranks of craft alcohol industry

Long Pine Distillery off 103rd Street and 59th Avenue in Edmonton is one of the newcomers to the industry. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The craft beer industry that started to ferment in Alberta a few years ago is getting company from local distillers while it continues to grow. 

The number of licensed distillers rose from seven in 2016 to 47 in 2021, according to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. 

Five years ago, there were 33 licensed breweries and this year there are 133 in the province.

Both fall under class E licences for brewpubs and manufacturers.

Strathcona Spirits was one of the first small-batch distillers in Alberta, getting its licence in 2016. 

Owner Adam Smith said he believes the rise in licences can be attributed, in part, to the province lifting its requirements back in 2014. 

The province previously insisted that distilleries and wineries produce at least 250,000 litres a year — more than 330,000 750 ml bottles. 

Smith said he's not sure why the regulations were there in the first place, allowing only a few established commercial makers to manage the quota. 

"Nobody can start that big — you've got to start somewhere, if you're a normal person," Smith said in an interview Monday. 

Now, he prides himself on local ingredients to make vodka, gin and whisky. 

"We get to make things, like our gin, for example, uses juniper from the badlands, and sea buckthorn berry that we pick here in Edmonton," Smith said. "We grow the best grain in the world here." 

Craft distillers are also using local botanicals and herbs, he noted. 

New kid on the block

One of the newest distilleries in Edmonton is Lone Pine Distilling at 59th Avenue and 103rd Street. 

Bryan Anderson, owner and president and a former chartered accountant, opened the space last fall with some financial partners, making gin and vodka to start. 

Troy Wassill brewed beer with his friends in a garage, as a hobby, before opening Longroof Brewing in Edmonton's Ritchie neighbourhood. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

"You want to do something you're passionate about but you also you want to do something that's not thousands of competitors," Anderson said.

He started looking for a space in 2017 and started building the distillery, which includes a restaurant area and bar. 

"It's a massive risk," he said. "I walked away from a career that was very, very lucrative, very certain — I could have told you my next 20 years probably —  to a business where you take all your life savings and pile all that in and you're not the expert anymore."

Anderson has taken courses in distilling and has the capacity to produce 50,000 bottles a year but said it's too early to say what is feasible.

Beer boom continues

The Alberta craft beer industry that hit the ground running in 2017 hasn't looked back. 

One of the newest in Edmonton is Longroof Brewing Co. on 72nd Avenue off 99th street, which opened in May. 

Five friends, including co-owner and brewmaster Troy Wassill, started the brewery with local knowledge and support from friends in the industry. 

"All of them were extremely supportive of any idea of us joining the industry," he said. "It's not like anything I've ever done before — where everybody is excited and wants to help." 

Wassill speculates that the industry continues to flourish as people's tastes evolve. 

"I don't think that the old thought — that beer is just beer and whisky is just whisky — remains anymore," Wassill said. "People understand that we can go to new exciting places and non-beer drinkers are beer drinkers now." 

Distillers are making new interesting and exciting concoctions with gin, vodka and whisky, he said.

Alberta meaderies and wineries have also had five-year growth, from 11 licences in 2016 to 21 in 2021.