As luck would have it, there are more crazy people in the world than just me. Opening Alberta’s first Craft Distillery, while regulations languished in prohibition era legislation, was an undertaking which required a collection of mad entrepreneurs – not just one!
For a fleeting moment, the idea of an Alberta Craft Distillery made sense. The industry was growing in the US, people aware of craft beer were starting to make the connection to better tasting spirits, and the Canadian Wheat Board was disbanded to allow direct farm grain purchases.
All of these were thoughts that fluttered through my brain, as I pursued another fun and reckless weekend pursuit of traditional farming with horses. With my Amish trained horses, I regularly joined a group of likeminded horse farmers for ploughing and seeding land using antique farm equipment. As my Alberta born mother used to say, “You can take the boy out of Alberta, but you can’t take Alberta out of the boy”.
At the end of the year’s harvest, I would think “what are we going to do with all this grain?”Alas, Alberta regulations didn’t allow for small distilleries, so another fleeting entrepreneurial idea was burst. What a shame – of all places in the world that should be producing craft spirits – Alberta is the world’s breadbasket of quality grain.
Then, I visited my sister, a transplanted Albertan living just outside of Portland. A weekend of revelry visiting wineries and craft distilleries in the Willamette Valley in Oregon rekindled my thoughts of a distillery. After all, my career was started in the early days of Big Rock, when craft breweries were equally unknown and untested. Again, I thought if they could do it in Oregon, why not Alberta?
It’s who you know!
The next week I visited two people I needed to convince to make it happen. My old colleague from Big Rock, Brewmaster and Distiller Larry Kerwin, was one of the industry’s most accomplished individuals, with senior production roles at Big Rock, Sleemans and Molson’s. Brad Stevens, whom I worked with in the veterinary industry, was another key to pulling it together. Brad’s superb organizational skills would be essential to pulling off such a complicated project.
With trepidation, I outlined the reasons I felt it was time to buck the system and apply for the first Craft Distillery license. Luckily, the idea was met by both with unparalleled enthusiasm – the idea was born!
All of us believed that Alberta as producer of the best grain in the world, but ironically shipping it to producers in Scotland and Kentucky, among others, should have its own premium maker of spirits.
Larry got to work on sourcing the best distilling equipment in the world. We knew that if we were to make best-in-class spirits, we needed the best equipment. Larry outlined what he wanted to see in special modifications and we put down our deposit for a custom system with Bavarian Holstein in Germany. We did this without the assurance of a government permit, which was not favourable to our proposal. Regardless, optimism overrode common sense. No more fantasy – we were committed!
Location, Location, Location
Next we needed a building – a frightening prospect when you know you will be storing whiskies perhaps for 20 plus years, we needed to own it. We also needed a building that could accommodate our 18-plus-foot distilling columns, and hopefully in close proximity to our grain sources – the nearby Alberta farmers. While Calgary was our home market, we felt we were an agricultural product.
Within a month of our deposit on equipment, we owned a 1929 movie theatre in Turner Valley – still with limited prospects of government approval, but brimming with hope and a stellar cast of expertise.