McCormick binder

Three white Percheron horses pull the McCormick binder. (Photo: David Richardson)

If you were a fan of Edwardian Farm on PBS, you probably consider yourself as much of an expert on historical horse-farming techniques as I do. Although it’s now autumn in Alberta, I know that spring is a time of great anticipation. There’s the tilling prior to the rains when horses working the field lines turn the stubble, ploughing the soil before it’s harrowed and seeded. “Then we sit and wait for the summer and hope the weather cooperates,” says David Farran, the president of Eau Claire Distillery, famous for its homegrown gin, vodka, single malt and Canadian rye whisky. He’s standing beside me in a field of barley at Bar U Ranch, a Parks Canada heritage site just south of Calgary, wearing a historically appropriate bowler hat.

When the barley is tall and ripe it’s ready to be cut and stooked for two days, usually in September, which is what brought me and my fellow farm voluntourists here to lend a hand – the distillery wisely capitalizing on visitors such as myself, who like to get their mitts dirty before drinking their dirty-gin martinis. Traditional farming in these parts has always been a community affair. Just as neighbours would help one another bring in the harvests of yore, Eau Claire invites its customers, bartenders, friends, relatives and anyone else with a penchant for old-timey gatherings to participate in Farmer for a Day activities.

The threshing machine

The threshing machine, another piece of bygone farm equipment, separates grain from inedible stalks. (Photo: David Richardson)

Being too short and also woefully unskilled, I’m not allowed to hop in the saddle of the 1930s McCormick binder hitched to four Percheron horses named Dick, Duke, Rex and Roy. This is a job for multi-tasking and apparently ambidextrous farmers like Paul Klausen, who’s guiding the horses with voice commands through the straightaways and around the corners of the barley field, a wash of autumnal ochre. (Powerful Percherons originated in Normandy; the breed was kept as farm and artillery horses.) The distillery cultivates 25 acres of barley and rye using historical farming methods. Farran also considers himself a farmer, noting that the whole “farm to glass” process not only makes for a great cocktail but also a bottle of knowledge, where the terroir comes through.

The McCormick binder, a supposedly bygone piece of farm equipment, is something to behold. A rotating reel cuts the stalks, pushing the standing grain onto the canvas conveyor below where they are bunched together and bound with twine by a mechanical knotter before the toe-tapping Klausen kicks the bundles, soon to be arranged into stooks, back out into the field. Following closely behind Klausen and crew (that would be Dick, Duke, Rex and Roy), I help stack the stooks teepee-style, five bundles to a stook, the grainy tops facing toward the Alberta skies to dry for several days. I rolled up my sleeves at 10 a.m.; by 3 p.m. they’re rolled back down, and I’m ready to move on to a whisky cocktail.

Aging whisky

Whisky ages three years inside Eau Claire Distillery’s barrel room. (Photo: Courtesy of Eau Claire Distillery)

The second part of the harvest, which takes place a couple of weeks later, sees the Percherons attached to hay wagons with bundle racks that are loaded with the 10-day-dried bundles; and then trundling horses trundle the wagons across the fields to the thresher. And then the final journey for the barley begins, a 20-minute trip down the Cowboy Trail highway through the rolling Rocky Mountain foothills, past snow-capped peaks unperturbed by sweet fall breezes, to Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, where it’s malted on site. Malting releases the hulled grain’s starches, which are converted to sugar in the mash, the sugar transforming to alcohol during fermentation and, finally, the alcohol is refined over a few hours in the grand copper still. “But then it’s three years before we can finally taste it,” says Farran, much to my chagrin.

The distillery’s first whisky will be ready in December of this year, but Farran is a clever man so he sneaks me a taste of the immature stuff, straight from the barrel and stored in a small hip flask. As we lean against his truck on a stooking break, he pours a couple of drams into Dixie cups. We toast the harvest, and then sip. It’s just over two years old and already starting to taste like a chewy caramel packing heat. From horses to hiccups, in one delicious sip.

Next of Gin

Sip Eau Claire cocktails at these three Calgary spots.

Deane House makes a Light Negroni with Eau Claire Prickly Pear EquineOx, Dolin Blanc and Yellow Chartreuse.

Proof offers up the floral Devonian. Try it with Eau Claire Parlour Gin, sauvignon blanc, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and maraschino liqueur.

Raw Bar at the Hotel Arts has a cocktail called the Chinook, made with Parlour Gin, limited-edition Chartreuse and earthy dandelion and burdock bitters.

Travel Essentials

Established in 2013, Eau Claire Distillery is open year-round for tours and tastings of its London Dry-style classic gin, vodka and unique Prickly Pear EquineOx made from barley and southern Alberta prickly-pear cactus. Farmer for a Day takes place the first and third Saturdays in September (weather-dependent).