'Smallest distillery in North America' starting retail sales in Old Strathcona operation
Published on: November 17, 2017 | Last Updated: November 17, 2017 7:56 PM MST
Adam Smith has turned an old radiator shop into a distillery that uses local ingredients to make Gin and Vodka in Edmonton. Video by Shaughn Butts
Strathcona Spirits owner Adam Smith is so keen to put local ingredients in his company’s booze, he flavours the gin with wild juniper berries and sea buckthorn he picks himself.
What Smith claims is North America’s smallest distillery opened last December in a 69-square-metre former radiator shop on a gentrifying Old Strathcona industrial block, outfitted with a $100,000 custom-made still he and a friend drove 10,000 km to pick up in the Ozarks.
Although Strathcona Spirits has been selling 200 to 300 bottles of its gin and vodka each month through 150 liquor stores, bars and restaurants in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the company isn’t yet breaking even.
Smith admits he’s not sure how this compares to the anticipated sales volume.
“I don’t know what I expected. I’m not much of a businessman. I thought it would be easy to keep the door open, and it’s been more challenging because everything is expensive.”
Smith, 37, worked for an Eastern Canada craft brewery before he decided to start making the hard stuff in a one-storey space at 10122 81 Ave., where he’d operated the Baby Seal Club music venue.
The province changed the law in 2013 to allow craft distilleries. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission now lists 19 firms producing spirits, including Edmonton’s Hansen Distillery, Rig Hand Craft Distillery in Nisku and firms in Ardrossan, Camrose and Vegreville.
Smith’s enthusiasm for the spirit world shines through as he talks about the terroir of the juniper berries — harvested on the banks of the Red Deer River — and the farmer who goes out for breakfast with him after delivering the wheat used to make alcohol.
“There’s a resurgence of interest in these artisanally made spirits using local botanicals, local grains, and it tastes great.”
Gin and vodka on display at Edmonton’s Strathcona Spirits craft distillery on Nov. 17, 2017. SHAUGHN BUTTS/ POSTMEDIA
Strathcona Spirits started with gin and vodka, which take less time to produce and sell for about $50 a bottle.
But it’s releasing a smoky barrel-aged gin in early December, and Smith is experimenting with rye flavoured with white willow bark.
As well, after toiling in relative anonymity for the last year without even a sign on the 94-year-old building, the distillery finally has permission to open a retail outlet and can welcome visitors.
The proposal was initially shot down because of Edmonton’s prohibition on liquor stores operating within 500 metres of each other, but in September the city modified its zoning rules to allow small breweries, wineries and distilleries to sell alcohol manufactured on site.
Tours and sales started Thursday and run through Saturday.
Smith is replacing the tongue-in-cheek notice on his door announcing “Strathcona Spirits secret location, please stay out” with a company sign roughly the size of a bumper sticker, but wants to paint a big mural outside once the weather warms.
“It will grow our brand and interest in our brand for people to be able to see that it’s local. We’re not the cheapest bottle on the shelf … but hopefully we will be held up by the community as a locally made product — they will recognize the costs of being local and share them.”
Meanwhile, Smith is preparing for the future. One wall has racks of wooden casks containing his first whisky, what he calls his savings account because the value will grow as it ages.
One of the 53-gallon (US) vessels is being held for his two-month-old daughter Juna.
“That won’t be cracked until she’s 18.”