Distilleries springing up all over southern Alberta
Published on: June 24, 2017 | Last Updated: June 24, 2017 5:00 AM MDT
Marko Cilic, left, Jordan Ramey and Ivan Cilic of Burwood Distillery In N.E. Calgary are part of a local distillery boom. DARREN MAKOWICHUK / CALGARY HERALD
When Marko Cilic was a little boy growing up in Bosnia, he used to help his neighbours during harvest. His job was to help pick big buckets of plums and then, when the region’s travelling distillery came to town, he’d help turn the juice from those plums into spirits.
“They would come with horses and bring the still to the neighbourhood,” he recalls. “All the neighbours would gather for a few days, bringing their buckets to distill.”
Now he and his brother Ivan Cilic, and their friends Ruza Obad and Jordan Ramey are the owners of Burwood Distillery, one of Calgary’s newest distilleries.
Part of a growing trend in Alberta, they plan to open their doors this month — any day, in fact, depending on when the final paperwork is approved.
In the past year or so, at least four distilleries have opened in and around Calgary, and more are in the works. There are now close to 20 in small towns and big cities across the province.
“I can’t even give you the exact number of distilleries in the province, because the number is changing so quickly,” says David Farran, president of Eau Claire Distillery and president of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association.
“We’ve seen a lot of newcomers into the industry and a lot of people who are expressing interest.”
From Farran’s perspective, the more the merrier — even though they’re creating competition for his own operation. “Ultimately, that’s what pushes the industry forward,” he says. “It’s a great thing when entrepreneurs get into the industry and start to push boundaries and try new things.”
Owner David Farran of Eau Claire Distillery. CALGARY HERALD
While distilleries have been around in Alberta for generations, the current boom started in 2013, when the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission ended its minimum production requirements. Until then, to hold a commercial licence in Alberta, you had to make at least 500,000 litres of beer or spirits per year.
Then, last year, the City of Calgary changed its rules to allow breweries and distilleries (and, for that matter, wineries) to open and operate within most of the city’s commercial and industrial areas.
The changes paved the way for smaller distilleries to come on board.
But start saving your pennies if you’re thinking about jumping in. The cost of opening a distillery is about double the cost of a brewery, Farran says. “But if you’re willing to take that risk, I think there’s a huge opportunity here.”
Depending what you make, you may find the raw ingredients right here at home. “We produce the best barley in the world,” Farran says. “We ship it to places like Scotland, for making scotch, but we have the potential for a great industry right here at home.”
The Cilic brothers are counting on that. Ramey, their distiller, is using honey from the brothers’ dad’s bees to make a honey eau de vie. And down the road, they plan to make gin, whiskies and, hopefully plum and cherry brandies, like the brothers remember helping to make as children.
It hasn’t all been easy. It took them three years to get the licensing in place, and their entire team still holds down various day jobs. Ivan is a realtor, while his brother builds houses. Ramey teaches distilling at Olds College.
But it’s worth it, Ivan says. “We’re bringing science and culture together,” he says.
“It’s about those moments when we can all just come together and have a drink and enjoy our time together.”
Take a tour
You’ll want to sample the spirits when you visit a distillery. But it’s not a good idea if you’re driving. That’s why the team at Calgary Brewery Tours also offers distillery tours in and around Calgary. Call 403-299-4910 or 1-866-279-1999 or e-mail email@example.com for more information.
Want to know more about Alberta’s booming distillery scene?
Some are small. Some are big. Some — such as Eau Claire Distillery — grow and buy their raw ingredients locally. Others, such as Secret Barrel Distillery, import their base ingredients from faraway lands, and then distill and bottle locally. Still others rely on a combination of local and imported ingredients.
Here are a few Southern and central Alberta distilleries to seek out now:
Alberta Distillers — Named Canadian Distillery of the Year earlier this year at the Canadian Whisky Awards, Alberta Distillers was founded in 1946 by Max Bell and Frank McMahon. Now owned by Beam Suntory, Alberta Distillers has a lengthy lineup of products, including Alberta Premium Dark Horse, Alberta Pure Vodka, Banff Ice and Alberta Springs Canadian Rye Whisky. albertarye.com
Burwood Distillery — One of the newest players on the Calgary scene, Burwood will open its tasting room this month. So far the team just has two spirits, a honey eau de vie and a vodka, but they plan to expand soon, eventually offering gin, whiskies and fruit brandies. Currently, you can only buy Burwood products at the distillery in northeast Calgary. burwooddistillery.ca
Eau Claire Distillery — Located in Turner Valley, Eau Claire opened its doors three years ago and has been making waves ever since. This year, the distillery team won a slew of prestigious international awards. They now offer food at the distillery, as well as a tonic water and several limited-release products, including a coffee vodka, for sale only at the distillery. Within the next six to eight months, they’ll release their first whiskies, too. eauclairedistillery.ca
Highwood Distillers — One of the granddaddies of the business, Highwood started in 1974 under the name Sunnyvale and, then, in 1984, rebranded as Highwood Distillers. The best-known Highwood products include Centennial Canadian Rye Whisky, the White Owl Whiskies, the Highwood Ninety 20-Year-Old and the Century Reserve. highwood-distillers.com
Krang Spirits — Susan Ransom and her husband Michael Guenzel planned to buy a winery, but after visiting a distillery in Nova Scotia, they switched gears and opened Krang in December 2016 in Cochrane. They make a vodka and six liqueurs, including raspberry, sour cherry and blackcurrant as well as Bad Billy (chocolate-coffee-orange), Krupnik (spiced honey liqueur) and Persephone, a floral-berry spirit. They’ll soon launch a gin and an apple brandy, and in a couple of years they’ll start releasing whiskies. krang.com
Krang Astra Clara Vodka.<br /> MHGDesk2 MHGDESK2 / CALGARY HERALD
Last Best Brewing and Distilling — Located in downtown Calgary, Last Best makes beer as well as small-batch, limited-edition spirits, 60 bottles at a time. Current releases include Jelly Gin, made with jalapeno-mint jelly, and the Crackin Orange Gin. “People can buy them to take home, and they can try our cocktails designed around them, too,” says Chad Salyn, Last Best’s general manager.lastbestbrewing.com
Palliser/Black Velvet Distillery — Located in Lethbridge, Palliser is one of the biggest players in the province, making Black Velvet, a Canadian whisky. Black Velvet is owned by Constellation Brands, one of the world’s largest alcohol companies. blackvelvetwhisky.com
Park Distillery, Restaurant & Bar — Located in Banff, Park opened on Banff Avenue in 2015. The award-winning lineup of products includes a vanilla vodka, an espresso vodka, the Bird’s Eye Chili Vodka, Glacier Rye and Alpine Gin. parkdistillery.com
Park Distillery. CALGARY HERALD
Raw Distillery — Brad Smylie’s great-grandmother was a bootlegger decades ago in Ontario. Now he and his wife, Lindsay, are the owners of Raw Distillery in Canmore. They have a vodka, peppercorn gin, an unaged rye, and they’ll soon release a citrus gin and a botanical gin, as well as a peppercorn Caesar collaboration with Bow Valley BBQ’s Parkway Clamato. rawspirits.ca
Secret Barrel Distillery — Adam MacDonald, Aaron Norris, Brendan O’Connor and Chase Craig import sugarcane liquor from Demerara Distillers in Guyana, and then distill and bottle their white rum at Highwood Distillers. You’ll find Secret Barrel white rum on cocktail menus and in liquor stores across Alberta. This fall, they’ll launch a spiced rum and aged amber rums, and, eventually, a spiced cinnamon rum. secretbarreldistillery.com
Starr Distilling — Calgarian Mike Stanfield set out to create a spirit that tasted like real fruit. The result? Summer Love Raspberry Vodka, which contains raspberries from British Columbia. Unlike the other distilleries on this list, however, Stanfield distils his product in Wisconsin because, as he puts it, his plan was too small to get financing to open his own distillery, but too big to borrow space from other small distilleries. He bought a still, though, so down the road? Only time will tell.starrdistilling.com
Stone Heart Distillery — Located north of Calgary, near Innisfail, Stone Heart is a family-owned distillery currently making a vodka, although there are plans to release a berry vodka and a gin soon. stoneheartdistillery.com
Wild Life Distillery — Keith Robinson and Matt Widmer are behind this distillery, one of the first in Canmore. So far, they’re making a Wild Life Gin and a Wild Life Vodka made with grain grown in Alberta. The tasting room opened in January, and yes, there are tours, too. www.wildlifedistillery.ca