Alberta man trying to recapture tradition of Prairies moonshine

Alberta man trying to recapture tradition of Prairies moonshine

'The amount of moonshine supplied east of Edmonton, up to say 1960, was unbelievable'

By Mack Lamoureux, CBC News Posted: Apr 28, 2016 6:00 AM MT Last Updated: Apr 28, 2016 6:00 AM MT

 

The copper still at Red Cup Distillery looks much like those found in on farms across the Prairies a century ago. 

 

Tucked away in a strip mall behind the Vegreville A&W, a trained opera singer is busy making moonshine.

Like many before him, it was hard times that drove Robert de Groot into the bush-whisky business. 

He runs Red Cup Distilling, a company that mixes the modern trend of craft distillery with the old prairie tradition of white lightning. 

The liquor he creates in his still out back of the strip mall is what he calls "wheat-shine," it's not aged, and unlike the famous shine the Duke boys drank, its primary ingredient is wheat, not corn.

At 100 proof it might not be strong enough to strip paint, but it's made the old-fashioned way. 

 

'I figured moonshine was a good way to make money,' says Robert de Groot. (Vimeo screenshot)

Setting up the still

Born and raised in Prince George, B.C., de Groot was never a stranger to Alberta. He used to make regular trips to Edmonton for classical music lessons. For years, he was a banker and also worked in custom equipment and manufacturing for industry.

After an ugly parting of ways with an employer, de Groot fell on hard times. He and his wife returned home to Alberta, where she had roots. Times were lean: de Groot recalls buying produce in bulk from farms, and the occasional pig he would butcher himself.

Then he got an idea.

"It's a mix of how I was raised, having to be frugal, and the necessity of not having money," said de Groot. 

"I figured moonshine was a good way to make money."

 

Robert de Groot is trying to recapture the taste of the traditional moonshine. (Supplied)

He went about learning as much as he could about the relationship between home-brewed hooch and the Prairies and, more importantly, how to get his hands on a still. He couldn't afford a pre-made still, so when his wife suggested he build his own, he decided to tap into the knowledge of, shall we say, previous craft brewers.

"Because of my contacts in oil and gas and brilliant people I met, I knew exactly who was going to build it," said de Groot. "I knew he was retired and I knew he was arrested in the 1960s for making shine."  

"The still itself looks the same as one that was found east of Edmonton in arrest documents from 1912," he said. 

De Groot said Vegreville, about 100 kilometres east of Edmonton, is now home to Canada's first legally made copper still. 

Returning to the tradition

It's not just knowledge and design that de Groot borrowed from the past, but the recipes as well. 

"Your great-grandpa, my great-grandpa, who lived on the farms, made this stuff," he said. "My liquor is like pre-1940s moonshine, because that's all we have to work from."

Armed with research, intuition, and help from some old timers who remember the taste first-hand, de Groot thinks he's getting close.

It's important that he gets it right, because of the importance home-brew played on the Prairies during the Depression, and back when Albertan was under prohibition, in the early 20th century.

 

'The amount of moonshine supplied east of Edmonton, up to say 1960, was unbelievable,' says Robert de Groot.

"East of the garlic curtain, Mundare to Winnipeg, that was moonshine country," de Groot said. "We supplied Chicago. The railway would pick it up and ship it to Al Capone. It was a way we could pay the bills in years that farming was really, really tough."

"The amount of moonshine supplied east of Edmonton, up to say 1960, was unbelievable."

To take his white lightning to market, de Groot said he had to work closely with the Canada Revenue Agency and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission to attain the proper licences. 

To build the old-school still he needed additional approval, above and beyond what a normal craft distillery would need.

Although he's new to the game, de Groot's hooch has proven popular. He has sold out of almost every batch he's made, and is in the process of expanding both production and distribution. 

He credits his success to his dedication to craft, and the power of tradition and nostalgia.

"When moonshine was made, it wasn't easy to make money on the farm," said de Groot. "So, instead of being embarrassed about how hard it was to make money, I'm celebrating the great men and women it created."

"We made stuff out of nothing in 1940s, on the Prairies."