How a woman's master’s degree in distilling and brewing is shaping Alberta’s craft industry

 Written by William Guenter

 Published: 28 March 2017


Caitlin Quinn stands by her barrells distilling in the Eau Claire Distillery in Calgary, Alta. Quinn crafts gin and vodka as one a leader in the Alberta’s distilling industry. Photo by William Guenter

Five years ago, Caitlin Quinn could be found jotting down notes and studying the periodic table in her chemistry class at the University of Glasgow. Now, she’s working at Eau Claire Distillery in Calgary, crafting gin and vodka, and leading the growing Alberta distilling industry.

Quinn was born in Canada, but moved to Scotland when she was 18 months old. She lived in Scotland for 24 years and is the first of her family to become a distiller.

“I have no family background in this trade. My mom owns a liquor store back home but that’s it ... she sells the booze, but I make the booze,” said Quinn.

Growing up in Scotland influenced Quinn to get her master’s degree in Distilling and Brewing. The only place in the world to get your master’s in Distilling and Brewing is in Edinburgh at Heriot-Watt University – very close to where she grew up.

Quinn attributes her decision to pursue a distilling career to her education in chemistry.

“After doing five years of chemistry, I decided I didn't want to be chemist. Which is one of those moments in life where you’re like, ‘I have no idea what I want to do,’” Quinn said. “So I started looking into the different courses and I found this one at Heriot-Watt and figured there was no better way to use my science.”

Even though Quinn may not have had a childhood dream of becoming a head distiller, she said she has gained a love for creating new blends and recipes for flavoured spirits. Namely gin, which has become a favourite among consumers of her brand.


One of Caitlin Quinn’s greatest accomplishments is her Parlour Gin, which won multiple awards in 2016, including third best gin in the world at the Berlin International Spirits Competition. Photo by William Guenter

“You can play around with the ingredients and tastes a lot ... so you never really know where it’s going to go, you just have to taste it.”

Quinn has produced many different styles of vodka and white spirits and is working on a whiskey blend. Her unique style of gin remains at the forefront of her distilling accomplishments.

Canadian laws and regulations state whisky must sit in barrels for at least three years for it to be considered a genuine whisky.

Because of this waiting period, Quinn has been able to focus primarily on her white spirits now, such as her world-renowned Parlour Gin.

Parlour Gin is one of Quinn’s highest accomplishments which won multiple awards in 2016, including third best gin in the world at the Berlin International Spirits Competition.

Eau Claire Distillery set up its roots in the town of Turner Valley, Alta — an old hub for moonshining and distillation during the prohibition days. The town is known for producing some of Alberta’s best barley, which makes it an interesting and fun place to visit, according to Eau Claire Distillery owner David Farran.

Farran petitioned Heriot-Watt for recent graduates and found Quinn to be the most qualified.

“[Quinn] was top of her class and is amazing at what she does. She has a really good sense of taste and ability to be creative — which we need in craft distilling ... we’re just very lucky that we got her.”

With so many craft breweries in the province, Quinn believes craft distilleries will soon gain popularity.

“I think it’s just easier to make beer. A couple places are starting to buy stills to turn the beer they make into spirits ... I think it’s just a matter of time,” said Quinn.

Bryce Parsons, head distiller for Last Best Brewery and Distillery and a fellow Heriot-Watt graduate, also agrees the craft distilling industry is growing.

“I know in Alberta [craft distilling] is picking up, for sure. There’s already about six of us in the province. I hear more rumblings of new projects coming on board, so it will definitely be picking up.”

The editor responsible for this story is Tayari Skey, 

More support brewing for Alberta’s liquor industry

The Alberta government is committing ongoing support for the province’s rapidly expanding brewing and liquor production industry.  Alberta craft spirits are set to boom in Alberta supporting new jobs, economic diversification and agricultural value added products.

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Alberta Trying More Booze to Ease the Pain of Oil Price Slump

Alberta Trying More Booze to Ease the Pain of Oil Price Slump


Robert Tuttle
March 22, 2017, 6:00 PM MDT

  • Canadian province to aid distilleries using local barley crops

  • Government already providing subsidies for its craft breweries

The energy-rich Canadian province of Alberta is looking to ease the financial pain of the worst oil and gas slump in decades -- with more booze.

In addition to its vast underground deposits of petroleum -- the third-largest in the world -- Alberta is the nation’s top supplier of barley used in beer and spirits. Last week, the government in Edmonton said it will encourage development of more craft distillers in the province under an assistance program similar to one already in place for local breweries.

“If you are looking for diversification, this was an easy win for the government,” said David Farran, owner of the Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley about an hour’s drive from Calgary. He makes gin, vodka and whisky from local grains and runs a tasting room inside a converted 1920s-era movie theater frequented by tourists traveling the Cowboy Trail, a series of highways through small towns in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. “This is a major step for the industry.”

The collapse in oil prices three years ago led to a slump in the provincial economy, one-fifth of which is tied to hydrocarbons. Oil and gas sales generate about 8 percent of government revenue. To ease its dependence on energy income, the government is trying to stimulate other industries with things like royalty credits for new petrochemical plants and loans for small and mid-size businesses, up for a second straight year.

Promoting more local booze production probably won’t close the budget hole, but it may help by promoting another domestic resource. The province produced 4.4 million metric tons of barley last year, accounting for about half of the country’s output, according to Statistics Canada. The grain is a key ingredient for spirits, and Alberta’s supplies are shipped all over the world, from the U.S. to Japan to Europe.

“Alberta barley has a beautifully sweet flavor,” said Farran, who is also president of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association. “When you taste a good malt whisky, that sweetness comes from the barley. Alberta is considered to be one of the best, if not the best, barley producers in the world.”

Details about the distiller subsidies are still being worked out, according to Mike Berezowsky, a spokesman for the finance ministry of Joe Ceci, who announced the program last week. The goal is to encourage existing distillers to expand and to attract new ones. A new distiller might spend more than C$1.5 million ($1.1 million) for equipment, according to Farran.

The new incentives may mimic those already in place for local craft beer that the government says are creating jobs and driving new investment. Last August, the government began the Alberta Small Brewers Development Program, which offers grants of as much as C$1.15 per liter sold to small manufacturers. That program is included as part of C$135 million earmarked in the 2017-18 fiscal budget to “support ongoing efforts to expand existing and open new markets for Alberta’s agriculture products,” according to budget documents.

Albertans drank 8 liters of distilled beverages per adult last year, second among Canadian provinces behind only Newfoundland and Labrador, according to Spirits Canada, a trade organization representing the country’s distillers. But local products are only a tiny portion of a market dominated by international brands like Diageo Plc’s J&B whiskies and Smirnoff vodka.

Calgary-based Alberta Distillers Ltd., a unit of Suntory Holdings Ltd., is among the largest local producers, according to Jan Westcott, president of Spirits Canada.

While encouraging more craft distillers is a “great thing,” the potential downside is that government support could unfairly disadvantage the larger, more-established distillers, and discourage international investment, Westcott said.

Fledgling Industry

There are fewer than a dozen small distillers operating in Alberta’s “fledgling” industry, employing about 100 people and selling just a few hundred cases a year, according to Farran. But there’s room to grow.

About 40 percent of Alberta barley seeded in 2015 was of malt varieties, most commonly used for alcohol purposes, Ellen Cottee, spokeswoman for Alberta Barley, said in an email. Alberta exported 323,339 tons of unroasted malt globally last year, valued at more than C$241 million ($181 million), she said. A total of 131,614 tons went to the U.S. and another 120,189 tons went to Japan.

At the Eau Claire Distillery, founded in 2014, Farran uses about 15 to 20 tons of grain a month to make gin, vodka, single-malt and rye whiskey. All of the barley and rye used at the distillery come from Alberta, some grown on the distillery’s farm, where horses pull the plows just as farming was done a century ago.

“One of the reasons we started was we really felt, of all places in North America, we should have craft distillers,” Farran said. “It really does have a wide economic impact.”