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, 

Provincial grants a boost for craft distillers

Provincial grants a boost for craft distillers


Thursday, Mar 23, 2017 06:00 am

By: Cathy Elli

A new provincial grant program to help out Alberta’s infant craft distilling industry is being met with big cheers by local distillers who say it will create new jobs and drive investment.

Details of the grant program announced in last week’s provincial budget have yet to be released, but the NDP government says the new program for craft distillers will be modeled on the current craft brewing program introduced last year.


Distillery owners of Park in Banff and Wild Life in Canmore say the grant program is great news for the emerging craft distilling industry, helping with very high startup costs.

“We’re definitely stoked,” said Matt Widmer, co-founder of Canmore’s Wild Life Distillery. “We’re extremely excited to hear what the numbers will look like.”

Wild Life is currently producing vodka, but Widmer said the grant program means an opportunity for quicker growth and the ability to make whisky sooner.

“There’s a huge market in whisky and this will mean a quicker turnaround to start producing whisky,” he said, noting the three-year minimum barrel-aging requirement is an inhibitor for startups that don’t see a return on investment for three years.

“We’ll be able to employ more people and support our local work force. There’s just so much hands on labour in our process versus the big companies that can do everything with the push of a button.”

In 2013, the law changed in Alberta with the elimination of minimum production capacity requirements for manufacturers, which opened the door for small micro distilleries to open up.

There are now eight active distilleries in Alberta, an additional seven gearing up to open in the next six months and more than a dozen in the planning phase – and the industry continues to grow throughout Canada and the United States.

“It goes to confirm consumers’ desires for local quality products and local economies,” said Stavros Karlos, co-owner of Park in Banff and secretary of the Alberta Craft Distillery Association.

Many other jurisdictions in North America have successfully lobbied governments to reduce taxes or get rebates or grants for small craft distilleries. In Alberta, there’s a $10.76 markup/tax on every bottle sold.

The idea behind the new grant program for Alberta’s craft distillers, to be modeled on the existing brewery grant program, is to help grow the craft distilling industry.

Under the brewery program, brewers who produce less than 300,000 hectolitres of Alberta-made beer per year get money on a sliding scale based on their sales. The number of breweries has gone from about 14 to an expected 70 by the end of this year.

Alberta’s existing craft brewery grant program, however, is tied up in court over allegations from two out-of-province brewing companies that the program goes against the constitution and creates barriers for craft brewers outside Alberta.

There’s currently a court injunction in place and a hearing is set for May.

Karlos said, despite the court injunction on the craft brewing program, he’s glad the province is pushing ahead with the grant program announcement for small distillers.

He said craft distillation is an opportunity to diversify and create jobs in manufacturing, tourism and agriculture, noting Alberta is a world class producer of wheat, barley and rye, the primary raw materials used in the spirits industry.

He also noted Park – the third craft distillery to open in Alberta – employs 15 people in a mix of high and low skilled jobs in the production of spirits, while more than 100 people are now employed in craft distilleries throughout Alberta.

“Those jobs never existed five years ago,” said Karlos. “In Banff, we’ve created this whole new professional job branch within the hospitality industry which didn’t exist before.”

Karlos said the new grant program will ease the financial burden on startups, saying new distillers will be able to buy additional equipment, noting craft distillers have up front capital costs that are significantly higher than small brewers.

“We came into this with our eyes wide open,” he said. “But a lot of the small distillers are not able to open up in a location on Banff Avenue with a streetfront location, with millions of people walking by your front door.

“Most people are opening up in rural locations and industrial parks and it’s a little bit of a struggle for them and the capital costs are expensive.”

Karlos said small craft distillers can’t produce cheap booze and, not withstanding high labour costs, Park, for example, uses 100 per cent organic grains so it’s even more expensive. They’ve partnered with a farmer in Vulcan.

“All those things just lead to increased costs,” he said, noting Park can produce about 20,000 to 30,000 litres of spirits compared to a larger company like Alberta Distillers Ltd (ADL), which makes in the 20 million litre range.

“We can’t make it cheaper than the big guys, not even close. Even if they drop taxes, our costs of production are still higher.”

Edmonton's craft distilleries hope for help

Alberta finance minister says he's 'very confident' its small brewery rebate is trade-compliant — as he vows to extend it to spirit-makers this year.

By: David P. Ball Metro Published on Thu Mar 23 2017

Edmonton’s “very fledgling” craft distilling industry is pouring a shot of optimism this week, after the province hinted they could see the controversial grants given to small breweries extended to them.

But not everyone in the liquor sector — or in constitutional law — is happy about finance minister Joe Ceci's announcement last Thursday that the province will “build on the success of our craft brewing program and work to model a similar program for Alberta’s craft distillers” this year.

The idea immediately raised alarm bells for the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is suing the province over its craft brewery incentives (see sidebar) — on behalf of alcohol importers and out-of-province beer-makers.

“If it is like the beer program, it would be subject to all the same criticisms,” said staff lawyer Derek James in a phone interview. “A protectionist tariff violates the constitution, the supreme law of the land.

“They say they’re doing it for all the right reasons: they’re going to protect local industry, which makes sense. But it frightens me when a government feels it’s above the law."

But the local distilling industry praised the announcement, despite the lack of details made public.

“We’d been lobbying the government for the last two years to try to get some kind of program in place to get us on parity with craft breweries and winemakers,” said Geoff Stewart, owner of Rig Hand Distillery in Nisku, and a member of Alberta Craft Distillers Association. "Although we’re waiting for the actual next steps before we get too excited, I have to admit.”

Ceci was not available for an interview Wednesday, but ministry spokesman Mike Brown emailed that although “details of the distilling program have not yet been announced,” Alberta already has “the most open liquor market in the country” and its consumers have “the greatest choice” of products.

“The distilling program will allow the craft distilling industry to thrive,” Brown wrote.

However, the ministry didn't answer whether the proposed distillery grant would be different from the current breweries program, not respond to concerns it might violate trade rules.
During his post-budget remarks last week, Ceci told reporters he was “confident” that modelling a small distillers grant on the existing program would be legally sound — “something that’s being handled by Justice,” he explained. “I’m very confident that we are trade-compliant.”

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.”

So you want to start a distillery

So, You Want To Start A Distillery?

A new, pioneering generation of distillers is appearing in Alberta, and they’re hoping teamwork and encouragement will help them take a slice from the big guys.



March 1, 2017

When Geoff Stewart talks about Rig Hand Distillery (formally Big Rig Distillery) — a venture born of equal parts risk, opportunity and hooch — it’s surprising to learn that he’s only been in the business for two years.

The co-founder of Rig Hand Distillery walks around the 6,200 square-foot, Nisku-based factory of fine intoxicants like it was a calling. His tattooed arms gesture deftly at chrome and brass pipes and pots with knowledge befitting a veteran of countless expository tours for booze-lovers and prospective distillers alike.

Still, it wasn’t long ago that local liquor store shelves were mostly empty of anything 40 per cent alcohol by volume and made in the province, and only three companies were making hard liquor on Albertan soil: Black Velvet Distilling Company, Highwood Distillers Ltd. and Alberta Distillers Ltd.

Now, according to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, there are approximately 400 different hard liquors produced in the province, 122 of which are produced by new, small distilleries.

Late in 2013, the Government of Alberta eliminated the minimum required output for distilleries and breweries — formerly, among other things, a distillery needed to be able to produce 2,500 hectolitres a year to get the necessary provincial licensing.

Craft beer has since taken off in the province, with the Alberta Small Brewers Association representing dozens of homegrown craft beer-makers, but distillers have been slower on the uptake.

It's increasing steadily, though, and the AGLC noted 12 new applications at varying stages of completion by the end of 2016.

Nearly 30 kilometres away from Rig Hand, another distillery is in its early stages.

Nestled just off Whyte Avenue in the old blue boom-town building that used to be The Baby Seal Club, one of Stewart’s early proteges is hard at work, making Edmonton’s first home-grown liquor — moonshining notwithstanding.

Adam Smith, who also owned the now-defunct venue in which his operation is housed, named the new venture Strathcona Spirits.

Smith, Stewart recalls, used to hang around Rig Hand. Stewart offered to let the novice distiller work for experience and, eventually earn an old still which he had lying around. And Smith isn’t the only new start in town. Hansen Distillery, located in Edmonton’s west side, has also recently opened its doors.

But, even with new doors opening all the time, the process of putting a fledgling distillery into operation is long and not without its pitfalls.

Smith recalls his early days in the business. Finding the equipment meant a long drive down to the Ozarks, where moonshining is still common, buying a still, then lugging it back to Canada in the back of his truck. Finding stills in Canada isn’t easy, he says, adding that many up-and-coming distilleries turn to the United States for this essential piece of equipment. Stewart, through Rig Hand, has begun distributing stills for a Missouri-based company called Affordable Distillery Equipment, which is a bit of a misnomer, given that quality stills can set a buyer back tens of thousands of dollars.

Other bits of equipment can come a little closer to home, like Stewart’s aged grain cracker, which he took from his family’s farm. Surrounded on all sides by agriculture, distilling in Alberta creates easy access to quality local grains and botanicals. According to Stewart, 75 per cent of the grain Rig Hand uses comes from within a mile of his operation and all of the herbs, spices and other flavours Smith uses come from within the province.

Stewart recalls meeting his grain supplier by chance, while he was broken down by the side of the road on his tractor.

“I asked if he needed a ride,” Stewart says. “That’s pretty Alberta right there.”

Despite access to the province’s golden fields of grain, small-time distillers suffer for a price point. While big players in the market can buy bulk ingredients at a more affordable price, those just starting out can’t buy as much, nor produce as much of the final product.

It’s a point of pride for craft distilleries to have everything done by hand, with the exception of the bottle-filler, which needs to be accurate to the millilitre or else they could face fines, Stewart says.

Stewart estimates that a premium vodka sold at $26 for a two-six would make the producer $0.44 per bottle, which is fine when a company sell hundreds of thousands of them around the world, and when the company can purchase ingredients in bulk.

But when Rig Hand, for example, sells roughly 1,500 a month and uses locally-sourced ingredients not purchased at the same bulk price-point and without automation, the profit margin needs to be greater. So 750 ml of vodka is going to end up in the $50-$60 range.

Like most small businesses, distilleries face a staggering, prohibitive number of challenges, but there’s hope. While Ryan Engen, director of spirits for Alberta Liquor Stores North America, which represents brands like Liquor Depot and Wine and Beyond, can’t give any hard numbers on how much locally made hooch sells in the province, he does know that people are becoming increasingly willing to swallow the cost to taste something made close to home.

“I think overall customers gravitate a lot towards local, more and more now than say four or five years ago,” he says.

As the number of distilleries in Alberta increases, so too does the competition between the businesses in the region. Stewart isn’t worried. 

There’s competition, sure, but he doesn’t see the current, and incoming, members of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association as conquests, but rather as teammates.

If, for example, Park Distillery, located in Banff, decides to make a spicy chili vodka, Stewart says that Rig Hand will try to avoid stepping on that particular toe.

“We don’t need to fight amongst ourselves over the crumbs the big guys let fall on the ground. We can work together to steal a bigger market share as a group,” he says.

It took Rig Hand 10 months to get the necessary licensing, Stewart says, though he also admits that it’s getting easier.

And, Stewart admits, his operation started off big. For Stewart and his wife, this meant selling off a few rental properties, cashing in their RSPs and taking out a mortgage on their home. When they went around to banks with their 95-page business plan, hoping for a loan, no one would touch them. The industry was still too new and untested.

So they did it with a cool $1 million of their own money. As he recalls this, the reality of the risk seemed to temper his enthusiasm for the venture, though it passes quickly.

“We’re rolling the dice with our life savings. It’s not easy.”

Prior to opening Rig Hand, Stewart toured 19 different distilleries with a list of questions in tow. When he asked each of the operations what their biggest mistakes were, the answer came back that they started too small. The logic went like this: A distillery started off small and then, six months later, it had to get bigger, so it sold its old equipment for cheap — Stewart estimates the sale being 50 cents on the dollar. Around six months later, it had to do it again, and then again.

“So every six months they’re losing half their investment. That didn’t make sense to me, so I thought, ‘Why not bite the bullet?’” he says.

When all the dust from the buying and paperwork settles, it’s finally time to make booze, most often vodka or a derivative, like gin, which is just vodka with juniper and other flavours. Whiskies, despite being a big cash cow for distillers, legally need to age in barrels for a minimum of three years in Canada; otherwise they have to go by the decidedly un-sexy name of white distillate.

Like equipment, know-how in the business is often outsourced outside of the province. Smith, for example, was apprenticed in part by a master distiller in Oregon, while Stewart, formerly a moonshiner, had to study Distilling at the Artisan Craft Distilling Institute in Seattle. They both toured operations across North America extensively prior to taking the dive.

And once the basics are down, the mad science can begin. Smith gently wafts vapours from a few mason jars filled with discoloured liquids, tinctures of high-proof alcohol and herbs away from which he keeps his nose hairs a safe distance. There’s something about craft distillers: They don’t seem happy with just the pre-ordained recipes for their hooch. 

Smith rattles off a few of his prototypes — sarsaparilla, angelica and a Scoville-heavy chili-pepper concoction — then says that a keen palate is essential in the business. 

Perhaps, though, for a small business in an unexplored market, the biggest boost can come closest to home.

“You have to rely on a lot of help from friends, and you have to have a supportive partner,” Smith says. 

“I’m lucky I have a lot of very supportive people around me who helped make this happen.”


The Paperwork

No pursuit, regardless of how noble, would be complete without paperwork. A distillery needs to pay a bond (which depends on the size of the operation) to the federal government’s excise department to ensure that its owners don’t just up and leave. It pays a duty on each bottle it sells.

Provincially, aspiring distillers need a Class E license from the AGLC, a process with four steps.

The first is a preliminary assessment, where the operation provides information about what it will produce, including floor plans, designs and proposed distribution areas.

Next, the application will be placed on the AGLC’s website for 21 days to allow nearby residents a chance to protest the construction.

According to the AGLC, there’s an application fee of $200 to get the ball rolling, then, once approved, the distillery must pay $2,000 its first year. There is a sliding scale for how much a distillery pays each subsequent year. 

According to Bill Robinson, president and CEO of the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, the AGLC is trying to ease this process and has created a “one touch-point” system, a single representative from the organization to help usher applicants through the process, to facilitate this.

After years of prohibition and tough regulations, craft distilleries open for the first time in Edmonton

Now, the city has two. They opened within a day of each other last week.

Strathcona Spirits (10122 81 Ave) had its gin and vodka on liquor store shelves Thursday, and Hansen Distillery (17412 111 Ave) threw open its doors Friday for tours and tastings.

Both distilleries took advantage of recent deregulation by the province. Before 2013, licensed distilleries had to produce at least 2,500 hectolitres of alcohol a year — far too large an amount for craft distilleries to handle. The province removed this rule, among others, in 2013.

According to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, the number of distilleries in the province has since increased from three (before 2013) to 15 (and counting).

Both Edmonton distilleries bank on reaching customers who care about the local food movement and prefer gin made from Alberta grains and Edmonton region botanicals.

“The spirits industry’s changing a bit,” said Kris Sustrik, 36, who runs Hansen Distillery with his wife Shayna Hansen, 30.

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