Old-fashioned, local crops fuel Alberta distillery

Eau Claire Distillery | Turner Valley, Alta., operation requires specific grain varieties

TURNER VALLEY, Alta. — Most people have heard the expression “farm to fork.” But what about “grain to glass?”

David Farran, Brad Stevens and Larry Kerwin, owners of Eau Claire Distillery are doing what they can to popularize that expression with Alberta’s first craft distillery.

They chose an apt location for a craft spirits business, on Sunset Boulevard in downtown Turner Valley, where they hope to capitalize on local history and tourist traffic.

Turner Valley is the centre of North America’s largest oil field find in 1914. It was a wild town populated by roughnecks, prostitutes, ranchers and opportunists.

Prohibition came to Canada in 1916, and the desire for booze soared. Backyard stills were common in an area that became known as Whiskey Ridge, said Farran, who grew up in the area.

“This was a town of illegal bootlegging and all kinds of wild boom town things,” he said.

Farran is a former vice-president at Big Rock Brewery in Calgary, from where the partners and many of the staff originated.

“We are just old brew masters who wanted to make whiskey,” said Kerwin, the company’s head distiller.

“We are approaching this from the point of view if we can make really good beer, we can make really good whiskey.”

The distillery is located in an old movie theatre that closed in the 1990s. A storage area and tasting rooms are being built on an empty lot next door, which once housed a brothel. The business, which started this spring, is relying on local grain supplies.

The vodka is made from locally grown Meredith barley, and this spring the company used Farran’s draft horses to plant 12 acres of spring rye at the Bar U Ranch historical site. The harvest will use binders and threshers.

The distillery also planted some barley using horses, and other grain plots have been seeded at Landon, east of Calgary.

“We wanted to see if we could do the full cycle of actually growing the grain the old way,” Farran said.

The partners want to establish growing contracts with local farmers because they are looking for specific varieties of grain for different flavours and quality.

They want their product to be sold like wine, where they can trace their product back to specific farmers, fields and grain varieties.

“Hopefully one day we’ll be doing the volumes where we can offer serious contracts,” Farran said.

The 750 millilitre bottles are corked and sealed by hand, and the first runs of vodka are available in some Calgary liquor stores.

The partners plan to start with vodka, then gin and finally whiskey.

The distilling equipment was imported from Germany, and the company received 200 used bourbon barrels from Kentucky. More barrels are coming from other locations to offer a variety of tastes as the whiskey matures. Whiskey must age for at least three years in Canada.

The distilling byproducts are going to a local bison farmer.

The partners hope to attract passing tourists to the storefront and tasting room, which will be decorated with prohibition era artifacts they have found in the region.

The American Craft Spirits Association forecasts good growth for craft distilleries, considering that the craft brewing business is worth $10.2 billion US a year.

The Canadian Whiskey website lists fewer than 40 craft distillers in Canada.

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