Doctor turns distiller | LB Distillers Inc. opens its doors bottling a variety of Prairie grains
Cary Bowman had an epiphany during a flight to Europe while reading an article on the surging U.S. micro-distillery movement.
He wanted to be on the leading edge of a similar trend in his home province of Saskatchewan.
“Being from the Prairies and having this rich resource of grains and fruit and beautiful water, it’s just a question why wasn’t it done before?” said the president of good times at LB Distillers Inc. The company officers all have jocular titles.
When Bowman returned from Europe in the summer of 2010, he shared his idea over cocktails with his friends Michael Goldney and Lacey Crocker.
“We had the discussion about it and literally the next day Lacey was shopping for real estate,” he said.
Crocker and Goldney, who are married, own a Saskatoon medical clinic, but the margins are thin in that business and they were looking to invest in a more dynamic venture.
“One of the reasons why we were drawn to the idea of going into the (distillery) industry was that you could have fun, you could be a little more adventurous, a little more daring,” said Crocker, LB’s chief operating officer lady.
In May 2012, the three business partners opened the doors to LB Distillers Inc., a Saskatoon micro-distillery that makes handcrafted whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, fruit liqueurs, brandy and bitters.
Bowman is a financial consultant who tackles some of the unglamorous aspects of the business, such as government filings.
Crocker and Goldney run the distillery. Crocker handles the retail portion of the shop and does the bookkeeping, while Goldney, a retired physician, makes the spirits and plays with recipes.
“I still get to use some of my training, a lot of the biochemistry,” he said.
Goldney started his medical practice as a rural doctor, which he enjoyed, but became less enamored with the field when he became an urban doctor in Saskatoon. He’s much happier making booze.
“I get to smell wonderful stuff for a change. One of the not-so-great things about being a doctor is you have to smell really nasty stuff quite regularly,” said Goldney, LB’s president of vice.
He draws parallels between selling booze and doctoring.
“I often joke that this is a lot like anesthesia or plastic surgery — we make ugly people more attractive.”
Bowman said the first obstacle to overcome was that the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority had no regulations in place for micro-distilleries.
They worked with the government agency to establish rules for distilleries producing less than 50,000 litres of finished product per year, which is about what a major distillery would produce in a day.
“SLGA has been literally fantastic to deal with and very keen on growing the micros,” said Bowman.
The business partners spent the next two years finding a warehouse, sourcing and setting up the distilling equipment and perfecting their recipes.
They toured and worked at some of the many micro-distilleries in Portland, Oregon, which just fed the desire to build one in Saskatoon.
“From the little guy in the garage to the big estate guy, they were a hit. People loved it. They were lining up at the door,” said Crocker.
One of LB’s feature products won’t be ready until 2015 because whiskey has to be barrel-aged for at least three years.
The distillery is making three types of single malt whiskey, including two scotch style whiskeys. One is made from 100 percent malted Canadian barley, the other from heavily peated and smoked barley imported from Scotland.
The other one is a Canadian rye whiskey made from two-thirds malted rye and one-third malted barley. Bowman said people don’t realize most Canadian rye whiskey is made from corn, which is less expensive and easier to work with than rye.
“We call it the great rye lie,” he said.
LB sources its malt from Canada Malting Co.
While they wait for the whiskey to be ready, the partners are producing and selling vodka, gin, fruit liqueurs and eaux de vie, an un-aged fruit brandy made from the skins of berries used in fruit liqueurs.
Bowman said it’s hard for a craft distillery to get excited about making vodka, which he said is essentially watered down ethanol.
“Where our passion comes in is we make it as smooth as we possibly can,” he said.
What begins as a neutral wheat spirit is blended with water and then distilled nine times in a copper still that removes the sulfur compounds from the alcohol. The vodka is further polished by aeration, which gets rid of the lighter, more volatile alcohols, and by filtering it through 20 million sq. metres of charcoal.
The result is a sipping vodka that has a silky feel on the palate and no harsh taste or smell.
“You mix it into a cocktail and it absolutely disappears to a scary degree. You’ll know it after you’ve had a couple of them but you really can’t taste it,” said Bowman.
LB’s gin is a new western style, which is basically a flavoured vodka distilled over juniper berries. But LB’s gin relies more heavily on other botanicals and less on junipers than most gins. It is made with Saskatoon berries, chamomile, anise, coriander, lemon peel, cloves and angelica root.
The gin doesn’t pass through the carbon filter, which would remove all of the flavours.
The fruit liqueurs are made from locally sourced berries, such as sour cherry, sea buckthorn, black currant and of course saskatoon berry. Each 375 millilitre bottle requires half a kilogram to 1.5 kilograms of berries.
They’ve also started a batch of rum made out of Caribbean sugar cane, molasses and wildflower honey from a farm near Shellbrook, Sask. And they sell bitters, which they describe as the salt and pepper for cocktails.
LB sells its products directly out of its Saskatoon production plant and to bars and restaurants throughout the province. It hopes to have its vodka and gin on the shelves of Saskatchewan liquor stores next year.
The company recently got its products listed in Alberta and British Columbia, where it will be sold at high-end restaurants, bars and specialty liquor stores.
Vodka is by far the biggest seller, followed by gin and the saskatoon berry liqueur. The vodka and gin sell for $37.77, including taxes, for a 750 millilitre bottle and the fruit liqueurs for $35 for a 375 mL bottle.
A number of LB’s products have won awards at spirits competitions in California and Chicago.
Goldney said sales have been better than anticipated and are growing exponentially every month as word gets out in the media and through the efforts of their sales representatives.
“I remain cautiously optimistic that we will still be in business when our barrels of whiskey are mature,” he said with a grin.