Moonshine maker uncorks history

Rob de Groot wants to tell the history of the Prairies through moonshine.

By mid-September, de Groot’s first batch of shine made from prairie-proven recipes, should be bottled and the conversation around homemade alcohol primed.

“Why is our story so quiet? said de Groot.

“We have as rich a history of making homemade shine as they do in South Carolina, but we didn’t have the conflict. It’s a Canadian story. It is more quiet.”

For early pioneers, making moon-shine was as valuable to surviving hard times as making preserves and sausage, he said.

De Groot has learned more about the history of alcohol production on the Prairies since he began the regulatory process of building his 280-gallon copper pot distillery in Vegreville, Alta., and obtaining approval from government departments and town officials to produce his wheat-based alcohol.

In some communities, homemade moonshine was used as a type of social service. Farmers hard hit by frost and unable to pay the bills were asked to supply alcohol for social events in town. It gave hotel owners a supply of alcohol and farmers cash for supplies. For others, it was necessary medicine.

“This is a very important part of our past, including good food and good liquor,” he said.

De Groot estimates 10,000 stills operated on the Prairies during prohibition. With few police and little desire to prosecute pioneers for making alcohol, the industry quietly thrived.

In the United States, rum running and moonshine making is celebrated in popular culture. In Canada, making moonshine to support the farm in hard times is a secret.

Part of de Groot’s funding comes from the ATB Alberta Boostr, the bank’s organized crowd funding website. He hopes to raise $5,000 from donations to the crowd sourcing campaign. People interested in helping de Groot can visit the website and make a donation in exchange for T-shirts or bottles of booze.

De Groot’s search for the perfect recipe has led him to sample 60 kinds of homemade moonshine since launching Red Cup Distillery. His alcohol is considered moonshine because it isn’t aged and goes directly from the still to the bottle.

“It’s aged 10 minutes.”

Two years ago, de Groot noticed long, white grain bags filled with grain that couldn’t be moved to port and realized he had a ready supply of local wheat for his homegrown alcohol.

He hopes to tap into the desire for local food and the growing craft beer and distillery market and appeal to people who grew up drinking moonshine.

“It’s people with taste buds.”

De Groot was raised in Prince George, B.C., and moved to Edmonton to take classical music lessons. His grandfather was a dairy farmer near Agassiz, B.C. His wife, Barbara, grew up in Calgary with links to western ranches.

De Groot’s Dutch father and grandfather believed it was important to pass on the tradition of making moonshine.

There are three licensed craft distillers in Alberta: Eau Clair Distillery in Turner Valley, Park Distillery in Banff and Wood Buffalo Brewery and Distillery in Fort McMurray.

De Groot is waiting for final approval from the provincial government, which he hopes will come by the beginning of September.

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