Grain farmers get into the value-added spirit

Pivot Spirits owners Rachelle Fiset and Lars Hirch stand next to their still in Rolling Hills, Alta. | Alex McCuaig photo

On the Farm: Lars Hirch and Rachelle Fiset see their new distillery as a logical extension of their crop-growing operation

It’s one thing to grow the grains for distilling hard spirits and another to actually produce the whiskey and vodka on a retail level.

However, a Rolling Hills, Alta., couple’s blending of the two is producing a sustainable cocktail accented with locally produced products.

For Pivot Spirits, local is just that. Owners Lars Hirch and his wife, Rachelle Fiset, live across the street from their distillery and restaurant while the fields on which they grow the grains for their product are located next to their home.

Hirch had farmed in the area located 50 kilometres south of Brooks, Alta., with his family growing up before purchasing five quarter sections for farming and a small cow-calf operation in 1990.

While his grandfather died when he was an infant, Hirch said he knew his elder had dabbled in making spirits.

“I had some interest in it because my grandfather made spirits after the Second World War,” said Hirch, adding that he was too young to get first-hand experience. “But I heard lots of the stories.”

A trip to Scotland for a wedding and a chance to check out a scotch distillery gave him the inspiration to get that experience.

“At the start of the tour when they said all you need to make scotch is barley, yeast and water, that really got me thinking that’s a better way to add value to crops such as barley rather than feeding cattle.”

Six months later, Hirch was enrolled in a distilling course and after five years of developing his skills on his own still and creating recipes, he and his wife opened Pivot Spirits.

That’s not to say the operation had an easy go of it.

Pivot Spirits had the misfortune of opening its distillery and adjoining restaurant in March 2020 just as the COVID pandemic started to close down such establishments. But it didn’t change the couple’s plans to keep going.

It just changed what they produced.

“There was a big shortage of hand sanitizer in Canada and there was an immediate need in our community,” said Hirch. “Seniors’ lodges in Brooks were desperate for sanitizer. So I ended up delegating half of my production to hand sanitizer and giving it away for free.”

Hirch uses ancient grains such as spelt for his whiskey. | Alex McCuaig photo

First responders and residents also received the product as nearby Brooks experienced one of the biggest outbreaks of COVID in Western Canada.

While that situation was unforeseen, it is part of Hirch’s mantra of making products from locally grown produce in an environmentally sustainable way to be put back into the community.

“The drawback for this place is there isn’t the population base to support it. But I wanted to stay close to my farm so I could continue the sustainable practices carried from my farm into my distilling,” said Hirch.

“One of those components is feeding the mash after I’m done stripping the alcohol out of it to my cows.”

All the equipment used in the operation is energy efficient, uses gravity for transferring product rather than pumps and the building is fabricated from a structurally insulated panel system along with power being generated by solar panels that also work as a patio awning.

“It’s a very tight energy efficient building. It doesn’t take much energy to heat or cool it.”

It’s a message he stresses as interest grows in his operation with the advent of agro-tourism, which has seen organizations connected to that industry make Pivot a popular stop.

“I’m trying to dispel the misleading information out there about agriculture and the environment,” Hirch said, adding there is an impression among urban dwellers that farming can be detrimental to the land.

That’s not to say the product itself isn’t reason enough to pop in.

Bottles lined up at Pivot Spirits wait to be filled with the next batch of alcohol from the still. | Alex McCuaig photo

Hirch said one of the benefits of growing what he uses is the ability to experiment with different grains.

He currently is using ancient grains like spelt for his whiskey. While spelt does have gluten, Hirch said it’s a grain first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago and he said it doesn’t have the same effects for those who are gluten intolerant.

While he can’t call one of his products rum due to the sugar-based liquor’s requirement to be made from cane, he does make a product he calls Rumination made from sugar beets grown just down the road. Pivot has also created a honey-based liquor using product from nearby Scandia Honey along with rye, barley and triticale grain spirits from cereals he grows.

So far, the business model is paying off, said Hirch.

“I didn’t think I’d sell many bottles through our doors here,” he said. “But as we got going through COVID, and once the restaurant was open, we ended up getting way more people through our doors from all over Alberta.”

And one of the side effects of his business he says he enjoys the most is being able to give people not accustomed to agriculture an enjoyable rural experience.

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