Cowboys and Whisky

Cowboys and Whisky

A road trip down the Rockies part 1

Travel | 02 Sep 2016 | Issue 138 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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"Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys." Ed Bruce, 1975

You're parched and impatient in the tasting room at Willie's Distillery, in Ennis, Montana where it's shoulder-to-shoulder people. So you walk half a block to the liquor store only to learn that the local bestseller is none other than Willie's Genuine Canadian Whisky. However, it turns out the liquor store is the only place in town where you can buy it. Montana law says Willie Blazer can't pour it in his tasting room because he doesn't actually make it there. Instead, Willie trucks in this 100 per cent rye whisky from Calgary, Alberta, then cuts it with water from a local fishing stream to 'cowboy strength' - 40 per cent. Willie shrugs, "Canadian whisky is still an important part of the North American Rocky Mountain West." And Ennis is still a working cowboy town.

However, our story does not begin in Ennis, but 500 miles north of Montana, in Calgary, just a stone's throw from the Rocky Mountain Foothills, and right in the heart of cowboy country. The cowboy whisky bug first bit here, where a cache of liquid gold trickles unseen, right under the average whisky buff's nose and into the nearest tin cup. In days gone by, Alberta's whisky had a less than stellar reputation, though. In fact, whisky was not made in Alberta - legally that is - until horse breeder Frank McMahon and cattle rancher Max Bell built Alberta Distillers in 1946. Before that, until the early 1900s, Old West traders trekked north from Montana to an Alberta trading post called Fort Whoop-Up where they brought in any intoxicating liquid they could lay their hands on (re-distilled embalming fluid included) to trade to Blackfoot and Salteaux Indians for furs. In those days, they'd shoot whisky then they'd shoot each other. Eventually, Canada's prime minister sent a para-military brigade to a new outpost called Fort McLeod, just a few hours ride down a dusty trail from Whoop-Up. Their mission was to restore order.

By the time McMahon and Bell arrived, the dusty boots, jangling spurs, and ten gallon hats that bedeck the myth of the cowboy had become the designer-labelled attire of the weekend buckaroo. Today's cowboy sports a baseball cap, rides a pony with an eight cylinder engine, and thanks to McMahon and Bell and the others who followed, drinks a higher quality whisky. But in the imaginations of millions around the globe, the archetypal cowboy still saddles up and he (or she) still drinks a lot of whisky, slamming an empty shot glass down on the bar for more. This 'wild' West image sells a lot of whisky.

Alberta Distillers Limited

But let's head back up to Calgary where seventy years ago McMahon and Bell started Alberta Distillers. Today, it's Rick Murphy who makes the whisky in what is probably the only distillery in the world capable of mashing 100 per cent rye grain every day of the year. Where others dabble, Alberta Distillers specialises in rye. Grain varieties have improved greatly since the distillery opened. Once, rye was the only grain that would grow reliably in the Western prairies, hence a rye distillery. Today pretty much every grain but corn grows locally and the distillery now mashes them all. Their core whisky, Alberta Premium, is aimed specifically at the cowboy crowd, selling nearly 150,000 cases a year, despite being exclusive to Canada. A new upscale version (called Dark Horse in Canada and Dark Batch in the US) has become a bartender's favourite across North America. McMahon was a horseman, but it was race horses not mustangs that caught his fancy. Dark Horse is a tribute to Majestic Prince, his Kentucky Derby winning stallion. Mustangs, racing stallions, Percherons, the Alberta Rocky Mountain Foothills are certainly horse country.

The polished hardwood floors in the granary at Alberta Distillers always catch the visitor by surprise. This doubles as a basketball court at night, right? Three hammer mills feeding grain into augers that carry the grist to the fermenters say no. Why three? To maximise fermentation quality, each grain is milled to its own specifications. In a practice that was once common in Canada but now unique to Alberta Distillers, the mashed grist is converted to fermentable sugars using enzymes grown right in the distillery. How local is that?

Rich Murphy, the soft-spoken unassuming operations manager sparkles with delight as we drill into a barrel for a sample, and long-aged whisky spurts out. The barrels are stacked on racks, so it is easier to drill a tiny hole in the head rather than pull the bung to take a sample. Actually, it's two tiny holes: one part way down for the whisky to come out of and another near the top to draw air in and let the whisky flow. The liquid is bursting with rich vanillas, caramels, tropical fruits and spices. For nearly two decades this 100 per cent rye has been sitting here, undisturbed.

Alberta Distillers makes several other well-known brands including Alberta Springs and Windsor Canadian but the bulk of the whisky distilled here is sold as 'buyer's own brand.' Sometimes custom, sometimes standard, these blends are purchased by small regional labels. Two of the best known private brands distilled at Alberta Distillers are Masterson's, and WhistlePig Rye. As is Willie's Genuine Canadian whisky, bottled 500 miles south, in Ennis, Montana. We'll return to Montana in the next chapter of this Rocky Mountain saga, where we'll chase more cowboys, but only for their whisky. Let's hope they still shoot whisky in Montana, and not whisky writers.

Eau Claire Micro-Distillery

Half an hour west of High River, the Foothills become mountains. Here, in Turner Valley on the historic 'Cowboy Trail', David Farran houses his Eau Claire Distillery in a century old movie theatre (pronounced: "thee-AY-tur") and dance hall. It was Alberta's first micro-distillery. A former senior executive in the brewing industry, an ex-diplomat, a past adventure travel leader, and once owner of Canada's largest chain of veterinary clinics, Farran had plenty of other successes before setting up shop in Alberta's rugged rye belt. Extreme weather pushes this sometimes-hostile land to the limits of where grain can be cultivated so year to year variations in the weather have greater than normal effects on the flavour of the grain. Farran compares this with terroir in wine, pointing also to the influence of the Rocky Mountains, the water source for Eau Claire distillery.

Alberta's first of many oil booms temporarily transformed the sleepy village of Turner Valley into a thriving western boomtown, complete with brothels and moonshiners. Those days are over and the town now caters to the cattle ranches and grain farms surrounding it. Some of them grow the grain that Farran and his partner, Larry Kerwin, turn into whisky and other spirits. Much of that grain is grown the old fashioned way: planted, cultivated, and harvested using horses, methods local sod-busters employed 100 years earlier. Farran maintains a stable of Percherons and can brings in about 100 more from across the province when planting or harvesting has to be done more quickly.

Eau Claire's fermented mash is distilled once in a pot still then again in a short rectifying column. The system was manufactured in Germany by Holstein stills. In Canada, it's not whisky until it is at least three years old, though most whiskies take longer than that to be ready. So, while they wait for their whisky to mature, Farran and Kerwin produce a range of white spirits. In addition to the usual vodka and gin, they make a one of a kind liqueur from prickly pear cactus, another indigenous plant. Kerwin, long-certified as a distiller, began his career brewing beer, so he knows the importance of proper fermentation techniques. Thus he selects specific yeasts for each product and takes advantage of their distinct flavour producing qualities. Horses, prickly pears, cowboys, whisky - it's easy to get excited at Alberta's first microdistillery.

Highwood Distillery

When Vancouver's Fountana Group decided to launch their Canadian Rockies brand in Taiwan, they went looking for ultra high-end Canadian whisky. General Manager and whisky connoisseur, Thomas Chen and Beverage Manager Roberto Roberti donned cowboy hats and moseyed on over to Alberta's dusty rye belt seeking a source. There, tucked behind Agriterra Farm Equipment, in the town of High River, they found Highwood Distillers and a stash of barrels that had been waiting 35 years for someone to take an interest in their contents.

Highwood is the last of the large independent distilleries in Canada. Established in 1972 as Sunnyvale Distillery, Highwood was designed to make whisky from wheat. Yes, they also bottle rye and corn whiskies, buying them locally as new spirit from Calgary's Alberta Distillers and Black Velvet Distillery in Lethbridge. They also bring spirit in from Hiram Walker in Windsor, Ontario. These they age in their own barrels.

It turns out Chen had stumbled onto a treasure-trove: the last of the rich corn whisky Highwood had purchased from Potter's Distillery in Kelowna. As a distillery, Potter's is strictly mythical. It was a still-less brokerage house that bought and sold whisky made by others. They never disclosed their sources. However, five years ago, just before leaving Highwood, ex-manager Glen Hopkins revealed that the corn whisky brought in from Potter's had been distilled at a long departed Seagram's distillery in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Now a fuel alcohol plant, Weyburn was the reputed source of the Holy Grail of Canadian whisky: Bush Pilot's. Today, Michael Nychyk manages Highwood and Chen has let Nychyk know he also wants dibs on some equally long-aged wheat whisky distilled in Highwood's earliest days, to supplement his Canadian Rockies line.

If the image of the lonesome cowboy typifies the wild west mythos, nothing outranks the Rocky Mountains in conveying the romance of North America's wilderness. Thus the name 'Canadian Rockies' for a whisky launched in Taiwan and in Canada with 10 years old and 21 years old Highwood whiskies and now boasting the rarest and most expensive Canadian whisky ever, a 35 years old version.

We'll meet up with him and Roberti again in Wyoming and Colorado, searching for whisky for their American Rockies brand, but for now, we're back in Canadian cowboy country.

So, "till next time, pardner, yippee ki-yo ki-yay."

Tasting Notes

Alberta Distillers

Alberta Premium Dark Horse/Dark Batch 45% ABV

Big, bold rye loaded with lilacs, ripe fruit, herbal tones, sweet spices, new lumber, charcoal and wet slate. Rich and luscious.

Windsor Canadian 40% ABV

Typical rye spices, butterscotch, glowering peppers, cloves, hot ginger and cinnamon, creamy, herbal, and vaguely bitter. For mixing.

Eau Claire Distillery Blend 2 40% ABV

Sweet prunes, mulled apple cider, mild peppers slowly gaining intensity, lots of baking spices, lovely citrus pith bitterness, hot, gingery finish.

EquineOx Prickly Pear 40% ABV

Sweet and very fruity, blended tropical fruit juice, hot pepsin gum, anise. Lovely long, hot, herbal, bitter finish. Distilled cactus juice.

Highwood Distillery

Highwood Ninety Decades of Richness 20 Years Old 45% ABV

Rich, multi-layered, balanced and creamy with toffees, vanilla, tangerine peel, oak, green apples and rich tobacco.

Canadian Rockies 21 Years Old 46% ABV

Exotic tropical fruits, mild floral notes, searing peppers, rich Christmas spices, caramels, and crisp, clean barrel notes on a silky smooth palate.
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