Hiding in Plain Sight

Hiding in Plain Sight

This great province provides some eye opening experiences

Places | 25 Oct 2013 | Issue 115 | By Dave Broom

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The rye hisses in the gentle wind, a blue-green mohair blanket thrown across the fields, stretching towards the Rockies, still snow-capped. We're talking about cattle and moving the beasts to the summer pastures. "We only lose a few to wolves," says Tom Riehs blithely. Hang on. My eyes flick up to the horizon. Wolves? Welcome to Alberta. Tom looks at this year's rye crop. "I'll keep it on," he says, "but I'm not sure that my son will. There's not many of us growing it anymore. Fewer and fewer each year." The world's shorthand for Canadian whisky is 'rye', but it isn't as simple as that, especially in Alberta. Yes, rye is still grown here for distilling, but it's only one of five cereals used (the others being wheat, corn, triticale and barley). Canadian whisky, as will become apparent in the next three days, is a complex and often contrary mix. The potential drying up of local Canadian rye isn't good news for Alberta Distillers located in nearby Calgary. After all, if it's rye whisky you want, this is the place to come, the world's largest specialist.

Alberta Distillers [ADL] is the single biggest buyer of rye in Canada and what started, in 1947 as an incentive to provide an outlet for local rye farmers - has become a signature. "The idea was to put the distillery next to the farms - and now we are a medium-sized distillery in a mid-sized city which grew up around us," says operations director, Rob Tuer. He's not wrong. We got hopelessly lost in Calgary's neat suburbs trying to find a distillery which for all its size is amazingly well camouflaged - an appropriate enough metaphor for Canadian whisky's ability to hide itself in plain sight. Alberta Distillers The specialised nature of the plant means we spend a lot of time in a fascinating geeky discussion about the creation of an enzyme which cuts foaming and viscosity in rye, and about the potential for new brands to tap into an awakening interest in the cereal. It's a sign that Canadian distillers are waking up to the reality of the top-end. ADL has Alberta Premium in 25 and 30 iterations, but the new arrival which is leading the charge is Dark Horse, a 91 per cent rye whose name is both a good-humoured dig at Canada's under-appreciated quality and also an accurate description of the whisky itself, which unfolds in waves of black cherry (I keep thinking of KT Tunstall's song 'Big Black Horse & The Cherry Tree') with toffee, pepper and green fennel behind. It makes fantastic cocktails and can be sipped on its own. World class. The question is will the world be able to try it? Here's part of the Canadian paradox. This distillery makes three times more rye than all the US straight rye produced and yet remains virtually unknown. "We're quietly winning awards," says production superintendent Rick Murphy, "but as yet we have no great international presence." There's the rub. Quiet doesn't work in world whisky these days. Owner Beam should take action.

Diversion I

Around half-way between Calgary and Lethbridge we see the sign for Fort MacLeod which prompts reminiscences from our host Jan Westcott about the legendary burgers that are flipped in the Java Shop next to the bus stop. It would be rude not to partake, but as we pull up outside it's clear that the last patty was turned many years before. The whole town is a weird time warp of ancient stone buildings, art deco signage, faded hotels and taverns, and the fort itself, which was built in 1874 by the Mounties as they tried to control the spread of traders who were using firewater to destabilise the region. Fort MacLeod was going to be a boom town, a railway hub. Smart stone buildings like the Empress Theatre ['No Forthcoming Attractions'] were built, but just as it opened its doors in 1912, the Canadian Pacific changed its mind and moved the hub to Lethbridge. The world got faster and Fort MacLeod was left behind. Today, it's a place where people come to get a fix of history (the fort is worth the trip) and then speed on. Another metaphor? No time to muse on that as we've got to get to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump. Ironic, eh?

Diversion 2

The previous night, in a Calgary bar I'd misheard the name and thought someone was offering to take me outside (as we say in Glasgow) which struck me as very un-Canadian. Thankfully, the misunderstanding was speedily resolved and the tale of this buffalo kill site was regaled. We were late, racing against the light as we drove up the Porcupine Hills to where our guide Edwin, a Blackfoot elder, was waiting. He rushed us to the top of the sandstone scarp where herds of buffalo had been driven to their death for at least 6,000 years before it was finally abandoned in the mid 19th century. Edwin starts most of his sentences with, "My people," two words which reverberate across the years and out onto the prairie below. My people. 6,000 years. We are specks in this country. It's a sudden reality jump. We return to the now deserted museum and he tells us of how he's collecting the songs from the old people and passing them on, keeping a tradition alive. He sits, picks up a frame drum and sings for us. Whisky seems far removed. We end up in a hotel that boasts of having 'the best indoor patio in southern Alberta.' The sight of its swimming pool surrounded by balconied rooms with tropical plants, bridges and a grand piano guarded by cast iron alligators makes me wonder what the best one in the whole province must look like. Already, Lethbridge is showing promise. Black Velvet I like the fact that Lethbridge's distillery is named after what sounds like a jazz standard. The image is of dimly-lit clubs, something clandestine, an illicit affair. It's another metaphor for Canadian whisky, the liquid America loves, but won't admit to. Don't forget that from the mid-19th century until 2010, Canadian whisky outsold Bourbon in the US. Not that anyone said so. There's parallels here with the pioneers who hauled themselves and possessions to Alberta. Gilbey's [RIP] went one better and in 1973 dragged a distillery here. To be strictly accurate they built one to supply the west with whisky vodka and gin, but you get the (continental) drift. As Davin explains on p18, the amazing fact is that the Lethbridge plant and not the original distillery in Toronto remained open when Gilbey's had to halve its total production. What you're left with is an eastern-style, corn-based whisky distillery in the middle of fields of rye and wheat. None of these plants are prettified. They are working places, but fascinating though the talk of exploding starch, flash tanks, evaporators and enzymes is, it's worthwhile just to tune into the smell of the plant - sweetcorn, popcorn, corn husk, feel the dynamism of the process, look into the eyes of the people working here, like quality control manager Vicky Miller and distiller James Mmbando and see how they believe in this whisky.

You can't dislike BV, but the hidden gem here is Danfield's. Spicy yet succulent in the 10 year old expression, restrained and complex at 21 with macadamia, butter, hot chocolate, minty fresh with fat rich corn. Now they need owner Constellation to back it, invest in the plant and get the whiskies out into the world and not (with the greatest respect) just across the border.

Diversion 3

Whisky's bad old days had been dogging our tracks. Fort Macleod was established to stop whisky trading posts like Fort Whoop-Up on the outskirts of Lethbridge. Its establishment is a long, complex tale of fur trapping and bartering with the First Nations, using whisky as a currency and a method of cultural domination. "Singing whisky" was both cash and death. Whoop-Up was established in 1870 and netted $15k in its first six months. Putting a stop to this Wal-Mart of the prairies was a prime reason behind the founding of the Mounties. Now the high stockade has been lovingly restored, which adds a haunted atmosphere to the place as I contemplate the reality of whisky's dark side. It is sobering.


We're heading north again to High River and the Highwood distillery which, after two large plants, looks more like an anonymous office block than a distillery. To say that they do things differently here would be an understatement. It might be small, but Highwood is a specialist in seeing a gap in the drinks market and plugging it immediately. Somehow, there's 350 different lines coming out of here. Whisky is becoming the focus, with the light and slightly creamy carbon-filtered White Owl currently their biggest seller. Once again, the main grain is different. This is pretty much a 100 per cent wheat distillery making its spirit in a column/pot set up. A small amount of rye is made a year, while the corn component is from the Potter's inventory which Highwood own.

General manager Michael Nychyk had mentioned that they barreled at high strength, but nothing could have prepared me for the waves of alcohol fumes that filled the warehouse. I wasn't sure if it was the fumes which made me hallucinate boxes marked 'Assorted Bombs' and 'Porn Star Bullets'. "Oh yes," says Michael, sounding surprised, "we had some problem with those." I want to ask why this should flummox him, but I'm distracted by the caramelised peach aroma of a 33 year old corn whisky being thrust at me. It's quickly followed by an equally remarkable 20 year old wheat, which mixes flowers, coconut and vanilla. These are serious whiskies, but the fact that a recent release of a 20 year old (called Ninety) for under $50 does, shows that Highwood is still underselling itself. Slightly reeling, we head to a local restaurant to inhale fresh air and chow down on buffalo burgers. It's been a rapid spin around one province with three different ways of making whisky but a shared desire to move upmarket, though the self-effacing modesty makes me wonder if they really understand how good their wares are. It's a welcome character trait, but a little more steel is needed, because the world needs to know about these whiskies from the plains.
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