In a land of giants

In a land of giants

Davin de Kergommeaux looks at the explosion of distilling in Western Canada

Travel | 01 Jun 2012 | Issue 104 | By Davin de Kergommeaux

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Suddenly, Western Canada has become a hub of whisky-making activity. It wasn’t that long ago that three major whisky makers in Alberta and a fourth in Manitoba represented the full extent of Western Canadian whisky making. Yes, millions of litres of Canada’s finest whisky are still made at Alberta Distillers, Highwood Distillers, and Black Velvet Distillery in Alberta, and at the Crown Royal plant in Gimli, Manitoba. These giants are now joined by a growing number of small players, the micro- and nano-distillers that patiently turn out one barrel of whisky at a time.

Alberta Distillers

1521-34 Avenue SE, Calgary, Alberta
Visitors not permitted

Alberta Distillers is probably Canada’s best-known distillery among aficionados. This is largely because over the past 60-odd years the Calgary distillery has produced more high-rye-grain whisky than all the rest of the distilleries in North America combined. In fact, Alberta Distillers is without question the largest producer of 100 per cent rye-grain whisky in the world. Connoisseurs know and covet Canada-only bottlings of Alberta Premium and Alberta Springs. However, many don’t know that this distillery also makes the internationally popular Windsor Canadian brand, nor that Windsor too, is made with a significant amount of rye grain.

Highwood Distillers

114-10 Avenue SE, High River, Alberta
Visitors not permitted

The quirkiest of Canada’s distilleries, Highwood is still basking in the success of White Owl, its fully matured white rye whisky. White Owl has opened the door to the world of whisky for a whole new generation of young and especially female drinkers. Canadian whisky lovers still go back to Highwood’s traditional brands though. Century Reserve 21 Years Old is a 100 per cent corn whisky matured in charred oak barrels. Century Reserve 15/25, another scrumptious long-aged whisky, is so loaded with clean crispy oak, that you might want to check your tongue for splinters.

Black Velvet Distillery

2925-9 Avenue N, Lethbridge, Alberta
No consumer website
Visitors not permitted

Fermenting grain imbues Palliser Park, in the east end of Lethbridge, with a wonderful aroma. Each week the Black Velvet Distillery converts eight railcar loads of corn into a range of Canadian whiskies, including Black Velvet, McNaughton’s, O.F.C., Golden Wedding and the connoisseur’s favourite, Danfield’s Reserve. The bottling line at Black Velvet runs continuously, bottling whisky to be shipped around the world. For the huge American market, the high cost of shipping dictates that Black Velvet travels to the U.S. in bulk for bottling closer to market. This means the distillery must comply with U.S. regulations that prohibit visitors.

Pemberton Distillery

1954 Venture Place, Pemberton, British Columbia

There’s real excitement in the interior of British Columbia these days. At Pemberton Distillery in the Pemberton Valley, distiller Tyler Schramm and his wife Lorien Chilton are experimenting with various malt whisky styles.

Like all start-up Canadian distillers Schramm produces a variety of spirits. Volumes are still small, but it’s whisky that’s in his blood, perhaps a throwback to his days as a brewing and distilling student at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.

Five barrels of malt whisky distilled in 2010 from locally grown organic barley, just 18 months old, already show promise. Five more barrels distilled in August 2011 were made after blending in a small amount of peated malt imported from the U.K. The trial run was a success and this summer Schramm plans to go all the way with a heavily peated Islay-style malt whisky. Most exciting of all, this is the year Schramm will distill his first barrel of Canadian organic rye whisky.

Visitors are welcomed to Pemberton’s tasting room and shop Thursday to Saturday from noon until 6pm. In-depth guided distillery tours are offered at 4pm.

The Okanagan Valley

Urban Distillery

#6, 325 Bay Avenue, Kelowna, British Columbia

Okanagan Spirits

2920 28th Avenue, Vernon, British Columbia
267 Bernard Ave Kelowna, British Columbia

Kelowna-based Mike Urban has begun bottling malt whisky with a twist. Urban adds a small piece of oak barrel to each bottle. According to Urban this allows the whisky to continue maturing right in the bottle. Visitors can choose between American or European oak, either toasted or charred.

Okanagan Spirits, also in Kelowna, has opened a new distillery to complement its first one further north in Vernon B.C. Although it specialises in fruit spirits, Okanagan Spirits has a stack of oak barrels filled with maturing malt whisky. According to distiller Rodney Goodchild, if they could start over again, the one thing they would do differently is distil a lot more whisky than fruit spirit right from the start.

A fourth Okanagan distillery, this one in Oliver near the southern tip of the valley is well into the planning stages.

Owner Grant Stevely is just awaiting planning permission before breaking ground for his Dubh Glas Distillery. All Okanagan distilleries welcome visitors.

Shelter Point Distillery

Terrain Road, Campbell River, British Columbia

In Campbell River, three hours “up Island” from Victoria, Scottish distilling legend Mike Nicholson produces a sweet and fruity malt spirit at Shelter Point Distillery. When Mike wasn’t looking, owner Patrick Evans and assistant distiller James Marinus, mashed a few batches of malted and unmalted barley. This Irish-style pure pot whisky is tucked safely away for a rainy day in the distillery’s cool dunnage warehouse. A sourced 100 per cent rye whisky is available in the gift shop for visitors who simply can’t wait for Shelter Point’s own whisky to mature.

There’s a lot of whisky action in western Canada these days, and now a whole handful of small distilleries where visitors can learn about micro distilling and sample its wares.

Saskatchewan and Manitoba

Gimli Distillery

Distillery Road, Gimli, Manitoba

Last Mountain Distillery

Lumsden, Saskatchewan

Canada’s best-selling whisky, Crown Royal, is still made in Diageo’s massive Gimli, Manitoba distillery. Due final blending and quality control for Crown Royal take place off site, the distillery occasionally accepts visitors in groups by prior arrangement.

The recent opening of Last Mountain Distillery in Lumsden, Saskatchewan means that once again, whisky is made in each of Canada’s four western provinces. Colin and Meredith Schmidt started Last Mountain using a still they cobbled together themselves. Like most of Canada’s small whisky distillers, the Schmidts have begun operations making vodka.

It’s not their dream, but of course whisky takes years to mature, so cash flow is a constant concern for micro distillers.

Vodka production helps them get through the lean start-up years. Last Mountain also offers a sourced rye whisky in their shop.
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