In a land of the rising whisky

In a land of the rising whisky

Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux head out to where the land is flat
As the television sit-com Corner Gas tells it, Saskatchewan is so flat, your dog can take off running and it’s three days before he is entirely out of sight. Flat land means straight roads bookmarked by tens of thousands of wheat fields, each a full mile square. It’s as if this land was designed to grow grain. Together, roughly 34,000 Saskatchewan farms grow more wheat, barley, oats, triticale and rye than is grown anywhere else in Canada, and its wheat fields alone would cover 60 per cent of Scotland including its dog parks.

Saskatchewan is also ground zero for sales of Canadian whisky. British Columbia’s chief justice once observed that Saskatchewan’s citizens felt they had a duty to drink as much whisky as they could. Not long after a temporary prohibition was introduced, on July 1, 1915, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police reported that there were more illegal stills in Saskatchewan than the rest of Canada combined. It was here that the Bronfman brothers began what would become the global spirits conglomerate named Seagram’s. Yet, despite such voracious thirst and so much prime grain, other than a short-lived burst of legal distilling activity, there’s not been a lot goin’ on, until recently.

In May 1970, Vancouver’s Central Canadian Distillers broke ground on a three-million-dollar plant in the town of Weyburn. With federal government grants, the distillery promised to provide a market for Saskatchewan farmers. Plans included five warehouses and a maltings. However, the provincial government quietly owned 12.5 per cent of the project and this did not sit well with other Canadian distillers. They demanded that the government withdraw, claiming that people’s religious and other sensibilities would be offended should they learn their government had shares in a distillery. Regardless, the Weyburn plant quickly expanded production to 4,000 cases of spirits a day.

When control of Central Canadian Distillers Corp. Ltd. was sold to L.J, McGuinness and Co. Ltd. late in 1973, the distillery was converting 450,000 bushels of grain into two million bottles of whisky, gin and vodka annually. But McGuiness distillery shut its doors in 1986, bringing legal distilling in the province to an end for another quarter of a century.

It wasn’t until Lumsden residents, Colin and Meredith Schmidt caught the micro-distilling bug that distilling returned to Saskatchewan. Colin was playing hockey for Colorado College when he was drafted into the National Hockey League by the Edmonton Oilers. “I lacked size, speed and talent,” recounts Colin.

“I didn’t get to play a whole lot and when I got a couple of shoulder injuries that needed surgeries later, that was the end of my hockey career.”

However, in Colorado, he met a guy from Hawaii who was making vodka out of pineapples. Colin and Meredith were inspired. His hockey career over, in 2010, they moved back to Saskatchewan to make whisky. “Meredith and I were married on Last Mountain Lake, and that summer we decided to open the distillery.” Despite Saskatchewan’s unbroken horizon, romance prevailed and the newlyweds named their distillery ‘Last Mountain.’

By chance, the Saskatchewan government was also thinking about distilling again. When the Schmidts approached provincial officials, the wheels were already in motion to develop a microdistilling policy. “We were lucky to have a seat at the table and help craft that initial policy. We are fortunate to still meet with them quarterly and let them know what’s working and what isn’t,” explains Colin. Although the government did not provide any economic incentives to set up shop in Saskatchewan, time hadn’t healed that wound, there was an agricultural one: Saskatchewan ‘pineapples.’ All the grain the distillery could ever want to make whisky grew in abundance just miles away.

An advisor suggested the Schmidts begin with sourced whisky aged and blended onsite while their own stocks aged. Thus they learned the art of finishing while figuring out what they liked as the benchmark for their own whisky. It was a shrewd strategy.

Last Mountain now makes some of the most flavourful wheat whisky in the country. “There are two whiskies I am most proud of,” smiles Colin.

“Our 100% Wheat Single Cask and a soon-to-be-released five-year-old straight rye, which I think is some of the best whisky we’ve ever made.”

The Schmidts mature 95 per cent of their wheat whisky in once-used Heaven Hill Bourbon barrels, while also exploring a variety of other casks, including some brandy barrels.

“We found that moving the whisky around between barrels and giving them some exposure really helped develop the flavour we’re looking for. These are whiskies where you don’t want to mask the character of the grain with too much wood.”

Two hours north of Last Mountain, Black Fox Farm and Distillery boldly goes where no Saskatchewan distillery has gone before.

They make whisky using triticale, a grain first created by crossing wheat with rye.

It was slow to catch on with Canadian farmers, even when a fictional version appeared in the Star Trek episode, The Trouble With Tribbles. Farmers must have been watching their dogs run into the sunset and not television.

Black Fox Farm does not have a spaceport, but they do grow triticale along with oats, wheat and rye on their 80-acre farm. John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote rejuvenated the ecologically tender space, intending to grow fruit for liqueurs, botanicals for gin and 60 acres of grain to feed the still. The Cotes wanted to get closer to their customers, and in Saskatchewan, booze makes more friends at the farmer’s market than pies do. John called on his scientific background in agriculture to design a distillery with a sparse waste stream. It uses geothermal cooling, for example, and distilling waste goes back onto the land as compost. “There’s very little waste that we haven’t figured out what to do with,” he explains.

The Cote’s family credentials do not include a distilling history, but with their scientific backgrounds, Barb and John were quite comfortable learning the technical aspects of the craft.

“A few things you should know about Barb,” says John, “first she is truly the heart and soul of our distillery.

“Her extensive experience in animal nutrition is well respected around the world to the point that she has been recognised by the University of Saskatchewan alumni and made an honourary life member of the college. That gives you an idea of her passion for doing things well, all the time.”

Yeast, for example, has specific dietary requirements, not only to optimise efficiencies but for flavour production as well. Their yeast regime uses different yeast strains at various times during the fermentation process to accentuate the flavours of the triticale. The starch content of the grain ensures a good yield, with rye-like flavours, but not quite like rye itself. The back of the throat chest-warming spice typical of rye is present, although softer. “We want to make a quintessential Canadian spirit. We want full flavour, but we want it to be approachable, and that’s what the goal is,” says John.

Black Fox Farms will release its first whisky later this year, a triticale whisky, cask finished in an Oloroso barrel. They envision a whisky program that includes single cask releases, exclusive finishes and a yearly vintage blend. “For the blend, we have whisky stocks from triticale, wheat, rye, oats and malted barley,” says John, excitement rising in his voice. “The goal was never just to make whisky; it was eventually to make the best whisky in the world by leveraging the uniqueness of our terroir. We may never get there, but we will always be working towards that goal. I think that’s important.”

Black Fox Farm and Last Mountain Distillery are flat-Prairie neighbours in a part of the world with unrivalled potential for making whisky. The climate, with its wide temperature fluctuations, favours robust grain packed with local flavour. How Saskatchewan’s latest crop of distilleries will capitalise on this is just beginning to be seen. But legal distillers are starting to understand what the bootleggers knew all this time, the economics of making whisky in Saskatchewan is excellent. And so, Saskatchewan distilleries are sprouting like Prairie flowers in a warm spring rain. With Lucky Bastard Distillers making whisky in Saskatoon and Sperling Silver Distillery doing so in Regina, Bandits Distilling has now brought distilling back to Weyburn. Together, they are building Saskatchewan’s spirits industry to where it should have been all these years, running towards the farms instead of away.

Saskatchewan tasting notes

Last Mountain Distillery

100% Wheat Whisky (45%)
This whisky rolls on the palate with oak-driven spices and vanilla. The lightly sweetened wheat character is effortlessly lush and tight on
the palate.

Black Fox Farm

100% Triticale Whisky (48%)

Balanced and poised with the sweetness of puffed wheat and fruity rye spices. Scrumptious toasted oak and vanilla with rich floral fruits and grain depth.

Golden Stag

Blended Rye (40%)
This Sperling Silver rye is sweet and youthful with toasted rye cereal and fresh-cut hay. Heats up late on the palate with sweet-tempered caramel.

Central Canadian Distillery

Hard Rye No. 1 (40%)
A muted caramel sweet nose shifts directly into searing hot pepper rye spices that dig its spurs into the throat. Sweetness dries on the finish.
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