Alberta Premium may be the most misunderstood of Canadian whiskies. First, it is one of the few whiskies in the world made entirely from rye grain, but is exclusive to Canada. This breeds envy elsewhere. It certainly is good whisky, however, that envy is misplaced. The character we normally expect from rye has deliberately been distilled out. Second, when a foreign whisky writer bizarrely declared it the best whisky Canada makes, he set connoisseurs up for a disappointment. This is not a dram for Glencairn nosing glasses or rhapsodic tasting notes. This is simple session whisky, best enjoyed from a tin cup by a blazing campfire. When the bottle is finally empty you douse the fire and crawl into your sleeping bag. Small wonder then that Alberta Premium is a favourite on Canada's rodeo circuit.
You've never seen Norm Little at a whisky show, but he may well be Canada's best known whisky ambassador. A former whisky maker himself, Norm now represents Alberta Premium. Where? On the prairie rodeo circuit. Sure, he'll pour you a shot, but you're more likely to find him picking his way through the bucking broncos backstage. He's making certain his protégé, Scott Byrne, is ready to take his turn in the arena.
There's a sequence in the movie Predator with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura. As they battle a jungle militia, someone tells Ventura's character, "You're bleeding, man; you're hit." He roars back, "I ain't got time to bleed." I used to think Ventura and Schwarzenegger were the toughest guys on the planet. Then Norm introduced me to Byrne, a professional rodeo bullfighter. Next to Byrne, Schwarzenegger's crew is a collection of wimps. The proof? Let's go to Edmonton's Rexall Place for the Canadian Finals Rodeo. There, in front of 14,000 cheering fans, Byrne enters the ring, decked out in Alberta Premium threads. It's clear he's no ordinary caped toreador. In the rodeo world, the bullfighter is there to see no harm comes to the cowboy riding the bull, or to the animal. When a rider is thrown, as inevitably happens, the bull's instinct is to circle back, dig a shallow grave, fill the vacancy with a cowboy, then saunter back to his pen for a bite of hay. It's up to Byrne to distract the bull while the fallen rider makes his escape.
We meet back stage where Byrne tells us that after 20 years, he is finally hanging up his chaps. "My job is 20 per cent physical and 80 per cent mental, with no hesitation. I need to read the play before it happens, anticipate the throw." That physical 20 per cent has led to crushed cheekbones, torn knees and elbows, and 18 broken ribs. He's taken enough painkillers to keep Pfizer in business, he admits. Not whisky though. "Whisky is for celebrating," he adds, "Advil is for pain." Byrne concedes he may be wired a little differently than most people.
Just as Alberta Premium is one of the most misunderstood whiskies in Canada, rodeo riding has to be the most misunderstood of sports. Most of this confusion originates with people who can't imagine animals putting on such a wild display unless they are in distress. But think for a minute about your own reactions when a fly lands on your nose. Your flailing arms seem to be fending off a lethal attack. To get this same animated response from a horse or a bull, handlers tie a soft sheepskin strap across its rump. Once the rider is thrown the handler rides up alongside the bronco, unties the sheepskin, and the horse canters merrily back to its stall, snickering all the way. It's not quite WWA professional wrestling, but it is a big show.
Touring the arena floor, we wander backstage where Norm explains that in the United States, bull and cow attacks cause more deaths than sharks, alligators, bears, snakes, mothers-in-law, and spiders combined. Most deaths by livestock are caused by bulls, though cows too have been known to gang up on certain victims. As we thread our way through a holding area jam packed with livestock, Norm warns us. "Don't let a cow get you into a confined space." Good tip - the next time you find yourself in a Far Side cartoon and notice a bovine, hitch hiking.
"Never handle a bull alone and never turn your back on him," Norm continues (like we would.) "If you need to move cattle, try to appear larger and carry a metal pipe or a cane." Statistically, most attacks involve older men, so I take the advice about the cane with a grain of salt. It's best not to wear the disguise of the natural enemy, and besides, Davin is way older than me. "Please no photos in the holding area, and for any weirdo thinking of slipping a few prairie oysters on the campfire tonight, many a hapless cowboy has lost his life while assisting to castrate bulls." As everyone chuckles I quietly bury my burdizzo deep in my pocket.
We pass some bulls, and ignoring Norm's warning, Davin starts snapping pictures of them in their pens. These pens are freestanding, not fastened to the floor. He may be old and deaf but that doesn't stop Davin from shooting off shots like a paparazzo who's just stumbled on Beyonce. One reason the human population has swelled to billions is that we've inherited DNA from cave dwellers who knew enough to back away when they saw a bull. Clearly my writing partner's genetic makeup predates the Neanderthal era. "When you are attacked by a bull," Scott Byrne had told me, "you get something between you and it." I notice a concrete pillar, all the while imagining Davin's mangled corpse with a smashed camera firmly wedged somewhere painful.
The bull stares down Davin, camera still flashing wildly, and starts pawing the ground. It's the shallow grave digging ritual. Suddenly, the bull lunges, and, fortunately, Davin wakes up in time to jump out of his skin. The bull plants himself and snorts. We escape to safer grounds - the bucking bronco pen - leaving an angry bull stomping and grunting, eyes firmly focused on Davin's rump.
The real reason we're backstage is because, somehow, we got the gig presenting the trophy for the evening's champion bareback rider. Our hearts still pounding from the bull incident, we climb up on the podium where we present Clint Laye, from Cadogan Alberta, with the Alberta Premium silver buckle for the night's highest score. From the corner of my eye, I notice our bull peering up at the Jumbotron. He's making a mental note of Davin's name for later. We return to our seats, still trembling. Whisky is just for celebrating? It also does a fine job calming the nerves too.
The show ends and we head back to our hotel where, in the lobby, Davin faces another ignominy. Norm pushes his cowboy hat back on his head revealing a full head of hair. He chuckles at Davin's obvious envy, attributing his mane to a life in whisky. But that can't be true. If it was, Davin would look like the lead singer of Mötley Crüe instead of some reprobate who just had his scalp singed by campfire.
Norm has arranged for a full bottle of Alberta Premium in each of our rooms. Many question why Alberta Premium comes in an easy-grip plastic bottle, but the way our tin cups are still shaking in our hands, we're grateful for it. Here in the hotel the whisky restores our confidence. We finally have a comeback for that bull: "You know what would go well with this rye?… A steak."
Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux are travelling across Canada collecting stories for a book about Canada's drinking culture and history.
Alberta Premium 40% ABV
This session whisky saddles up with fruity rye grains and sweet vanilla. Lassoes a crisp tart finish then ties down a citrus peel and pith finish.
Alberta Premium 30 Years Old Limited Edition 40% ABV
Dusty rye leads into a combustion of flavours that slowly unfold to reveal fresh cedar, sparkling oak, butterscotch, vanilla spices and a traditional citrus pith.
Alberta Premium 25 Years Old 40% ABV
Fresh cut lumber and vanilla buck right out of the gates revealing a montage of flavours from zesty citrus, oak, hot pepper to tropical fruits.