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Ken Pike, the grain receiver at Alberta Distillers Ltd. on Monday, March 25, 2013. (Chris Bolin)
Ken Pike, the grain receiver at Alberta Distillers Ltd. on Monday, March 25, 2013. (Chris Bolin)

SPIRITS

Alberta distillery keeps the ‘rye’ in rye whisky Add to ...

A step inside a nondescript factory in one of Calgary’s oldest industrial parks reveals a bustling operation where carbon dioxide steams from massive cylindrical vats, barrels are filled and stacked, and trucks, rail cars and sea-shipping containers are loaded with bulk liquids for export.

This site, however, has nothing to do with the province’s bread-and-butter oil and gas industry. The 67-year-old Alberta Distillers Ltd. plant is home to a different Alberta standard bearer and a Canadian rarity – its flagship 100-per-cent rye whisky, Alberta Premium.

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Sold in a distinctive cut-glass bottle sometimes criticized for looking too old-fashioned, the affordable Alberta Premium brand – a rye mash whisky that is available, for the most part, only in Canada – is more than a run-of-the-mill liquor. Alberta Premium is a rare example of 100-per-cent rye, the cold-weather grain that has become the namesake for Canadian whisky but is not often the main ingredient.

Canadian whisky makers including Alberta Distillers are riding a global “rye renaissance,” a renewed interest in barrel-aged or “brown spirits,” and mixing whiskies into classic cocktails – in part driven by the prolific whisky drinking on the hit television show Mad Men. But in addition to making and promoting its own brand, Alberta Distillers and other domestic whisky makers export more than two-thirds of what they produce in tanks, rather than bottles, stealthily ensuring that a flow of uniquely Canadian rye is poured into low-ball glasses around the world.

“The bulk of the Canadian whisky business is done in shipping large amounts of bulk whisky to other people who bottle it under their own name and under their own label,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: A Portable Expert.

Whisky is usually some combination of barley, wheat, corn and rye, and is aged in barrels. Americans generally make bourbon and Scots make Scotch. The shorthand for Canadian whisky is “rye,” but corn is actually the main ingredient for most bottles, including famous brands such as Crown Royal and Canadian Club. Rye is simply the distinctive dash of Canadian spice.

One-hundred-per-cent rye whisky is fairly rare, but Alberta Distillers operations director Rob Tuer says the same people who like rye bread like Alberta Premium. The peppery mixing whisky receives solid and sometimes even glowing reviews from critics. “They like that character about it. It’s more complex,” Mr. Tuer says.

But like other Canadian whisky makers, Alberta Distillers ships most of what it produces – which is not only hard-to-crack rye but also whisky made from corn, barley and wheat – by truck, train or sea container, Mr. de Kergommeaux says. After it gets to the United States or other countries, it is bottled and labelled for consumers. In 2011, two-thirds of the approximately 115 million litres of whisky Canada distillers shipped to the United States was bottled there, according to the Connecticut-based Beverage Information Group.

Neither the distillery nor its parent company, Deerfield, Ill.-based Beam Inc., will confirm who exactly buys its bulk whisky. But according to Mr. de Kergommeaux, a small group of higher-end U.S. rye whisky brands use it. The group includes Masterson’s Rye – which retails for $60 a bottle or more – and others who would rather keep it under wraps.

Canadian distillers have in past years made the “same old, same old” products, but that higher-end market may be the future of Canadian whisky, says John Hall, one of Canada’s best known whisky makers and the owner of Forty Creek Whisky in Grimsby, Ont. He says the past 12 months have witnessed the introduction of a gaggle of new sipping whiskies, including Alberta Premium Dark Horse, to compete with his own connoisseur labels.

“The more the merrier,” Mr. Hall says. “It brings more attention to the category.”

But the bourbon and Scotch makers have already realized the demand for premium whisky, he says: “Now it’s Canada’s turn.” Drinkers are becoming more discerning, and Mr. Hall says Canadian whisky makers are realizing they have to step up their game when it comes to both craftsmanship and promoting what makes Canadian whisky distinct.

“Canadian whisky is as Canadian as hockey and maple syrup.”

Follow on Twitter: @KellyCryderman

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