Sitting in the truck bed as we roll across a small patch of farmland just outside the Saskatoon city limits, the air is refreshingly brisk, but the sun is bright and Prairie sky is everblue above John Cote’s farm.
Mr. Cote and his wife, Barb, have a little more than 30 hectares, and the crops from their modest farming operation are destined for stills elsewhere on the property, where they produce the vodka, gin and liqueurs of Black Fox Farm and Distillery.
“Imagine a locally minded restaurant where a chef heads out to the farmers’ market in the morning. He’s going to look what’s available for the menu that week and there’s 10 beautiful things,” Mr. Cote says.
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“He’s limited with what he can create sometimes, but that doesn’t mean he can’t create something beautiful. That’s the same thing here.”
The Cotes’s family business is one of North America’s most sustainable distilleries. Their annual production is approximately 5,000 litres, significantly less than other sustainability-minded operations across Canada such as Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, Alta., or Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers in Beamsville, Ont.
Black Fox’s small size allows the Cotes to look to their own land for almost every ingredient needed to produce their line of spirits; the lone exception is the base triticale grain, a wheat-rye hybrid that grows just down the road.
The distiller’s lineup of gin is primarily seasonal, with Mr. Cote harvesting different types of aromatics and botanicals to create different batches of gins at different times of the year. Currently, you’ll find a refreshing cucumber and Saskatchewan caraway-infused gin which is not unlike Hendricks, but – dare I say – with a little more depth.
During a recent trip to explore the distillery and its surrounding grounds, Mr. Cote shows me small vats of freshly plucked rose petals and calendula flowers, both of which are grown on-site. The rose petals are going into a run of gin that will be released in the early fall.
“We typically preserve everything in alcohol,” he explains. “When you use dry ingredients like florals and what have you, you are using something that has lost a lot of its natural oils and those oils are what you’re looking for in creating a flavourful gin.”
The Cotes’s sustainable approach to distilling reaches far beyond simply “growing their own.” Without connection to city water, they rely on a geothermal cooling system in their production, a looping water system that saves thousands of litres of water a year. Leftover mash is always brought out to the farm and used as fertilizer.
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“There are two kinds of farmers in the world and it’s not non-organic and organic farmers. It’s good and bad ones,” Mr. Cote jokes. “If you have your mind around sustainability, you will always look to see how you can make a process as [functional] as possible.”
In Pemberton, B.C., Tyler and Lorien Schramm have run Pemberton Distillery for 10 years, but remain modest in production with a slightly larger output than that of Black Fox at 6,000 litres annually. The Schramms also use the environmentally friendly geothermal cooling in their distilling process, but instead of relying on grain, they utilize a nearby organic potato farm as a base for all of their spirits. As a result, they are the world’s only organic potato-based distillery.
Their highly sought after signature Schramm Gin, which is only available in B.C., is made with a unique blend of aromatics including locally grown cascade hops. Even Mr. Schramm’s absinthe is created with ingredients such as locally grown wormwood and hemp seeds. He says that any fruits and berries that find their way into any brandies or liqueurs are not grown on site, but harvested within a few hundred metres of the distillery.
“We feel like all of our products really reflect the Pemberton area and its strong agricultural focus, but I would say our vodka and gin make the terroir of Pemberton stand out the most,” Mr. Schramm explains. “The gin uses the base potato spirit with the addition of eight herbs ... it distills out into something delicious that Pembertonians have really embraced as their spirit.”
In Ontario, Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers mantra falls happily in line with the aforementioned boutique operations, but is more recognizable and much larger producing, churning out more than 100,000 litres of spirits annually. Even though the output is 20 times Mr. Cote’s, true Niagara peninsula terroir is what proprietor and main distiller Geoff Dillon is after.
“By using Niagara grapes, we are going to get a unique flavour as opposed to us bringing grapes from Chile or otherwise. We also always use fresh ingredients in all of our preparations at the distillery,” Mr. Dillon says.