It's late afternoon, the strong summer sun just starting to swing around to the west and waning a wee bit over the prairies, which are starting to glow in the growing golden light. And I'm standing, dancing, just a little, in the back of a bus, with a beer in my left hand, and my right cupped around a non-existent microphone. Singing Bon Jovi's Bad Medicine, the beat blasting loud and strong and true, convincing me that maybe bad medicine is, indeed, what I need. Is this a party bus, the night still young, carrying us off to our first nightclub of the evening? Nope – not even close. Next stop? An off-the-grid, ecologically friendly farm, where I'll see some honeybees before walking through a big field of berries.
I'm just outside Saskatoon, cruising around the countryside with a few friends, letting a local tour company do the driving (in a vehicle tricked out with a well-stocked ice box and a karaoke machine) to a series of nano-breweries and microdistilleries. Here in the heart of Canada's breadbasket, fresh produce is easily accessible, grown on site and used to produce artisanal beverages. I'm here to go full agro, and imbibe, heartily.
"We grow flowers and booze – that's what we do," owner John Cote tells me as we climb a slight rise and, a bit of sweat forming on my brow, I quickly realize that Black Fox Farm & Distillery is no small boutique operation. In addition to flowers (they grow 12,000 lilies and 9,000 gladiolas every year) and grain, they keep bees and grow apples, raspberries, rhubarb and haskap berries, the latter not particularly well-known but, Cote explains, a superfood with as many antioxidants as goji berries.
Literally off the grid, Black Fox uses geothermal cooling and biofuels – and they make some mean spirits, growing 90 per cent of their ingredients right on site (even the honey from the bees is used to sweeten their liqueur). "We're a small part of the slow-food movement," Cote says. "We were one of the first distilleries to take it from the soil, to the still."
After trying a few of their tasty concoctions – they create both raspberry and honey ginger liqueurs, plus four kinds of gin and two types of vodka – we're off again, stopping to sip hard cider at the Glen at Crossmount. Saskatoon's first cidery, they make each of their three varieties (Flat Lander Gold, Crisp and Dry) from Canadian apples, some sourced from their own property. "We have 1,500 trees on a 15-acre orchard," says head cider maker Tyler Kaban, pointing out the window at a nearby ridge. He adds that all the juice is cold-pressed on site, and made in a traditional English style, one that dates back to the days when ciders were more popular than beer. "Now, with no gluten, people can tolerate this more easily, and it appeals to both wine and beer drinkers."
At 9 Mile Legacy, so-named for the distance between the two family farms of the co-founders, we taste some innovative nano-brews; each of their batches is brewed at just 100 litres each. Shawn Moen, one of those co-founders, tells us the small size allows them the flexibility to try weird (and wonderful) things, switching up the offerings every week or so.
And we finish the day by – what else? – making our own cocktails. Rolling up to LB Distillers, we learn that this may be the only place in the world to make a gin from Saskatoon berries.
With a wide variety of local ingredients, we mix and we drink, using everything from their horilka, a Ukranian honey-pepper vodka infused with Saskatchewan wildflower honey and Mexican chile peppers, to their dill-pickle vodka, perfect for my cocktail of choice – both in general, and today – a classic Canadian Caesar. Special tastings like this one must be set up a couple weeks in advance, but LB offers free-of-charge tours on a walk-up basis during regular business hours.
Sufficiently sated, soon we're back on the bus. Another Bon Jovi track awaits, as we roll back into the city, livin' on a prayer, and feeling pretty good about our day in the country.
The writer was a guest of Tourism Saskatoon. It did not read or approve this article.