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Fledgling micro-distilleries crafting a spirited scene in Alberta

A change in the province's liquor regulations four years ago has allowed a craft distilling scene to blossom

Brad Smylie mixes mash with a paddle at Raw Distillery in Canmore, Alta.

Until a few years ago, Alberta's liquor rules made it almost impossible for small-scale craft distillers to produce spirits that would find their way into local bars.

You could sit in a bar in downtown Saskatoon and sip a gin martini made with locally made Lucky Bastard Distillers' Gambit Gin. In Vancouver, you could perch on a stool along the glossy white bar in the Lobby Lounge of the Fairmont Pacific Rim in Vancouver and drink a cocktail with Victoria Gin fresh off the bottling line from Vancouver island.

But not in Alberta.

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That's because the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission required an obscene amount of liquor to be produced for either a brewery or a distillery to operate: 500,000 litres. That amount is somewhat obtainable for a brewery, but moving through that quantity of hard alcohol is essentially impossible for an upstart distiller.

That changed four years ago when the liquor regulator changed its requirements, finally allowing a craft distilling scene to blossom – while playing catch-up with other provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia. Eau Claire Distillery, which opened in 2014 and is in Turner Valley, is the most recognizable micro-distiller in Alberta, but there have been many more passionate distillers following across the province.

"The pioneering spirit of this first wave of distillers in Alberta is an honour to be a part of," says Adam Smith, owner of Strathcona Spirits in Edmonton. "There are still plenty of struggles created by bizarre and ridiculous regulations in each province, but [many have still] sprouted an impressive and intrepid class of distillers."

Mr. Smith's operation, just a few blocks off the city's Whyte Avenue, is a small but mighty one. Approaching its first birthday in a couple months, his two products, the Single Grain Wheat Vodka and Badland Seaberry Gin, have proved popular in both Calgary and Edmonton's restaurant scenes. The gin, in particular, is a standout for its unorthodox addition of foraged sea buckthorn berries.

"This is an arts city, a music city, and a blue-collar city that sometimes has really, really good taste," Mr. Smith happily says of Edmonton. "It's also surrounded by the best grains in the world and a myriad of botanicals that the world has barely experienced."

At the foot of the Rocky Mountains, Brad and Lindsay Smylie own and operate Raw Distillery in the town of Canmore. After meeting more than a decade ago, Mr. Smylie discovered a love of home brewing and together they opened up their small-scale operation in December of last year.

All products are distilled with glacier water from the Rocky Mountains and include an unaged rye, a vodka, as well as one citrus-infused gin and another with tellicherry black peppercorns.

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Brad Smylie at Raw Distillery in Canmore, Alta.

"When we secured a space in Canmore there were only three craft distilleries in the province … Now there are 19 [with more in the works]," Ms. Smylie says. "I am truly hoping we will be able to see collaborations between distilleries similar to what you might see between craft breweries. Then we will start putting Alberta on the map."

Jesse Willis, co-owner of the boutique liquor stores, Vine Arts, as well as the soon-to-be-open Donna Mac has been keeping tabs on the Canadian distillery community for years. The libation connoisseur is looking forward to seeing how Alberta's micro-distilling scene, still in its infancy, will evolve.

Vodka and gin at Raw Distillery.

He notes that a first priority for any emerging distillery is generally to get whisky into barrels as quickly as possible since it requires a minimum three years of aging to be sold as "Canadian whisky", but there's plenty of other spirits to get excited about while we wait.

"Many of the new local distilleries are delivering outstanding vodka and/or gin, along with innovative products like honey liqueur or unaged rye that don't require the same aging period as whisky," Mr. Willis explains. "We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential growth and I'm excited for the innovation and progress we are sure to see in the next decade and beyond."

On the map

Here are four other Alberta distilleries to check out:

Burwood Distillery: Calgary's newest distillery offers vodka, honey liqueur and honey eau de vie in a slick-looking tasting room., 4127 6 St NE #15, Calgary.

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Hansen Distillery: Edmonton's other craft distiller boasts a fair-sized room to sample its spirits, which include a cinnamon rye as well as gin and vodka., 17412 111 Ave NW, Edmonton.

Park Distillery: Smack dab in the heart of Canada's most famous mountain town, you'll find this distillery-restaurant hybrid where you can sip on plenty of cocktails featuring in-house-made spirits such as espresso vodka or oaked gin., 219 Banff Ave, Banff.

Wild Life Distillery: Head out to Canmore to visit this small producer currently pouring vodka and a gin infused with lemon and blood orange., 160-105 Bow Meadows Cres., Canmore.

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