"Eau Claire Distillery president David Farran grew up on a ranch in Southern Alberta, but as a young adult, he dreamed of seeing the world.
So, he did. He joined the British diplomatic service, working for the British Consul in Western Canada. Then, as the owner of a major travel company, he criss-crossed the globe, hosting adventure tours to places as diverse as Nepal and Africa. He owned a string of 60 veterinary clinics. And he was one of the first employees at Alberta’s original craft brewery, Big Rock.
“We were trying to change the tastes of people who didn’t know there was something beyond the big (brewers),” Farran recalls about his time at the Calgary-based brewery. “It was a real pioneering enterprise.”
You could call David Farran a pioneer in Alberta's distillery boom. The Eau Claire Distillery president saw early on how people's drinking habits were changing and started the first craft spirit business in Alberta.
It also gave Farran the idea for his current venture. With his rural Alberta roots and his brewery experience, Farran could see a shift in how people were drinking. So he created Eau Claire Distillery in 2014 in Turner Valley, about a half-hour southwest of Calgary, and kicked off a boom in the province’s craft distillery scene just as international attention on Canadian spirits took off.
Now it’s one of at least 24 small-batch distilleries found across Alberta. Each has its own take on the time-honoured art of distillation, with one thing in common: a focus on grains and ingredients from Alberta, one of the world’s great agricultural heartlands.
Eau Claire’s Parlour Gin, for instance, is made with Alberta-grown Saskatoon berries. And this year, the company will release a rye whisky made entirely from Alberta grain.
Start by sampling Eau Claire Distillery's popular single malt whisky or Parlour Gin in the tasting room, before heading to the outdoor patio for lunch or dinner.
But a stop at Eau Claire is about more than old-school farming techniques. The tasting room offers a pretty place to enjoy a light meal and, on a hot summer day, the patio is the place to be in Turner Valley.
That is, if you aren’t at one of the province’s other distilleries. Farran also heads up the Alberta Craft Distillers Association, and he’d love to see a visit to Alberta’s distilleries become an essential part of any visit to the province, “much like, say, the Bourbon Trail in the U.S.,” he says.
Amid the boom of craft distilleries in Alberta, a crop of mixologists has also arrived on the province's boozey scene. Lounges like Red Deer's To The Lost are whipping up cocktails using locally made spirits.
Here are some of the new distilleries in Alberta worth checking out:
Lorne Haugen and Rick Lazruik came up with the idea for Back 40 Distillery in Camrose, while eating sausages and drinking at Haugen’s farm. Try: The Back 40 Ol’ Apple Betty, which tastes like liquid apple pie. It’s gluten-free and made with Alberta-grown sugar beets as sweetener
Marko and Ivan Cilic own Burwood Distillery in Calgary with their friend Jordan Ramey. They draw on the Cilic family’s roots in the former Yugoslavia for their range of small-production spirits.
Try: The Medica Honey Liqueur, made with raw Alberta honey sourced from the Cilic family bees, located east of Chestermere.
Located in northern Alberta, 300 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, the team at Cold Lake Brewing & Distilling uses all kinds of regional ingredients in their creations. That includes dill from Muriel Creek Ranch in their Ultimate Caesar vodka, and Haskap Haven Farms haskaps (a hardy sweet berry) in their Honey Haskap Vodka.
Try: Cold Lake Honey Shine, a vodka made with honey from the distillery’s own bees.
Park Distillery has the distinction of being Canada's only spirit maker in a national park. Casual and cozy, its cool factor is a celebration of all things Canadian.
Park Distillery in Banff is the only distillery located within a national park in Canada. The spirits are made in the basement, while the top levels are home to a casual restaurant featuring campfire-style cooking.
Try: Park Maple Rye, which features 100-per-cent Alberta rye whisky combined with maple syrup from Quebec.
Brad Smylie’s great-grandmother made moonshine a couple of generations ago. Now Smylie and his wife Lindsay are (legally) making vodka, gin and rye at Raw Distillery in Canmore, Alta., right in the Alberta Rocky Mountains.
Try: The Raw Peppercorn Gin, made with Alberta-grown rye and Tellicherry peppercorns from India.
Credit: Roth & Ramberg
Fourth-generation farmers Ian and Marnie Scott are the owners of Stone Heart Distillery (stoneheartdistillery.com). They make spirits from grain grown on their family’s land near Innisfail, the same Central Alberta land the Scott family has farmed since 1884.
Try: The Stone Heart Berry. Coming later in 2018, it will incorporate locally grown berries for flavour and colour.
Edmonton’s first distillery, Strathcona Spirits claims to be North America’s smallest distillery. No idea if that’s true, but they’re winning awards and giving tours, too.
Try: The Strathcona Spirits Bandland Seaberry Gin, made with wild juniper foraged along the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands, plus tart seaberries grown throughout Edmonton in summer.