Meet Edmonton’s home-grown craft spirit makers
by Mary Bailey
It took a change in legislation to create an opportunity for home-grown spirit makers (and craft beer). Up until 2013, Alberta’s high minimum production levels made it impossible to be small—craft operations serving a local market were simply not in the cards. When the minimums were abolished, the idea of small-batch, hand-crafted local spirits became a reality.
That change, coupled with the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board (the single trading desk responsible for all Canadian grain sales) allowed the sale of grain directly from farmers. Finally, Alberta had a chance to catch up with craft spirit makers in other, more benevolent jurisdictions, such as British Columbia.
Kris Sustrik and Shayna Hansen, Hansen Distillery
Hansen Distillery and Strathcona Spirits are the newest Edmonton-based entrants on the craft spirit landscape.
Hansen opened before Christmas in a large space in the west end. A businesslike distillery area in the back holds an array of shiny copper and stainless steel equipment and wood barrels. Out front is a bar and social space designed for events. Throughout the space are reminders of their roots—photos, artifacts and Shayna’s grandfather’s 1928 Ford Model A perched in the corner. Their products celebrate the family’s story, how they came to Alberta, and, how they made moonshine. You could say the new distillery is a continuation of the old family business, except now, it’s legal.
“Shayna’s grandparents and father taught me how to distill as a hobby,” says Kris. “I started with sugar shine (essentially, alcohol made from sugar). Once I got used to running a still I started to learn to work with grains.”
“I was a welder. Shayna and I grew our welding company, then sold it in 2014. I took a power engineering ticket; I was going to work for somebody else using my steam ticket.”
The skills Kris learned are the ones needed to run the boiler and process equipment in a distillery.
“Then we thought why not do it ourselves? We always make decisions together, we step off the diving board together,” says Kris.
“I went on to get a master distillers certificate from Prohibition University. In May 2016 we went to the AGLC, then built the shop. We worked for six months straight and started to distill in November.”
Kris walks us through the distillery while explaining the process.
“The mash cooker, a steam-jacketed vessel, is what we use to convert the grain starches to sugar. Most of my equipment came from Craft Distillers in Massachusetts. I wanted to use copper because it removes more sulphites from the spirits.”
This liquid is then put into the still. While we are chatting, Kris is giving instructions to the still man; “push it to 70, then we’ll switch tails.”
As the liquid runs through the distillation column it’s cooled and condensed. The first part of the run is called the heads, which contain all the cogeners, compounds that give flavour; the second part is called the heart, the pure high-strength alcohol. The art of distillation is in the precise amount of head to heart—too much creates a rough, unpleasant spirit, not enough and it could be lacking in flavour. The tails are generally not used by craft distillers. Kris gives his to his father to clean machinery.
“From grain to vodka is a week to 10 days, then it is redistilled which we do through 20 plates on the copper reflux column,” says Kris. “We make gin from the vodka that has been distilled 30 times, then it takes about three weeks to a month to mellow the flavours of the botanicals. We bottle when the gin tastes right.”
Hansen’s buys their grains from Blue Acres Farm, a family member near Stettler. Border Crossing Rye, made from 100 per cent rye grain, is flavourful, spicy and has all the grain notes, with warmth rather than heat on the palate. The End of the Line Moonshine is made from 100 per cent wheat, which gives it some earthy, grainy notes. The Barn Owl Vodka is made from 100 per cent Triticale, a hybrid of wheat and rye, and this gives it a slight sweet finish.
“Overall I’m getting good reviews, lots of people like the vodka and I think the gin gets better every day,” says Kris.
The business is not for the faint of heart, with small margins, competition from deep-pocketed multinational brands and heavy taxes. “Almost half of the price is tax (federal and provincial tax),” says Kris. The couple are optimistic. “We were able to self-finance and plan to be profitable in five years.”
As we leave, Kris stops at a barrel covered in a hand-written scrawl. “This will be our first barrel of Canadian Rye Whiskey,” he says and invites us to sign it. “We plan to open that in three years.”
Hansen’s Distillery is open Monday to Saturday for tours, off sales and cocktails. 17412 111 Avenue, hansendistillery.com.
Adam Smith, Strathcona Spirits
The distillery is in a tiny building off Whyte Avenue, with an equally tiny sign. Inside are stainless steel vessels that Adam picked up at a-going-outbusiness- sale at a central Alberta dairy, then repurposed for fermentation; a small still named Mary, named after his great-grandmother, who was a gypsy tea-reader and a larger copper-bottomed still called Grace, named after Adam’s grandmother, a farmer’s wife from Saskatchewan. Outside in a shed is a jerry-built grinder where Adam grinds the hard red wheat he buys from a farm near the airport, 23 kilometres away. We buy food from much further.
“We make two products right now, Badland Seaberry Gin and Single Grain Wheat Vodka, says Adam. “Our vodka is a light, smooth and round spirit; the gin is a bit more out there. I felt bold about putting it to market. Some of the juniper is foraged from the Badlands, and being wild and freshly picked, is very piney with pronounced flavour. We use wild sea buckhorn berry, which is native to around here. It’s tart and offers a unique balancing effect in the midpalate. We also use bitter orange, sweet orange, coriander, cardamom, cinnamon and angelica botanicals,” says Adam.
“I am a lover of wheat. Not only do we live in the grain belt and it’s part of our cultural heritage, it distills wonderfully.
“Our vodka, while it is highly rectified, coming off the still at 95 per cent alcohol and then carbon filtered, still retains characteristics of the wheat, which is intentional, he says. “It has structure, it has flavour, it has aroma, it’s neutral enough to be used in all kinds of cocktails, but it still expresses the wheat spirit. I’m proud of that.”
How did a former beer and music guy end up as a distiller?
“We were doing an interesting thing, an underground music club. I was also working for a craft brewery at the time. I went to the west coast and saw a nice little distillery on Vancouver Island. I thought ‘it’s amazing what can be done in such a small space.’”
When the minimum production rule was dropped, the possibility of becoming a craft distiller became a reality.
“I toured the west coast visiting about 25 distilleries in California, Oregon and British Columbia, then across North America, visited 15 distilleries in the Ozarks and Mexico. Then I bought a small copper pot still and started practising. I was going to hire a distiller. But, on my travels I met a master distillery in Oregon and we had a few beers that night. He started mentoring me—he’s the guy I call at 2am when some expression of the botanicals is off,” says Adam.
“What we are doing is so new in Alberta, people don’t even know the language around distilling. I talk about a distillery and people ask me what beer I make. To get something like this started with so many unknowns, we really had to depend on the support of friends and the community.
“Taxation is heavy, comprising just under $20 of the cost of each bottle. It seems like we’re just collecting taxes for the government and get to skim a bit off to keep the lights on. For craft distilleries to thrive in Alberta we will need to see a graduated tax system, something like the Alberta craft brewers have, and we are seeing what that has done for that industry in Alberta.
“We want there to be recognition and appreciation of the smaller economies of scale we work with and the jobs we create. The craft beer world calls it ‘jobs per pint.’”
Like craft brewers, the nascent distillers know they are on the cusp of something interesting. They know they are creating an industry that has potential for a positive impact at the community level, creating new jobs, businesses, tourism opportunities, and, let’s not forget about civic pride.
“Gotta love Edmonton,” says Adam. “People have been very supportive. We will be open to the public eventually,” (Adam is shooting for this summer) “so people can poke their heads in on a weekend; something else to do in Strathcona.”
“We’re driving the local economy when you buy a drink from us.” he says.
“We have a tiny team right now, but we’re growing, fast, and we’ll be doing it all right here in Old Strathcona.” strathconaspirits.ca