Story by Jeremy Derksen
CALGARY, ALBERTA — It all began with a big rock and a dream. Three decades since the first green shoots of craft alcohol broke soil in Alberta, a spirits revolution is springing to life. In a province known more for its refineries than its refinement, new craft distilleries and culinary collaborations are taking inspiration from Alberta’s raw, rugged landscape.
But to trace its roots, first we have to go back more than 12,000 years to the last ice age. Long before the first homesteaders settled the foothills of the Alberta Rockies, the receding Athabasca glacier deposited a warehouse-sized boulder — known as the Okotoks Erratic — on the bald plains.
Centuries later, farmers came and grew barley on the surrounding plains. Most of that barley was fed to cattle until 1985, when Ed McNally founded the province’s first craft brewery using Alberta-grown barley as the primary ingredient.
Like the Okotoks Erratic from which it drew its name, Big Rock Brewery was an anomaly on the flat, homogenous landscape of mass-market suds. (The word okatok in Blackfoot means “big rock.”) Big Rock beer soon became a bar and party staple in Calgary, as a new generation of beer drinkers raised mostly on generic lagers began discovering bitters, ale, honey and wheat beer. Today, a brewery tour and tasting with charcuterie pairing at the Big Rock Grill unites Alberta farm, ranch and craft-beer heritage, as the brewery celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2015.
One good brew often leads to another, and the ingredients that shaped Big Rock eventually seeded a new venture. In 2014, two former Big Rock veterans, David Farran and Larry Kerwin, founded Eau Claire Distillery. Their aim was to extract new flavours of alcohol from locally grown grains — from “farm to glass.”
From Calgary, the one-hour drive along the Cowboy Trail — named one of the 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2015 by Vacay.ca — to Eau Claire’s operations in Turner Valley follows a sea of golden grain that laps the towering cliffs of the Canadian Rockies. The Okotoks Erratic is 10 minutes east of town, and an Ed McNally quote is inscribed on the distillery wall, “To make a masterpiece, no compromise can be tolerated.” For Farran, Kerwin and Co., that meant going back to Alberta’s prairie roots at Bar U Ranch National Historic Site.
Just 15 minutes by car south of Turner Valley, Bar U is a preserved heritage ranch where visitors can try their hand at roping cattle, saddling horses, and making (and sampling) traditional bannock and cowboy coffee. The ranch is also equipped for small-scale traditional farming.
With the help of a horse team, Farran and team hand-stooked rye for Eau Claire’s first batch of whiskey. It’s now casked and aging, awaiting a possible 2017 release. Meantime, the distillery’s Three Point Vodka, Parlour Gin, Gin Rummy and Spring Equinox offer a line of rich, distinct flavours that are so easy and intoxicating to quaff straight over ice, it’s best to arrive with a designated driver.
It didn’t take long for Eau Claire’s original flavours to inspire Calgary’s rich food scene. Among the most creative restaurateurs are Charcut‘s John Jackson and Connie DeSousa, whose latest venture — launched in July — is a collaboration between three different signature local food offerings. Their new restaurant, Charbar, shares space with Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters and Sidewalk Citizen Bakery in the Simmons Building — a long-forgotten, red-brick heritage building in the formerly derelict East Village, Calgary’s trendy downtown development.
It’s here that classic prairie flavours are transformed into new culinary incarnations. Taking a signature Eau Claire line of infused spirits, Charbar’s mixologists invent electrifying refreshments that are as revivifying as a dip in the Bow River on a hot day. Paired with a bowl of signature ceviche or a slice of fugazza, a sense of Alberta’s growing refinement settles in. From the restaurant’s rooftop patio there’s a clear view of the glacier-fed river.
Follow that stream upriver to Banff and the journey comes full circle at Park Distillery, the first distillery within a Canadian national park. Also opened in July, Park offers visitors a chance to both imbibe and drink in the pure mountain tastes — the distiller’s version of having your cake and eating it.
These latest Alberta offerings prove the old adage: with age comes refinement. More than 12,000 years in the making, Alberta’s rugged views and raw flavours have been wrought into a fine cocktail through rock, ice, grains, brawn and creative genius. It’s a vintage worth tasting.