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Calgary Distillers are Making a Name for Alberta Spirits

skunkworks distillery calgary moonshine

With its eclectic and cozy cocktail bar, lab beaker tasters, and regular events, Skunkworks Distillery is a fun place to visit. (Photo courtesy of Shannon Duncan)

I used to stick with a gin and tonic when I went for drinks in Calgary, saving other beverage choices for when I left the city. That changed once I started exploring the Calgary distilling scene and tried my hand at mixology. Tasting new products, learning the science behind distilling, and hearing the stories have made me reach for the local (and better) spirit on the liquor-store shelf time and time again.

I’m not the only one who has grown an appreciation for the local distilling scene. Alberta is getting recognized for its spirits, consistently winning North American and European accolades at such competitions as the World Brandy Awards, Canadian Whisky Awards, and even the London World Spirits Competition.

Calgary distillers are just getting started. Most of them don’t date past 2015, when the province removed red tape to make it easier for smaller distillers to emerge. Calgary is a natural choice for distilleries with its proximity to the fresh glacial waters of the Rockies, the grains from the prairies, and the innovation of those who call the city home. Today, Alberta boasts 60 distilleries, and eight are within the city limits of Calgary. While I think Calgary’s spirits are best enjoyed in the distillery, you’ll find local options in liquor stores, restaurants, and even at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the city’s major sports and concert venue. Here are a few of my favourite Calgary distilleries to visit.

Bridgeland Distillery: Bridging Tradition And Innovation

bridgeland distillery calgary

Daniel Plenzik and Jacques Tremblay make award-winning spirits at Calgary’s Bridgeland Distillery. (Photo courtesy of Bridgeland Distillery)

Bridgeland Distillery is nestled just north of the Bow River and focuses on whiskies, brandies, grappas, and more. Daniel Plenzik and Jacques Tremblay are proud to use “the world’s best barley and Alberta’s famous Taber corn” as the basis of all they do. “When our farmers say, ‘I can taste my fields,’ this is what we want to share with the world,” Plenzik told me.

Making the whiskies can be difficult. Not only because of the time it takes (at minimum three years of aging) but also because of provincial labelling restrictions. Although Tremblay and Plenzik use traditional methods, they can’t incorporate the well-known names (think “scotch”) that are tied to different regions to describe them. 

Instead, they’re creating their own takes on traditional favourites. Their latest St. Patrick’s Day release is a single-pot triple-distilled whisky called Innisfail. It’s “all the tradition of Ireland with all the flavour of an Alberta-made whisky, named after a town where our farmers with Irish heritage grow our grains,” Plenzik said. 

Their variety of spirits, almost all aged, makes Bridgeland different. “We only bottle what we enjoy drinking,” he added.

The duo have good taste — their whiskies are delicious. Their latest release, Single Blend Whisky, is my favourite, but I also appreciate the subtle sweetness, floral honey, and bright citrus of their Limoncello. The distillery is the closest one to downtown and features tours, local food, tastings, and cocktails. 

Skunkworks: The Smoothest Moonshine on Any Known Planet

skunkworks moonshine calgary

Skunkworks specializes in moonshine that is smooth and flavourful. (Anika Suurkask photo for Vacay.ca)

A nod to tradition is often the inspiration for Calgary’s distillers. When they can’t find the spirits their family enjoyed on the shelf, they make it themselves.

Such is the case for Faye Warrington and Marty Lastiwka, the friends turned founders of Skunkworks Distillery. They were used to high-quality, smooth moonshine that their family saved for special occasions. When they couldn’t find any on liquor-store shelves, they created their own in one of the smallest distilleries in Alberta. 

“We make all of our spirits out of processed sugar beets from Taber, Alberta,” Warrington told me in an email interview. “Sugar spirits, if cut correctly, are smooth, neutral, and really nice to sip on.”

Skunkworks’ Hypersonic Moonshine is surprisingly smooth for 55% ABV and has a mild, almost fruity sweetness. I’ve tried it both out of the lab pitcher glasses they use for tastings and mixed into cocktails where you would use other spirits. My favourite pre-mixed drink of theirs was the Dark Side of the Moon, a strong cocktail you can serve over ice and soda water. It was a mildly sweet yet complex cocktail reminiscent of a sophisticated rum and coke.

Unlike many other distilleries, Skunkworks only makes one type of spirit. Still, the variety of flavours, from their Hibiscus to their Desert Moon to their Hypersonic, means there’s something for every drinker to enjoy at the eclectic distillery and tasting room in southeast Calgary.

Burwood Distillery: A Taste of Home

“We immigrated [from Bosnia and Croatia] to Canada in 1995, and Calgary has been home ever since,” Ivan Cilic, co-founder of Burwood, told me. “Back home, making beer and wine or distilling moonshine or grappa, everyone does it.”

It’s an act that brings the community together and takes advantage of local produce, he added. When Cilic and his brother, Marko, and Jordan Ramey founded Burwood in 2016, they continued the tradition of using what they had. The honey from their small family farm just east of Calgary became the basis for their whiskies. Using a traditional Croatian recipe, their honey liqueur, or Honey Eau de Vie, was one of their first products.

MORE CALGARY: Food Scene Goes Big

Like many Calgary distilleries, Burwood has diversified to various spirits. For my part, I’ve been a fan of their summer and winter gin party series, which changes with the seasons and their canned hard kombucha and mojitos (and more flavours are to come, Ivan Cilic said). Burwood is also branching out to whiskies and rum. Its latest release is Honey Spiced Rhum.

Their new space at their Veranda restaurant and tasting room offers a gathering place in southwest Calgary. Guests can enjoy tastings, cocktails, tours, gin classes, and award-winning food.

Two Rivers Distillery: Clearly Creative Concoctions

mark freeland two rivers distillery

Craft distiller Mark Freeland uses a pristine still to create vodka, absinthe, gin, and more spirits that have won over Calgarians. (Photo courtesy of Two Rivers Distillery)

“Local small-batch distillers are taking their products to the next level and are representing Alberta proudly,” Mark Freeland said. His Calgary operation, Two Rivers Distillery, makes a variety of spirits that range from internationally recognized gin to absinthe to liqueurs and whisky. “I feel we could become known as a geographic region for whisky,” he noted.

Freeland loves the creativity that distilling encourages. When I talked to him, his eyes lit up as he spoke about sourcing ingredients to make the spirit and then combining it in a cocktail. 

Two Rivers crafts a bit of everything, but it’s probably best known in Calgary for its gin and vibrantly flavoured vodkas. Try the Jalepeño Vodka, which uses real hot peppers from Lethbridge. I’ve used it to make spicy vodka margaritas. The Dill Pickle Vodka is also delicious in a Caesar with a burst of dill, salty, vinegary goodness.

The open-concept, English pub-style tasting room and cocktail bar in southeast Calgary has cocktail flights, tours, and live music. Freeland also shares his distilling and mixology knowledge with cocktail classes.

Cheers to Calgary’s Craft Distillery Choices

What makes Calgary unique, according to the local distillers I spoke to, is the community. “The availability of world-class ingredients makes me proud of having a distillery here, but also the friends we’ve made along the way and our passion for our spirits,” Freeland explained.

Plenzik of Bridgeland echoed that feeling. “There’s something for everyone to experience in Calgary,” he said. “At Bridgeland Distillery, we focus on whisky and brandy. There is Romero that focuses on rum, Skunkworks on moonshine, Two Rivers on vodka and gin; plus Burwood, Confluence, and Starr. The diversity is what makes Calgary so unique in the distillery scene.”

Visit the Distilleries and Tasting Rooms Responsibly

Locations: Skunkworks (4009 4 St SE) and Two Rivers (453 42 Ave SE) are within a five-minute walk of each other (see map below). Burwood (2566 Flanders Ave SW Suite 100) and Bridgeland Distillery (77 Edmonton Trail) are neighbourhood favourites in their respective areas of Calgary.