Spirits of the West: Southern Alberta distilleries Eau Claire and Tippa among those making their mark across the globe

In an industry in its infancy any setback can be catastrophic.

But for southern Alberta’s bourgeoning craft liquor scene, during this current social and health climate, it has also proven to be something of an opportunity.

Walk into any store or restaurant in this part of the world and you’ll likely be greeted by a locally produced hand sanitizer created in one of the many newish distilleries that have popped up over the past half-dozen years.

It’s not only helped them do something positive for those in their community, but also helped them stay alive, allowed them keep doing what they do best, which is create some of the finest craft booze on the planet, and keep helping to build the growing southern Alberta “still life” movement.

It’s a movement that, while a handful of years behind its sister industry, the craft beer market, seems poised to further showcase the delicious, world-calibre work being done by liquor makers for a growing number of discerning drinkers.

From gin producers such as Banff Avenue’s Park Distillery and Cochrane’s Krang Spirits to Calgary’s Confluence gin and vodka makers, local brandy, whisky and grappa providers Bridgeland Distillery, as well the Beltline’s Last Best, Highland Park’s Burwood Distillery Skunkworks, Two Rivers, Broken Spirits and award-winning rum and sugarcane spirits producers Romero Distilling — the wild west is only getting wilder, woolier and whistle-wettinger.

This part of the province’s still-young elder statesman of spirits is Turner Valley’s Eau Claire Distillery — Alberta’s first craft distillery (there are now around 30), which is six years into making some of the finest gin, whisky, vodka and premixed craft cocktails you’ll imbibe.

One of those leading their drink direction is Winnipeg-born, Scotland-raised master distiller Caitlin Quinn — one of three employed by Eau Claire — who’s been with them for the past half-decade and has seen them steadily grow in the market. Even now.

“Surprisingly we’ve been almost busier,” says Quinn. “People are still drinking — no one has stopped drinking during COVID. It was just that our focus changed. We weren’t producing as much but we were packaging way more. So there was a lot of product going out the door … 

“We were putting a lot of product into bottles and cans for releases. We released three new products over the summer.”

The distillery, having made its name with its signature Parlour Gin as well as its small batch single malts — they’re just gearing up for the launch of Batch 4 of the latter as well as their annual Christmas gin — has also firmly planted itself in other parts of the year-round booze market with the province’s first craft canned cocktails (a summer boon, especially from their 2020-launched, thirst-quenching Spruce Berry Smash) as well as the new, just released Rupert’s Whisky.

“We’re very comfortable with what we’re doing now,” says Quinn, one of about 30 employees at Eau Claire which continues to expand in Turner Valley. “We know what we’re doing and we can adapt to different climates fairly easily — we have the ability to do that.”

Despite having been trained in a part of the world where the spirit-making industry is firmly entrenched in the culture and so well established as to be the standard, the distiller says in this part of the world the industry, while, again, in its infancy, has something of an advantage due to the quality and abundance of the natural ingredients needed to make the spirits.

“I think so,” she says. “We do everything from Alberta barley, so having access to such an abundance of barley in this area of the world — it’s the perfect climate for growing barley as well …

“For here, what we’re doing, especially for the single malt, it makes a big difference.

She continues. “It easier when you have the quality starting ingredients; it’s harder when you’re starting with lesser quality ingredients and try and make it taste good. It almost makes our job easy when we start with good barley and good water.”

On the entirely opposite end of the southern Alberta distillery spectrum from Eau Claire is one-man Okotoks operation Tippa’s, which is also known for its quality gin — most notably the spectacular Lovebird Gin, which is available in over 140 liquor stores across the province as well as through his webstore

Owner, distiller and sole employee Paul Poutanen left the tech startup industry with a pair of engineering degrees and love for the juniper juice.

“I’m the smallest distiller in the world,” Poutanen says and laughs, also noting he’s probably the only one in this province without a tasting room in his production facility.

“I got to a certain age and I just didn’t want to get involved with another startup with a bunch of people and raise money, investments and work the room …

“So I saw … other local distillers and thought, ‘You know, I can do this myself. I can do the technical part, I’ve done sales, I’ve done marketing …’ And just went forward.

“When I tell people I’m a one-man shop distillery, they say, ‘You do all that stuff yourself?’ And it’s true, when you’re doing a still run there’s time for labelling or filling up bottles or whatever.”

And keeping an incredibly tight ship has also allowed him to grow, adapt and, yes, weather the current storm.

“Right now I’m looking like a genius,” he says.

Since starting up, Poutanen has also added to his alcohol repertoire the Tippa’s Wood Duck Oaked Gin and the ridiculously good sipping Magpie Rum, which is only available online right now (he also did a limited edition run of a small-batch gin to help local swing and jazz band The Dino Martinis celebrate their 25th anniversary).

He also, as was mentioned earlier, began producing Alberta Bullet Hand Sanitizer when things took a turn earlier this year.

Now, he’s expanding even further, coming up with a new line of exquisite handcrafted Alchemist Vinegars, that incorporate gin, rum, vodka and apple cider — available now only online — and which should help him overcome any other hurdle that 2020 wants to put in the industry’s way.

But, again, his money-maker and one true love is, well, Tippa’s Lovebird Gin, which he would and has put up against any other on the market — here or anywhere else in the liquor-drinking world. 

“I truly believe there is no smoother gin out there,” Poutanen says. “I’ve gone to liquor stores and managers and said, ‘Look, if you have a smoother gin in your stock and you show me that and I try it and it is smoother, I will buy your entire stock out.’

“No one has called me on that yet.”

In fact, he, like Eau Claire, has also won awards and accolades for it, and thinks that it can stand on it’s own — as a local product, but one deserving of international attention, one that can help southern Alberta’s reputation as a quality craft liquor producer only grow.

“People are starting to realize that Alberta can make really good alcohol now,” says Eau Claire’s Quinn. “We’ve won all sorts of different international awards from Europe, the States and even here in Canada with whisky awards. 

“We’re on the map now and people are aware that if you want a good whisky or a good beer you can come to Alberta and you’ll find it.”

(Eau Claire photos: Zoltan Varadi.)