By Keili Bartlett
Something’s brewing in the Canadian Rockies, and it’s not just the bubbling hot springs. Local businesses have tapped into the fresh (and cold!) glacier-fed waterways to produce a more alcoholic type of liquid.
Over centuries of winemaking, brewing beer and distilling liquor across the world, we’ve come to associate certain beverages with their home regions. Think of France’s Champagne (the wine and the province), Ireland’s Guinness and Newfoundland’s iceberg beer (well, iconic in Canada’s East Coast). Each drink reflects the history, lifestyle, landscape and people behind the bottle.
Alberta’s growing trend of micro-brewing and distilling is no different. Since 2013, when the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission removed minimum production requirements, the number of small brewers in the province has quadrupled. Distilleries are following suit.
Meet the people behind the product, and get a taste of what mountain life is all about.
Since Canmore rang in the New Year, two distilleries and the town’s second microbrewery have opened.
Keith Robinson and Matt Widmer, the guys behind Wild Life Distillery, say starting their business boiled down to one thing—curiosity. Raised in Canmore and Banff respectively, their research took these locals to Chicago and Scotland, before touring western Canada and bringing what they learned back home. It paid off—batch one of their vodka sold out in the first two days.
The small scale of their production gives them more control over the outcome of their product, says Widmer. You can taste it in their vodka—its smooth flavour is made for sipping, not shots. Take a tour, then try one of their five cocktails at the in-house bar. Gin has recently earned a place on their shelves.
Although Canmore Brewing Co. owners Brian Dunn and Marc Gagne aren’t locals, their beer is. The two long-time friends hail from the East Coast, but wanted to represent the community that exposed them to the Rockies lifestyle. Each of their five brews is named after a landmark that tells an aspect of the town’s history on its label—talk about a message in a bottle (or a can)! Visit them at their Railway Avenue location and fill a growler with their IPA of the same name.
RAW Distillery is the latest to join the batch in Canmore. Husband and wife duo, Brad and Lindsay Smylie, have adopted seasonal releases for their spirits that include vodka, rye and gin (rum and whiskey are a few years away). After 12 years of homebrewing (and awards to show for it), the Smylies attribute the consistency of their high-precision flavoured gins (like citrus and peppercorn) to their small-scale production. See their equipment in Canmore Brewing Co—the two companies share facilities.
Spirits of the West
Based on Banff Avenue, Park Distillery is named, naturally, after the country’s first national park. Their campfire-inspired food is only one reason to visit—classic and flavour-infused vodkas, rye and gin inspired by the Rockies’ pure elements are others. Housed in the middle of the restaurant, the impressive two-storey distillery can be seen from almost any seat. Learn about their handmade process (they hand-mill, hand-mash and hand-distill) on a free daily tour. But try to book ahead—reservations are recommended for both tables and tours. Tip: Order their Caesar, which is spiked with chili-infused vodka to give it heat.
The Buzz on Local Brews
Down the street from Park Distillery sits Banff Ave. Brewing Co.. Its sister brewery is Jasper Brewing Co., the first brewery in Canada’s national parks established in 2005 by a trio of Jasper locals. Since then they have opened in Banff, Fort McMurray and Calgary, each with made-on-site brews unique to their homes. Jasper manager Justin Melnyk samples his own beer as well as other Canadian Rockies brews. “It makes everyone step their game up, which makes for better beer,” he says.
It’s safe to say the Canadian Rockies brewing and distilling industry has changed and grown since The Grizzly Paw opened as a brewpub 21 years ago, making only enough beer to keep their own taps flowing. A year later in 1997, they expanded to become the region’s first microbrewery and in 2013 a bigger brewery opened to satisfy increasing demand for Grizzly Paw beer. The new facility’s peaked shape is an ode to the mountains, while their beer labels feature local animals. They brew and age award-winning beer (try the Powderhound Blonde!), as well as a colourful collection of cane sugar brewed sodas.
Despite the increasing variety of local alcohol available in the Canadian Rockies, Canmore Brewing Co.’s Brian Dunn says that the scene is not as competitive as it is supportive and even collaborative. “We borrowed ingredients from four different local breweries to make our first beer on time,” he says. In turn, their brewery has passed advice on the brewing process to a new crop of wannabe brewers.
Veteran brewers and distillers agree that their growing industry creates business and pleasure for the small communities nestled in the mountains. “Everyone thinks it’s great,” says The Grizzly Paw’s Kristina Cardinale. More microbreweries and distilleries only attract more interest to craft products; each new outlet adds something entirely their own to the mix.
So raise your glass and drink like a local. Cheers!
>> For more Canadian Rockies activities, shops, restaurants and entertainment, read our digital magazine.