Saskatchewan microdistilleries focus on homegrown recipes for spirits

Co-founders Meredith, left, and Colin Schmidt stand in the store at Last Mountain Distillery in Lumsden, Sask., on Oct. 23, 2019. Michael Bell / The Canadian Press

The grains grown in Saskatchewan’s fertile farmland have become the not-so-secret ingredient behind some one-of-a-kind vodka, gin and whisky.

In recent years, microdistilling in the province has boomed. In the last nine years, 15 microdistilleries have opened. They produced nearly 501,000 litres of spirits last year, says the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority.

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Production so far this year has increased by just over 75 per cent.

Meredith Schmidt, co-founder of Last Mountain Distillery in Lumsden, remembers a time when that wasn’t the case.

She and her husband, Colin, founded their business in 2010 after moving to Saskatchewan from the United States, where they knew a man who opened one of that country’s first microdistilleries.

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She said the couple saw a gap in the market for Saskatchewan-made spirits.

“It was kind of a leap of faith, honestly,” she said.

“We’re in the heart of grain country. So many great things could be made here.”

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They started by producing spirits out of their garage. About 1 1/2 years later they moved to their current location, about a half-hour drive from Regina in the Qu’Appelle Valley.

Schmidt said they work with different producers to supply ingredients such as locally grown malted barley to create a single-malt whisky or wheat to concoct a wheat whisky. They also use dill from seeds sown at a nearby garden to make their most popular product: dill-pickle vodka.

“Our dill-pickle vodka recipe is literally Colin’s grandmother’s pickle recipe, but made with vodka instead of salt and vinegar,” Schmidt said. “The products that resonate with people the most are usually the best sellers.”

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That’s also true of their apple-pie moonshine and sweet Saskatoon-berry vodka, she said. And, as if the flavours didn’t say “Saskatchewan” enough, some of Last Mountain’s booze is sold in glass bottles shaped like grain elevators.

John Cote said he and his wife were a typical Saskatchewan farm couple before they sold their property and bought about 32 hectares of land on the outskirts of Saskatoon.

It took them five years before they opened Black Fox Farm and Distillery in 2015. Initially, he said, they thought of starting a fruit winery, but felt their experience growing grain made them better suited for a livelihood in craft spirits.

“We proceeded to show people that we could make the best gin and the best whisky in the world from Saskatchewan,” he said.

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Almost all of their ingredients are grown on-site, which he believes is their secret to success.

“We want to show that is Saskatchewan.”

In 2017, the former grain farmers won best cask gin at the World Gin Awards in London for their barrel-aged oaked version.

About 30 per cent of their product is shipped internationally, he said. Their Saskatchewan-made gins are sold throughout the European Union and in China.

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“When we’re marketing, we really market that it’s our agricultural expertise on the prairies that drives the difference,” Cote said.

“In any business, you should always play to your strengths. Well, our strengths are, in Saskatchewan, we can really grow cool stuff.”

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