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Spirits high in Alberta’s burgeoning distilling industry

Click to play video: 'Alberta Matters: The growth of the distillery business in the province'
Alberta Matters: The growth of the distillery business in the province
WATCH ABOVE: Alberta's distilling industry is a fairly new addition to the booze scene in the province. As Fletcher Kent explains, the first distillery opened just a few years ago in 2014, but now there are dozens. – Jan 30, 2020

This is Part 5 of our Alberta Matters series on alcohol. Click here to read Part 1 on craft beer marketing and tourism, Part 2 on market saturation concerns, Part 3 on inter-provincial trade barriers hampering the growth of craft distilleries and Part 4 on cidery startups growing in Alberta.

Kris Sustrik says he has been waiting for this day for three years. If you talk to him for any length of time, though, it quickly becomes clear the moment has been generations in the making.

“I’m super excited,” he says. “I can’t believe we’ve made it this far. This is a moment of history here.”

In the warehouse at Edmonton’s Hansen Distillery, which he owns with his wife Shayna Hansen, Sustrik climbs into a forklift and hoists a barrel above a stainless steel tank.

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For the last three years, the first rye whisky to be distilled in Edmonton has been aging inside the barrel.

It’s now ready.

“It’s overwhelming. I’m not going to lie. I’m glad I got to share it with my wife. That’s what’s super awesome about this. It’s a family business.”

Hansen pulled the stopper and the couple’s first 200 litres of Northern Eyes whisky started pouring out, finally ready to be bottled and sold.

“It feels like we’ve been doing it forever but then again, it feels like we just started,” says Hansen.

This isn’t just a business for the family — it’s a way of life.

Hansen describes growing up in a moonshining family. Her great-grandparents started distilling more than 85 years ago. The craft kept getting passed down.

“It was something that was kept hush hush and you don’t let it leave the garage or the shed,” says Hansen. However, neither she nor her sister ever really showed any interest in taking up the hobby.

Kris Sustrik and Shayna Hansen Hansen, owners of Hansen Distillery in Edmonton, Alta. Fletcher Kent, Global News

Then Hansen met Sustrik and brought him home to meet the family. Sustrik remembers that night, or at least part of it.

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“The first time I was drinking moonshine — which I didn’t know and I didn’t quite make it to bed — I slept on the living room floor that night.”

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When he awoke the next morning, “they laughed at me and then they took me out back and showed me where they made it. That’s what struck my chord right there.”

Then one night several years later, Sustrik was in the garage with his wife and her family, making moonshine.

Click to play video: 'Mixing up cocktails with Hansen Distillery'
Mixing up cocktails with Hansen Distillery

READ MORE: Small manufacturers struggle to grow in Alberta’s craft alcohol industry

The family talked business. Sustrik and his wife owned a welding company but the contracts were ending. There wasn’t any new work coming from the oil patch. Sustrik says he could see the writing on the wall and was wondering what he should do next. At that moment, he and his wife decided to turn their passion for distilling into a new career.

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They sold their welding company and opened Hansen Distillery.

Not everyone followed the same path as Hansen and Sustrik, but the couple has been joined by many others trying to get into the liquor business.

Click to play video: 'Alberta Matters: Challenges small liquor producers face in the province'
Alberta Matters: Challenges small liquor producers face in the province

With nearly six years as an Alberta distiller, David Farran is the industry’s grizzled veteran. He owns Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley. He’s also the president of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association.

Farran says the industry here remains small but it’s growing. Eau Claire was the first but there are now 37 distilleries in Alberta creating more than 350 different products.

It’s a long way from the 123 craft breweries that emerged in roughly the same time frame but Farran says he’s encouraged with the growing interest in local distilling. He adds it makes a lot of sense.

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READ MORE: ‘Still room’ left in Alberta’s booming brewing and distilling industry: brewery founder

“Probably 80 per cent of the scotch in Scotland is made of Alberta barley,” says Farran. “We just ship the grain out to other places so they can make all the great products. Now we’re doing it ourselves.”

Farran says governments have been largely supportive of the industry but it’s new. It’s not always clear what needs to happen. The industry’s biggest ask centers on market access. Right now it’s hard to get into other provinces.

“We have the ability to take our product, made with great agricultural products and take it to the world stage. But we can’t do that without the support of other provinces,” says Farran.

Time is a challenge, too. It’s expensive to open a distillery. Good whisky takes at least three years to age before it can be sold so people have to make and sell a lot of gin or vodka while they wait for other products to be ready.

Click to play video: 'Analog Brewing  on Edmonton and Alberta’s growing craft beer scene'
Analog Brewing on Edmonton and Alberta’s growing craft beer scene

The biggest industry challenge is consumer attitude.

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A bottle of Northern Eyes whisky will sell for $70. Edmonton liquor stores are selling Crown Royal or Forty Creek Rye for about $30 to $40, so distillery owners know they have to convince buyers that their craft product is worth it.

“We still are a very young industry,” says Farran. “We still have to train our customers.”

Sustrik likes doing just that but notes there’s a lot of training to do.

READ MORE: Capitalizing on Alberta’s craft beer boom: marketing, branding and tourism in 2020

“They (customers) don’t have a clue,” he says, adding he spends a lot of time “teaching how you get the colour in the whisky. All the colour comes from the barrels; teaching them that gin is the world’s first flavoured vodka.

“People don’t know about it yet. We’re educating people about the craft side of stuff. The more education that’s out there, the more I get to talk about spirits, the more they know, the more they want to try.

So one by one, Sustrik and Hansen try creating converts. Through it all, they have one person on their mind — their newborn son.

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When he was born, Sustrik pulled out a pair of barrels once filled with his favourite bourbon. He filled them with his rye. They now sit in the company’s warehouse.

On their son’s 18th birthday, those barrels will be opened. It’s just one of the gifts the parents and business owners hope to pass on.

“That’s my goal,” says Sustrick. “So that he has something to run when he’s 18. That’s my number one goal.

“I want to pass along the tradition one more time so he’ll be a fourth generation moonshiner.”

Shayna Hansen, owner of Hansen Distillery in Edmonton, Alta. Fletcher Kent, Global News

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