A few things about Turner Valley, if you haven’t had the pleasure. You can find it thirty minutes southwest of Calgary, right next to Black Diamond, in Alberta’s foothills. If you’re taking the scenic route into the mountains (and you should), it’s on the way to Longview. Once upon a time, the area was oil country—in fact, the original hell’s half acre is nearby, only recently extinguished. You’ll see an old pumpjack driving into town. These days, ranchers rule the roost, thanks to the hills and plentiful rain. The historic Bar-U ranch is just down the road. And now, Turner Valley is home to a new player in the craft movement, Eau Claire Distillery.
There are lots of reasons to launch a craft distillery, but here’s Eau Claire’s rationale: Alberta grows some of the best grain in the world, so why not turn it into whisky?
That reasoning is reminiscent of the thought process that led to the creation of Big Rock Brewery decades ago, so it’s perhaps no surprise that a couple of Eau Claire’s key players are former Big Rock employees. Distiller Larry Kerwin, who’s been at it since the 70s, started at Big Rock in 1994 and stuck around for a decade. And distillery president David Farran, who showed me around the distillery as it was finishing construction, was Big Rock’s very first hire.
When he isn’t founding distilleries (or other businesses), Farran spends his time farming with horses. That’s right, ploughing, seeding, and harvesting with old horse-drawn equipment. In fact, visit the Stampede and you’ll find him running heavy horse demonstrations. Since farm to glass and plate is pretty important ‘round these parts (the restaurant next to Eau Claire, the legendary Chuckwagon Café, is run by a rancher), Farran thought it might be fun to plant and harvest crops of barley and rye using horsepower. Obviously, horse farming can’t supply the distillery’s day-to-day grain needs, but a special edition spirit is in the cards—look for it starting 2017.
Meanwhile, Eau Claire is turning out vodka and gin. They’re operating state-of-the-art German distilling equipment out of Turner Valley’s historic movie theatre. Look up, and you can see black rafters. Towards the back, they’re aging what will become their whisky. They also built a tasting room next door, which will serve as the end of a tour or the beginning of a really great event.
“Craft distilling is technically defined in relation to a distillery’s size,” Farran told me over a glass of their recently-released gin, “but I think it’s about more than that. There’s value in something you make by hand—and you can look out the window and see where it all starts.”
Three Point Vodka
Clear. Warm and sweet aroma, unmistakably barley. Lots of chewy barley on the palate, smooth finish. A vodka for whisky drinkers.
Turner Valley, Alberta — 40% ABV
Clear. Rose hip stands out on the nose, with additional notes of juniper, coriander, citrus, and Saskatoon berry. Dry on the palate with rose hip standing out once more—not because it’s a particularly strong note, but because it’s an unusual one. The Saskatoon berries add something special too.
Turner Valley, Alberta — 40% ABV
Dave Robson is the editor of DailyXY. He spends his time reading books, drinking Scotch, and smoking cigars.