It was one of those rare moments in life when you regret not carrying a straw. We were in Calgary on a nose-to-tail tour of Alberta Distillers when suddenly a guy in grey coveralls and industrial-strength gloves was violently drilling out an oak barrel's bung hole. Jamming a metal tube with what looked like a bull's perforated nose ring into the hole, he let the barrel roll down a conveyor. "It draws air in," he said, reading my mind, as high-proof WhistlePig rye quietly gurgled into a trough below. Alberta Distillers is the last Canadian distillery to dump barrels the old way.
A proper upbringing (and lack of a straw) kept me, from dropping to my knees like a dust-parched cowpoke at a cool stream, and scooping whisky into my mouth. The angels had already taken theirs; in Alberta, this would be the cowboy's share.
Everything Alberta oil tycoon Frank McMahon touched turned to gold. When he dug a mine, he found diamonds. When he bought land, it gushed oil. If he tripped and fell, you could bet he would find a dollar. So of course, when in 1946 he and rancher Max Bell opened a distillery in Calgary, Alberta, the finest rye grain on the planet grew just steps away.
McMahon thought local and bought local decades before it became hip. His Midas touch wasn't luck, but smart business sense such as hiring George Henry Reifel, the son of famed distilling mogul George Reifel to operate the distillery. Within six years Rock Mount 100% Rye Canadian Whisky was walking out of liquor stores by the case.
Alberta Whisky Fashionistas
By 1969, National Distillers in the US was sourcing Alberta Distiller's rye whisky for their Windsor Supreme brand. It was such a hit that National bought Alberta Distillers to secure supplies. Beam Inc. noticed. In 1987 they, in turn, bought the distillery and its brands bringing them to new markets through Beam's global distribution channels. Today, 80 per cent of production is shipped out in bulk to over 80 customers from South Africa to Korea.
Production Superintendent, Rick Murphy and Plant General Manager, Graham Kendall had decked us out in safety glasses, helmets and steel toed shoes. Beam's Kim Gillespie was equally distillery haute couture in special steel toes that accented her swanky shawl. Davin and me? We still looked like dweebs.
And like two giddy dweebs on the last day of school, we scampered across every square inch of the distillery: Three massive mash cookers resembling Armageddon escape pods nestled on polished hard wood floors; fresh rye mash flowed to brimming into one of 18 fermentation vessels. In others, pools of fermenting mash bubbled away, releasing glorious cereal aromas. Column stills soared skyward like NASA rockets while the largest stainless steel pot still in Canada pushed out 84,000 litres of spirit a day. Over half a million barrels slumbered in pallet and rack barrelhouses as gargantuan overhead fans ensured even maturation. We were in our glory.
And then someone handed Davin an old-school bit and brace - not because he's too old to operate the new-fangled electronic kind, but because with all this whisky around, an electric drill spark could blow us to smithereens. Davin struggled with the ancient tool. "The barrel is fossilising." I smirked, as he tapped slowly into a barrel of 23 Years Old rye. We filled two glasses with cask strength rye, someone drove a wooden plug into the hole and we headed back to the lab where the entire Alberta Premium line-up awaited us. Comparing it to our coveted samples, we reflected gratefully on McMahon's success and savoured every 23 Years Old drop of that whisky.
A Horse Walks into a Bar
Frank McMahon's investment acumen included a quarter of a million dollar thoroughbred racehorse named Majestic Prince. When Prince won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, McMahon sold him for $1.8 million and the old stallion got busy siring 33 stakes winners. Majestic Prince is still a legend in Canada where distillery owner, Beam Suntory honours his memory with Alberta Premium Dark Horse rye whisky. It has grabbed Canada's cocktail scene by the reins.
Celebrating our day at the distillery, local drinking culture expert, Peter-Paul Van Besouw joined Davin, Kim and me that evening in downtown Calgary at One 18 Empire. There we sipped (what else?) Dark Horse cocktails, called Equus Ferus and Majestic Prince. Suddenly a Wile E. Coyote light bulb went off above Davin's head: Calgary is home to the Caesar cocktail. The normal Caesar is made with vodka, Clamato (tomato juice blended with clam broth), Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, served on ice in a celery-salt-rimmed glass. One 18 Empire makes their Caesar, dubbed 'The Brutus,' with whisky. Davin's featured Canadian Club 100% Rye, mine added smoke with Laphroaig Triple Wood. While the Laphroaig billowed brimstone over the cocktail spices' raging fire, Davin's bold CC Brutus won our enduring competition with its balance. Dang!
Caesars drained, we were off to Buchannan's Whisky Bar and Chop House to meet up with Rick and Graham, and Suntory Whisky Ambassador Johnnie Mundell who was in town for the day. Emboldened by his (rare) win, Davin, was now on a mission. Scrutinizing Buchanan's 340 strong whisky list he settled on The Samurai, a Caesar built around Hibiki Harmony Blended Whisky, horseradish, wasabi garnished with celery and a bacon sword. It's no fluke that McMahon's winning spirit still permeates Calgary's cocktail scene. With a distillery in their own backyards, its bartenders and mixologists have seized the opportunity to craft exceptional local whisky cocktails.
"People move to Calgary because of the oil patch," Peter-Paul explains, "This mix of outsider culture makes Calgary fertile soil for new concepts and flavours. The current era of cocktail culture in Calgary is in a Renaissance; nightclubs are all but dead and people are instead embracing, with vigour, the sensory styles of whisky cocktails and modernist kitchen culture."
The talent pool may be small in Calgary, but like Majestic Prince, the city has sired some serious cocktail thoroughbreds. Out of the gate, Kathryn Koebel at Market charmed us with Dark Horse lemonade made with a dash of peach bitters. At Model Milk, Madelaine MacDonald improvised a flight of Dark Horse cocktails then named them off the cuff after songs on LP records behind the bar. Next door at Pigeonhole, we downed more Dark Horse-inspired cocktails, enough that Davin and Kim tapped out and called it a night. Johnnie took hold of what was left of the evening and we headed back inside to watch bar guy Dave Bain create ever more Dark Horse concoctions.
Breakfast couldn't come soon enough so I could rub it in with early-to-bed Davin. If only I could remember these cocktails' names.
Blair Phillips and Davin de Kergommeaux are travelling across Canada collecting stories for a book about Canada's drinking culture and history.
Alberta Premiums Dark Horse
A stampede of bold flavours. Bourbon vanilla with sweetgrass and floral rye. Dill pickles, sweet and sour berries and a morsel of ginger and sherry.
Canadian Club 100% Rye
A warm versatile rye with traces of spring flowers, rum and cola, vanilla sugars and gun-slinging crackling toasted grains. There's a new sheriff in town.
Hibiki Japanese Harmony
Floral blossoms with a bowl of tropical and orchard fruits, masterfully composed and framed in solid oak. Blended with layers of honey sweet complexity.
Rock Mount 100% Rye
Freshly squeezed rye-berry pulp, with dusty parched tumbleweed and peppery scrub sage. Pre-oil Alberta in a bottle, (wink wink).
Jim Beam Distiller's Masterpiece
Big oak. Big vanilla. Big caramel. Big sherry, baking spices, cherry fruits, brown sugar and nuts… walnuts to be exact. Long peppery finish.