Alberta’s recent tax hike on imported and out-of-province beers, while an unfortunate hit to the sales of small out-of-province breweries, also prompted at least one unintended positive outcome: the advent of new craft spirits.
“Because of the loss in volume in Alberta—we were going to have a big upgrade to the plant, we were going to put in some new fermentation tanks and that, but we’ve cancelled that; it stopped a huge renovation at the brewery,” Dave Gardner says.
Gardner is referring to Yukon Brewing, a craft brewery in Whitehorse for which he’s a sales person and partner. Yukon Brewing certainly wasn’t the only small Canadian brewery negatively impacted under a law that was intended to boost Alberta’s local craft-beer industry (“We live in a foreign country,” Gardner quips), but luckily for him, the brewery team had already been at work on a second project: Two Brewers Whisky.
Back in 2009, Yukon Brewing’s owners, Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen, bought a small, 400-litre still (rather than the waterfront property in Chile they had initially joked about buying). Hansen, a chemical engineer, began experimenting with various spirits and they’ve since come out with a few small runs of a few different items, from beer schnapps to gin.
“The beer paid for everything,” Gardner says. “If it wasn’t for the beer, we wouldn’t have been in the same boat. … We have these 500mL bell-shaped bottles. We call them concepts. We tell people they’re an idea in a bottle, just kind of having some fun with the still.”
While the Yukon Brewing team was playing around with those small-batch spirits—which Alberta didn’t get, unfortunately—they were working on the main prize: single malt whisky. Alberta is getting some of that; the first batch of 1600 bottles just recently arrived.
It’s often called a natural progression, when a brewery transitions from brewing beer to distilling whisky. After all, whisky essentially starts with beer—a fermented mash of barley that’s distilled into a base spirit, which is then aged in oak for a certain numbers of years before being bottled and sold. (The legal minimum in Canada is three years, but many producers hold it for longer.)
Gardner notes that the reception for Yukon Brewing’s whisky has already been very positive, and that having a craft single malt whisky for sale has gotten the company into places that it didn’t have relationships with previously. Canada’s craft-beer market is far from saturated, but there’s also far more options available than there are in our craft-spirits industry. Combined with that tax change on out-of-province beers, Yukon may be the first in a sea change of breweries seeking to diversify their portfolio—or just play around with something new.
“We’re scheduled to have a peated whisky come out in July,” Gardner says. “That’s the top right now. Then there may be another one coming in November. … Everything that we’ve put away starting in 2009, 2010 is all starting to come of age. … We’ll take some of the whisky out of the early batches and make it into a whisky for sale, and some of that liquid will be kept behind, aging it further. … In theory, we’ll have 10-year-old, 15-year-old [whisky], somewhere down the road.” V
recipe c/o Tarquin Melnyk, justcocktails.org
2 oz Two Brewers single malt whisky
1 oz Odd Society bittersweet vermouth
2 dashes Ms Better’s orange bitters
2 dashes Ms Better’s chocolate bitters
Add spirits to a mixing glass filled with ice and stir, then strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with brandied cherries and an orange peel.