‘Gin is in’ — spirit’s sales soar here and abroad

Rig Hand owner and distiller Geoff Stewart repeatedly tried and failed to make a gin from fababeans. But the flowers were a much different story.
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Gin was all the rage in the Roaring ’20s — and it seems the cycle is repeating itself a century later.

“Gin is in,” said Matthew Hendriks, distiller at Park Distillery in Banff.

This simple message was put on a billboard between Calgary and Banff, and in front of the distillery itself, which opened in 2015.

“The cool thing about gin is that you’ll never find the same one twice,” said Hendriks.

Gin is brewed using different botanicals selected by the distiller, and the stills can also highlight certain characteristics of the alcohol and draw it out.

“There is no wrong or right way to distil it,” he said.

Gin, which used to be thought of as a woman’s drink, has seen a global growth worldwide, particularly in the cocktail scene.

According to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, sales of gin in the province have grown steadily over the past 10 years — and surged by 11 per cent and 13 per cent in the last two years respectively.

And that’s nothing compared to the U.K., where sales have doubled in the last two years, surpassing the two-billion-pound mark ($3.2 billion) for the first time ever.

The boom here is a local story as the majority of gin sold in the province is produced here, too. There are now 32 licensed distilleries in the province, and many of them make gin products.

But despite all this, total sales are still small, since it accounts for three to four per cent of all alcohol sales.

“One of the first things that most craft distillers make is gin,” said Geoff Stewart, owner of Rig Hand Distillery in Nisku.

In order to make gin, a distiller needs to make vodka first.

“With the rise of craft distilling, you’re seeing the rise of more different types of gin for people to try,” said Stewart. “I don’t know if that’s what’s driving the gin revolution or if it’s a cyclical thing when the Roaring ’20s are coming back again.”

Stewart makes vodka using wheat from a field near Nisku.

“Gin really is vodka that’s been steamed through a tea bag, with the gin ingredients in it. That’s how you infuse the flavour of it.”

A whole category of North American botanical gin has emerged that does not have the strong, pine taste to it that London dry gins have (which are defined by the strong taste of the juniper berry).

Rig Hand Distillery makes four gins: a traditional London dry, a lemon gin, a seasonal fababean flower gin that has a sweet pea flavour, and wild rose (which contains wild rosehips and petals along with cranberries and chamomile).

“It’s very much a local terroir gin,” said Stewart.

Blended gins are more likely to be enjoyed in cocktails, rather than drunk neat, he added.

Because gin (unlike whiskeys) don’t require years of aging, distillers can experiment and play with different flavours.

“That’s really fun for us. It seems like customers nowadays really want to try things that no one else has done before,” he said.

This plays into the movement that has seen the rise of craft beer, craft wine, and meaderies that have, in turn, influenced the food and beverage industry, said Stewart.

“Bartenders are turning into real artisans and craftsmen and using local ingredients as much as possible,” he said. “I don’t know which came first: Did bartenders demand new spirits or did new spirits influence them?”

Park Distillery’s signature gin is the Alpine Dry 9 and the defining botanical is the Engelmann spruce tip, which the distillers pick every year near Canmore. Other botanicals mixed in are juniper, coriander, angelica root, orris root, cinnamon, licorice root, and lemon and orange zest. The gin produced is citrusy, lively and crisp and made for cocktails.

The distillery’s other gin is aged in former bourbon casks for six months, which gives it butterscotch and whisky notes, and a straw-yellow colour. (And the vodka used to make the gin is produced from triticale.)

Even if there’s not a repeat of the Roaring ’20s, gin makers in the province as well as producers of other spirits are coming into their own, said Hendriks

“The craft distilling industry is starting to be recognized in Canada after five to seven years of really giving it.”


About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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