It takes a village to distil high-quality spirits. Just ask Rob Gugin.
“We rely a lot on our neighbours,” said the owner of Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery in Lacombe.
“This area of the world is famous for its malt barley, and our neighbours in Alix at the Rahr Malting plant make some of the best malt the world over. We wanted to do something that captures that.”
Old Prairie Sentinel — named for the grain elevators that once dotted the landscape — has been sourcing as many local ingredients as it can for its line of spirits since it opened in January of last year.
“When the economy started to tank, I think everybody really opened their eyes to how fragile things are. There’s a real need for people to watch out for each other,” said Gugin. “If you can pay a couple of bucks more to support the local guy, it just makes sense.”
But even more than that — locally sourced ingredients just taste better.
“The extra couple of bucks you pay for something that’s local is usually paying for better quality,” he said. “There’s a level of quality that’s attached to craft, and that’s from the quality of the ingredients. We really feel that you can taste the difference in the product.”
But Gugin doesn’t just use local malted barley in his vodka and gins. As much as possible, the other ingredients and botanicals are locally sourced as well. The peppers and garlic in his pickled pepper vodka along with the saskatoon berries in his Prairie Berry gin are mostly grown in central Alberta.
“Our neighbours help us and we help them. It’s a great little ecosystem that we’ve created.”
And his customers are responding to that.
“It’s a growing trend,” he said. “Going into this, we didn’t really know how this would catch on. But there is definitely a lot of buzz about it, and it continues to grow.
“It’s really gaining popularity and momentum, and we’re happy about that.”
As demand for local spirits grows and new distilleries open to meet that demand — there are upwards of 20 craft distilleries across Alberta today — the connection between the farmers who grow the ingredients and the distillers who use them will become even more important, said Gugin.
“We want to use local ingredients because it helps us make the best products, and including farmers in what we’re doing just makes sense,” said Gugin, who distributes across Alberta.
“If we were to import a lesser barley and try to sell it for a lower price, I don’t think it would fly as a business model.”
In the past, Gugin has partnered with craft maltsters such as Red Shed Malting in Penhold to produce smaller runs of experimental spirits, and he’s hoping to do more of that by working directly with local producers who are growing “something special.”
“If there’s a way we can get some locally sourced barley from some local producers, we would love to malt it ourselves and make something on a smaller scale,” said Gugin, who invites farmers to “come knock on the door” if they’re interested in working together.
“We’re all here in Alberta where we have a premium raw ingredient. Let’s turn it into premium spirits.”