Who doesn't like the sight of shiny copper vessels rising up to the ceiling with the promise of a pure, distilled spirit floating in the air like a genie that has escaped from its bottle? Distilleries have always held a fascination for me and Alberta's first craft establishment, Eau Claire Distillery, is no exception.
Adding to its magic is Eau Claire Distillery's location in a former 1920s movie theatre in the historical town of Turner Valley, about 60km southwest of Calgary, within sight of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Established in 2014 by David Farran, craft beer executive, diplomat and businessman and Larry Kerwin, master brewer and distiller, the Distillery is ideally placed to source its main ingredients locally according to strict criteria relating to grain variety and quality.
Tours and tastings of the Distillery's premium gin, vodka and seasonal spirits provide a fascinating insight into how Eau Claire combines custom-crafted modern distilling equipment and technology with traditional knowledge to produce spirits that have their own unique flavour and character.
We visited one late Friday morning and were welcomed into the large tasting room by the friendly co-founder David who invited us to look around until the next tour started.
The tasting room at Eau Claire Distillery, Turner Valley, Alberta
A long wooden bar with cast iron tractor seats dominates the room where a large picture window looks into the distillery. Eau Claire's line of spirits are displayed on shelves along one wall and on the bar itself, where a list of libations is displayed, including 'Hell's Half Acre' and 'Flare and Derrick Fizz'.
Four spirits were available when we visited – Three Point Vodka, the award-winning Parlour Gin and the limited edition spirits Spring Equinox and Prickly Pear. Gin Rummy becomes available in October 2015 and Eau Claire's single malt whisky will be ready in December 2017. Their current lines are attractively bottled with labels in keeping with the Distillery's strapline 'Wherever social animals roam', a theme also reflected in the mural on one of the outside walls.
We opted for the CN$10 tour and tasting which started in the tasting room where we were shown some of the artefacts collected for display, including an 1875 crate of Geneva gin from Rotterdam. Our guide was very well-informed and shared some interesting stories about how gin was invented by the Dutch and is defined by the aromatic junipers added to the spirit which were reputedly used to ward off the plague in the 14th century. Inside the distilling room she showed us samples of the barley and other components used in the production of gin and vodka and explained the distillation process from start to finish.
As an artisanal distillery only about 140 cases are produced in any one batch and the spirit is bottled by hand. We were also shown the barrel ageing room where Eau Claire's single malt whisky is aged in temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions.
Back in the tasting room we enjoyed a taste of each of the Distillery's spirits under the informed guidance of another Eau Claire staff member and made our selection to take home with us. One 750ml bottle of gin or vodka costs about CN$48.
If you fancy a tasting only without the tour it costs CN$6.50 or you can try one of the recommended cocktails for about the same price accompanied by mixed nuts or chips with a dip.
Make sure you check the website for opening times. When we visited in September, tours and tastings were available Wednesdays to Sundays only.
Eau Claire Distillery is a 45minute drive from downtown Calgary via Highway 22X.