Wednesday, June 13, 2012

LB Distillers: Saskatoon Spirits & Liqueurs

Saskatoon's First Micro Distillery

“I was flying to Europe, and I read an article about micro distilleries,” says Cary Bowman, co-owner of LB Distillers. “I came back and discussed it with Michael Goldney and his wife, Lacey Crocker. They jumped on board, and we started doing research.”

Setting Up Shop
LB Distillers was incorporated in October 2010, and by February 2011 they had found a building. “Finding a building was tough,” explains Michael. “We produce 100% alcohol, so they treat us like an ethanol plant. We would have liked to be located downtown or by the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market, but instead we had to find a building in an industrial area.”

Once the renovations were completed, they applied to the City of Saskatoon for a business license. Once they had the license, they could apply to SLGA for approval to manufacture alcohol. “SLGA was really efficient and helpful,” says Cary. “They hadn’t dealt with this before, so they had to write the policy. There was lots of bantering back and forth.”

Cary, Lacey and Michael hope that whiskey will form the centrepiece of their product lineup. But whiskey requires aging, and the first batch won’t be ready until March 2015. In the meantime, they are bottling gin, vodka and liqueurs.

Gin has an alcohol base that has been distilled over botanicals. LB Distillers has chosen to use far less juniper than is found in a traditional London Dry gin. Instead, they’re following the New Western Dry style that was developed by Aviation Gin in Portland.

Vodka is so finely distilled that it lacks flavour. Instead, distillers focus on developing an ultra-smooth product. “We’re meticulous when it comes to taste,” Lacey explains. “We really want the best of the best, and Mike will allow no compromise. Nothing goes into a bottle until it’s absolutely perfect.”

LB Distillers is developing its own bitters, which Mike describes as the “salt and pepper of a cocktail.” “They’re not intended to change the flavour,” he says, “They bind the flavours together and give them more prominence.”

Michael says that whiskey is far more complex than wine. “So many factors affect the taste,” he says. “The variability is huge.”

They decided to focus on a pure rye whiskey (most whiskey is made from corn). They looked into purchasing the malt from Prairie Malt in Biggar, but Cargill was unable to guarantee that the grain would come from Saskatchewan or even Canada. Instead, they’re purchasing the malt from Alberta where they have a guarantee that it come from Canadian Prairie grain.

The whiskey is aging in Kentucky bourbon barrels. The partners are currently debating whether they wait patiently until 2015 when it will be fully aged or whether they should market some of it as unaged White Dog Whiskey.

In a New York Times article, Robert Simonson says, “White dog, or white whiskey, is, basically, moonshine. It’s newborn whiskey, crystal-clear grain distillate, as yet unkissed by the barrel, the vessel that lends whiskey some or all of its color and much of its flavor. And white dog is currently having its day.” The article goes on to quote Max Watman, who has written a book about white dog whiskey: “It’s obviously a boon to small distilleries,” Mr. Watman said. “If you’re making whiskey, you’ve got to keep the lights on and wait. It helps to be able to sell something right away. But that’s not the end of the story. I think anybody who’s ever toured a distillery and tasted this stuff coming right off the line is surprised at how delicious it is. Everybody says, ‘Wow, you should sell this!’ ”

LB Distillers is producing four liqueurs from organic, local fruit. Following a French technique, they press the whole fruit, add alcohol and sugar, blend it and age it from 4-8 weeks. The trickiest part of the process appears to be straining the fruit, and Cary laughingly says that one of their first upgrades will be a better filtration system.

They deliberately cut down substantially on the sugar, so the liqueurs have a rich, fruit flavour that isn’t masked by the sweetness. My favourites were the Carmine Jewel, with its glorious ripe cherry flavour, and the Seabuckthorn, which was tart and complex.

Mike is particularly proud of the Saskatoon berry liqueur: “They told us that Saskatoon berries didn’t make a good liqueur, but I insisted. We’re from Saskatoon; we have to have a Saskatoon berry liqueur.”

The crème de cassis is still waiting to be bottled and labelled. It’s made from black currants that are grown on Valley Road, just outside of Saskatoon.

Tasting Room and Tours 
From the outside, the distillery is a mundane warehouse. But step inside, and you’re in an elegant tasting room that rivals the best of the BC wineries. Even the work area out back has lovely barn wood siding and two Mexican chandeliers.

The still has pride of place. It’s a German still based on a 100-year-old design. The hand-hammered copper finish is functional as well as decorative as the copper binds with sulphur to produce a lighter-tasting product.

LB Distillers is a hands-on operation. Cary laughingly says that he spends half his time washing bottles and mopping the floor. They can bottle a maximum of four bottles at a time, and the labels are applied by hand.

LB Distillers is planning a grand opening in June or July, but in the meantime just phone (979-7280), email or drop by if you would like a tour or want to make a purchase.

Photo credit: Photo of liqueur bottles by P. McKinlay, all others courtesy of LB Distillers


Shelley Parent said...

Congratulations Lacey & Mike. Wish I would have had more time while in Saskatoon to come and tour your establishment.
Best of time :)

Patricia said...

Love Love Love the Gin!! Haven't tried the vodka yet but am looking forward to it! :)