The Big Rig Craft Distillery Tour
On January 12, 2016, I took a little tour south of Edmonton along the Queen Elizabeth II Highway to the Hamlet of Nisku. The small hamlet, which sits adjacent to Edmonton, is surrounded by what is called The Nisku Business Park. This industrial park contains an important assortment of businesses which provide support to the Oil Industry here in Alberta. What brought me to Nisku was Alberta’s newest craft distillery, The Big Rig Craft Distillery and their Pure Alberta Spirit.
I had been invited by the company President & Head Distiller, Geoff Stewart to come on down for a private tour of the facility, and of course to sample some of their new spirit in their newly opened Big Rig Craft Distillery Tasting Room. When I arrived I was greeted by Geoff and introduced to his team which included his General Manager & Co Distiller, Mike Beile and Blenders, Adam Smith and Joanne Keller.
The Big Rig Craft Distillery opened their doors on October 17, 2015 and they already have an impressive line-up of spirits for sale at their boutique store within the facility. These spirits include their Premium 16x Distilled Vodka and Wildrose Gin; their selections of White Dog Distillate (not whisky for three years yet); and their intriguing Sugar Beet Brum. As well, they are experimenting with an array of flavoured Vodkas some of which are bottled and ready for sale, and others which are in development. The most intriguing of these flavoured spirits was their Garlic Vodka which makes an entirely delicious Big Rig Garlic Caesar Cocktail (recipe coming soon).
During my tour, the team was busy producing both Vodka and Gin, and I was able to see both the equipment and the team in action. The distillery truly is a craft operation, as the entire process from grain to glass is completed in about 2 weeks in a batch-style by the Big Rig Team.
The tour began with a look at some of the grains used to produce the Vodka (Rye and Red Winter Wheat) as well as what will become their whisky (distilled from Rye, Malt Barley, Red Winter Wheat, and Corn). Apparently the distillery sources a good portion of its grain from local farmers (one of which is located a short distance from the Craft Distillery just across the Queen Elizabeth II Highway). This grain is ground using a small utility Grain Mill pictured below:
After it is finely ground, a mid-sized Boiler Pot (shown below) turns the grain into a processed porridge-like slurry which is placed (along with yeast) into their small fermentation tanks. The fermentation is a slow process which lasts for about five days. During this time, yeast added to the slurry converts the sugars in the grains into alcohol. When the fermentation is complete, the fermented wash is turned over to Mighty Morley (the Main Still) and distillation begins.
Mighty Morley (shown below) is a versatile still consisting of a large wash still, two columns, and a condenser. The columns are different sizes and their use is governed by the type of distillate (Vodka or Whisky) and the aim of the distillation process (stripping or finishing). A short 4-plate column is used for stripping and for Whisky production, and a tall 16-plate column is used for Vodka production.
Each batch of fermented wash undergoes two complete cycles of distillation. The wash is first processed by the wash still and the short 4-plate column. After distillation the resulting vapour travels through the condenser where it is cooled back to a liquid state, and then collected for the second distillation cycle. The purpose of this first cycle is to strip away excess water thus increasing the level of alcohol in the fermented wash. The left over material in the wash still contains waste material which cannot be distilled, but it can and is used for cattle feed at near-by dairy farms.
The second distillation cycle is much like the first except that this time Mighty Morley is finishing the rectified spirit. The distillate is again processed by the Wash Still. If, as was the case when I was there, the spirit is destined for Vodka or Gin production, it is this second time processed through the tall 16-plate column where, as the distillate travels up the column, it must be distilled through each of the 16 separate plates in the column before travelling again through the condenser where it is cooled and transformed into high-proof (95 % abv) spirit. During this phase of the process the heads and tails of the distillation are collected and discarded. Only the heart of the distillation is kept.
This high-proof spirit is now ready for filtering, or it may be further processed to produce Wildrose Gin.
If the fermented wash is destined to become Whisky, then during the second distillation cycle it will instead be processed by the short 4-plate column which produces a more flavourful spirit. Interestingly the company produces three styles of whisky distillate: a Corn Distillate, a Malted Barley Distillate, and what they call their 10W-40 Blended Distillate (rye (10%), wheat (40%) and barley (50 %)).
Whether it be Whisky or Vodka, the final spirit must undergo filtration prior to bottling. The spirit is first placed in a holding tank which is seeded with a small amount of charcoal which begins the process of removing undesirable impurities which may remain. This tank has an agitator which moves the charcoal through the spirit aiding the process. The spirit is then additionally filtered two more times through a vertical column charcoal filter.
Once the spirit is filtered, it is ready to be either bottled as Premium Vodka or in the case of Whisky distillate it may be bottled as White Dog Distillate. Prior to bottling the spirit is brought to the desired bottling proof using glacier fed Rocky Mountain water. Bottling and labeling is done by hand. Strict regulations govern the bottling of alcoholic spirits in Canada and each bottle must be filled to within one millilitre of the final volume. If too little spirit is placed in the bottle, then the consumer does not receive their fair share. If too much is placed in the bottle then the government does not receive its fair share of tax revenue (if you believe this share of tax revenue is indeed fair). After the bottles are filled and capped with synthetic corks, each bottle is dipped in hot wax to fully seal the spirit.
Of course, a good portion of the Whisky distillate is destined for aging in once used ex-bourbon barrels (sourced from Heaven Hill). Two styles of oak barrels are used, small 10 gallon barrels, and large 53 gallon barrels. I was told that the public can (if they so desire) buy their own barrel from the distillery and have it filled with their own finished whisky distillate (again purchased from the distillery). The Big Rig Craft Distillery will age the distillate, and then bottle the Whisky when it has reached the desired maturity. (Contact the Big Rig Craft Distillery if this sounds interesting to you.)
I also watched the staff produce their Premium Wildrose Gin. The Gin Still, affectionately called Jelly Bean, produces this gin using the previously distilled Vodka produced on the large 16 copper plate column and an assortment of chosen botanicals. Dry botanicals, which include juniper, lemon peel, cardamom, coriander, rose petals, rose-hips, crab apple and anise star (as well as other secret ingredients perhaps) are placed in a small perforated bag which is set upon a tray within Jelly Bean which is located in a position where the distillation vapours will travel through it before condensing. As the vapour travels through the botanicals, their aromas and flavours are imparted to the final spirit.
It is a sensitive process impacted by many factors not the least of which is the ambient weather conditions, in particular the outdoor barometric air pressure. Constant attention is required to ensure consistent quality and flavour. The final gin distillate is filtered, brought to bottling proof, and bottled in the same way as the Vodka and Whisky distillate.
The Craft Distillery also produces a uniquely Albertan spirit called Sugar Beet Brum. Sugar Beet Brum is produced in much the same way as Whisky using a 2 cycle distillation with Mighty Morley using the short 4 plate column for each cycle. This product is in the experimental phase (although it is available for sale) as the team is testing various ratios of unrefined (brown) Sugar Beet Sugar and Cane Molasses to determine an optimal flavour profile.
When the tour was over, I was invited to the Big Rig Craft Distillery Tasting Room. My good friend Jeremiah was with me on the tour, and we were each given small samples of each of the Craft Distillery’s main spirits to try. Then we were each presented a signature cocktail, the Big Rig Garlic Caesar, made with the Craft Distillery’s unique Garlic Flavoured Vodka. Jeremiah, who is an avid aficionado of the Caesar Cocktail, can vouch for just how delicious this signature version of the cocktail is.
I would like to thank Geoff Stewart and his staff for their wonderful hospitality. I was shown the entire operation from grain to glass and even invited to come back again to participate in the entire process helping them to make a batch of spirit at a time of my choosing in the near future. (I plan to take them up on this generous offer.) I would also like to let my readers know that the tour I was given including the visit to the tasting room is now offered free of charge to any who choose to make an appointment (you must of course be eighteen years of age). The Big Rig Craft Distillery wants to spread the word that a new craft distillery has opened in Alberta, and they are proud of their growing line-up of premium spirits.
Note: I will be reviewing few of these spirits in the weeks to come.