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OKOTOKIAN: Making Spirits Bright

“We’ve built so much on the history of this area. Turner Valley goes back to the early beginnings of Alberta oil in 1914. It just seemed like a neat place to recreate some of that history.”

Alberta’s first craft distillery has come a long way in six years.

Despite a sluggish recession and crippling pandemic for many, Eau Claire Distillery owner David Farran is as enthusiastic as ever about expanding his burgeoning business beyond a tasting room and distillery.

In possession of 10 acres of land along Sunset Boulevard west of Turner Valley’s four-way stop, Farran is on his way to creating a sought-after destination for weddings, corporate parties and tours while, at the same time, continuing to create award-winning products.

Before the onslaught of COVID-19, Eau Claire Distillery’s 35 staff members were serving 15,000 visitors a year in the 60-seat tasting room.

“We were getting lots of visitors from all over the world,” said Farran. “Of course this year we get lots of Calgarians and Edmontonians replacing that. Our weekends are very busy with locals and Calgarians coming out – it’s as busy as it’s ever been – but during the week isn’t busy because we’re not getting those international visitors.”

Farran crafted a plan to meet the demand of his growing business by purchasing land to the south and west of the tasting room and distillery with the intention of growing barley on two acres of land for farming demonstrations, using oxen and Percheron horses.

Other potential uses for the land are a paddock for the horses and oxen, a temporary structure and patio for events and producer suppers, packaging hall, barrel warehouse, restaurant, farmers’ market, gift shop and visitors’ centre.

Last year, Farran added a botanical garden with saskatoon bushes, elderberry bushes, apple trees, coriander and junipers – many of which are used in his products.

In September, Farran purchased Cougars Sports Bar and Grill – Turner Valley’s former bowling alley - with plans to renovate the building to serve both food and drinks to customers as an enhancement to the existing tasting room.

In August, the distillery privately unveiled its Alberta Temperance and Moral Reform League, a 1920s speakeasy-themed facility for special events and parties with the capacity to hold 150 people.

The unique facility, with its secret entrance, back-lit screens and historic videos, is one of Turner Valley’s best kept secret and Farran’s latest pride and joy.

The century-old-styled room, with its elegant balcony accessible via a spiral staircase, brings patrons back to the days of prohibition and flapper dresses.

What is now a popular destination in Turner Valley was a mere idea years ago.

As one of the first employees of Big Rock Brewery in Calgary in the 1980s and later the vice-president, bringing quality beverages to the table seemed to be in Farran’s blood.

“I was very keen on the idea that we should have a single malt distillery in the province,” he said. “About 80 per cent of the whiskies that are made in Scotland are made with Alberta barley. I thought to myself, if that’s the case why are we not making it here in the province?”

Over the years, Farran has been among the team of Albertans and British Columbians to demonstrate farming techniques at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, harvesting a barley crop using Percheron horses each autumn a few minutes south of Longview.

“I remember the conversations when we were sitting around drinking whisky,” recalls Farran. “We were like, what are we going to do with this stuff? Why don’t we distill it?”

Farran called up his old buddy Larry Kerwin, former master distiller and brewer at Big Rock Brewery, with his idea.

“He said, I don’t think I will be around for the 25th anniversary, but I’m in,” Farran recalls. “He was instrumental in getting us going. He’s since retired, but he’s still active and standing ready if we have any questions or challenges.”

When it came to choosing a location for the craft distillery, the Millarville-raised businessman selected Turner Valley for its rich history and picturesque setting.

“I wanted to have it in a place that I connected with and that our product was grown,” Farran said. “We’ve built so much on the history of this area. Turner Valley goes back to the early beginnings of Alberta oil in 1914. It just seemed like a neat place to recreate some of that history.”

The property contains Alberta’s two oldest operating wells that were drilled in the 1920s, said Farran. The wells have since been abandoned by Crescent Point and the land remediated.

The tasting room was built on the site of Turner Valley’s old brothel while the building housing Eau Claire’s distillery was once the town’s movie theatre, built in 1923.

Although the slanted floor has been replaced, the original rafters are still visible and the decades-old projector is on display high above the action.

To get the distillery operating, Farran purchased state-of-the-art equipment from Germany and his team got to work creating what were to become some of the best whiskies, vodkas and gins in North America.

“Who knew that idle conversation would start this,” he said. “Many of those people still participate in our harvest and now everybody feels they’ve got a reason to do it, and they get a bottle out of it.”

Barley used for the award-winning beverages is farmed at the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site, as well as on land near Langdon and west of Turner Valley.

These crops have churned out some noteworthy products, including Eau Claire Distillery’s Parlour Gin - ranked top three in the world year after year in the San Francisco Spirits Competition. The gin has also won numerous SIP Awards and spirits competitions in Canada, the United States, Berlin and London.

“Our gin has been hugely popular,” Farran said.

Eau Claire’s Prickly Pear EquineOx, a vodka beverage enhanced with prickly bear cactus, has also won several spirits competitions in Canada, the United States and Berlin, as well as SIP Awards and Alberta Beverage Awards.

Eau Claire’s Single Malt Whisky is another regular winner, from SIP Awards to the World Whiskies Awards.

“Our Single Malt Whisky got Canadian Whisky Distillery of the year, we’ve won in New York for our whisky in 2019 and we also won an award in London, England in 2019,” said Farran.

Some other popular products include Eau Claire’s Christmas gin, made with frankincense and myrrh, saskatoon honey gin and Three Point Vodka, named after Three Point Creek – a tributary of the Sheep River that runs through Farran’s land northwest of Turner Valley - and winner of the Alberta Beverage Awards.

“For every one of these products we’re constantly winning SIP Awards – blind tastings by consumers in the United States - which is always nice when it’s endorsed by people who actually drink it,” he said.

Also worth celebrating this year is Eau Claire Distillery reaching its goal of being able to produce and sell its whisky products, said Farran.

“It takes six years to get to the point where you’ve got enough whisky to sell and we’re just at that pivotal point,” he said. “For the last three years we have been producing limited quantities of our Single Malt Whisky, which has been selling out as soon as we’re producing it. It’s been so exciting for us to finally get to that point.

Eau Claire’s products are shipped to 650 locations across Alberta and the United States.

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