Often, when people mention changes the provincial government has made, it’s by way of a complaint in that it didn’t agree with said people.
For others, and this is certainly the case with Banff’s Matt Widmer and Canmorite Keith Robinson, a change in provincial government policy ignited a spark of an idea that eventually caught fire and led to creation of Wild Life Distillery.
After a couple of years of blood, sweat and tears poured into major renovations to their distillery location in Bow Meadows Crescent, copious amounts of education, travel and, most recently, work on finalizing a final recipe for the operation’s inaugural vodka, Wild Life officially opens on Friday (Jan. 6).
For Widmer, who was managing Banff’s Ticino Restaurant, owned by his parents, and Robinson, who had been working in the north in the oilfield, it was a 2014 removal of minimum production requirements that opened the door for their present project.
“That really opened the door for small businesses,” said Widmer. “That was the big change, I never figured it would happen.”
Being involved in the food and beverage business, of course, Widmer had a particular interest in all things shippable and took a distilling course in Chicago in 2011 – “to understand why the industry was the way it was.
“The funny thing was, who was I? I was just a young punk who asks questions.”
Among those questions, and it was an important one, was the one Widmer put to Robinson while on a camping trip in Kananaskis Country – one to gauge his interest in partnering in a distillery operation.
Since a handshake agreement between the two, they’ve spent time at a whisky school in Scotland, visited distilleries to see what was involved, infrastructure-wise, shopped in Europe for some of the basics, such as copper stills and renovated a former 1,600-square-foot gym space to make it usable as a distillery.
“We think the market’s huge,” said Widmer. “There are cocktails bars opening up and there is a lot of interest in small batch craft distilleries, just like craft breweries, where people tour around to visit them and do tastings.”
With all that in mind, the Wild Life Distillery site in Bow Meadows boasts not only a production facility, but also a licensed bar where tastings and special events can be held.
At the heart of the inaugural Wild Life vodka is soft white spring wheat from the Drumheller area and Alberta malted barley, which, along with town water, provides the basics for the startup’s product (which, mid-experimentation, offered a smooth, lightly fruity taste as Batch 001).
Plans are to get the vodka offering well under away, then add gin and a liqueur to the product mix.
With alembic copper pot and fractionating stills purchased in Spain, another still from Holland, a grain mill, a carbon filter which uses burnt coconut husks as filter medium, stainless steel mash tank, 800-litre fermenters, a plumber’s and electrician’s nightmare of tubing and wiring, and a bottling station, Wild Life is ready to offer its product locally by way of batches of 200 750-millilitre bottles. Each batch will be about two weeks in the making.
“There are a few products in the industry that we’re aiming for product-wise; that we want to be as good as,” said Widmer. “In essence, we brew beer, then distill it.”
From milling the wheat and malted barley in-house, to mashing and brewing to turn starch into sugar, filtration and recipe creation, Widmer and Robinson have been putting in long hours ahead of their official opening. They’ve even set up a situation where the spent grains will transports to a livestock producer for feed.
Their work also extended to the bar area where friends and locals have helped create a massive Douglas fir bar top, barnwood finishes, and space for 60 as per the liquor licence.
In future, tours will be available, as will cocktails and product tastings.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to is interested and excited,” said Widmer. “They want to have our product, but of course they want a taste first. We need to show them a good product and hopefully, we’ll then be on our way.”
For more on the distilling operation, visit www.wildlifedistillery.ca.