As far as any historians can tell – Edmonton, Alberta has never had a legal distillery. The space where Strathcona Spirits stands wasn’t ever meant to be a distillery, either. When owner Adam Smith secured it, he wasn’t a distiller. In fact, he had no idea that he would be involved in such a groundbreaking effort.
The Baby Seal Club
“We’ve had the space for well over 10 years”, relates Smith. “The original purpose for it was a clubhouse jam-space.”
He was walking through the traditionally Bavarian populated working class industrial neighborhood just southeast of Edmonton’s culturally diverse Whyte Avenue hub. He noticed the spectacular location and unique look of the building right away.
There were initially five guys, in on the space. They decided to throw a show to offset set-up costs associated with using it as their bands’ jam pad. “We wanted to buy a couch and a fridge. But it was just so successful from the very first show that we kept booking shows.” Soon, everyone wanted to play there. The parties were really fun, as I can testify, as this is how Adam and I first became acquainted.
“It just took on a life of its own”, says Adam. Baby Seal Club was born. “I just basically curated which bands could come because the line-up never ended.”
Notable acts included bands like Mac DeMarco’s Makeout Videotape and The Wet Secrets
Of the original five that held the space only Adam remains. “We were a very eclectic bunch.” divulges Smith. “One guy went off the deep end into drugs. Another was a comedian and went on tour. One guy went to the oil fields. Another guy moved away.” As one by one they left, Adam picked up their shares in the space. When everyone else was partying, Adam was booking the bands and running the venue. Within a year, the space was entirely his. The Baby Seal Club would go on to host about 125 shows. With that came attention from the city.
Something had to change
As you maybe guessed the Baby Seal Club was more of a speakeasy than anything. “It was never quite legal.” chuckles Smith. “We were always trying to work with the city to make it legal. But the time was coming that we were going to have to make changes to the building that weren’t possible.” The powers that be were saying, “This has to stop.”
The building went silent. Smith felt it was too good to let it go. He sublet it out to the band Shout Out Out Out for a few years, among others.
Adam was on Vancouver Island and visited one of their many craft distilleries. “I had a growing interest in the spirit world, and had worked in craft beer for several years. I saw a little distillery doing a really neat thing in a very small space.” He started to think of the possibilities. Then in 2013, the province of Alberta reduced minimum production capacities for distilleries, making it a legal possibility.
Strathcona Spirits – Edmonton’s first distillery
Smith started to work towards the goal of opening a distillery expecting some huge roadblock. “There were a lot of obstacles on the many-year road to opening Strathcona Spirits. None of them were insurmountable. No one makes stills in Alberta. We had to buy equipment from the southeast corner of Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains. Our three fermentors, large blending tank and other pieces came from a Dairy business called Alpha, purchased by Saputo.”
“I toured distilleries in the U.S. and Mexico, asking for advice all along the way. I was a green thumb to everything.” Adam especially reached out to small distilleries running on small budgets. “The one common thing they told me was, Dairies are a gold-mine. If you see one shutting down, you are in luck.” He got a bunch of gear that would’ve been more costly from the Alpha plant closure. “The timing was perfect.” They wandered in just as Adam was starting fermentation.
This time, Adam’s only partner in Strathcona Spirits is his girlfriend Andrea. “It’s taken years to do because we did everything ourselves.” He gives credit to the extended family of friends who shared their expertise in assorted trades to get everything built.
Badlands Seaberry Gin
It’s a full-flavor gin. Distilled in the London Dry technique, albeit not by flavor profile. They wanted to use as much local botanicals as possible. “We use wild Alberta juniper foraged from the Badlands combined with Italian juniper.” The Alberta juniper has more of a dry bright pine note.
They also use Seaberry. Also known as Sea Buckthorn, it’s a vitamin rich orange berry. They grow all over Alberta, and a lot in Edmonton. A master distiller at a successful Oregon craft distillery has become Adam’s mentor. “He does this for me with the proviso that I pay it forward in the future.” They worked together on the gin recipe. Asian and indigenous cultures have used Seaberry for a millennia for its antioxidant qualities. “First batch. It was very balancing with the other botanicals.”
They played with Blue Willow Bark for the gin but “that just wasn’t happening.” Adam expects a future release will include willow.
Single Grain Wheat Vodka and future releases
The other current release is a full flavor but category true vodka. It’s made from single grain hard red wheat that’s grown 23 km from the distillery and done in a copper-pot.
Near releases include a barrel rested Rye, “potentially spiced”. They’ve just received their barrels and are aging whisky now. They hope to do some sort of schnapps to pay homage to the German Bavarian history of their home neighborhood.
The look of Strathcona Spirits
“We have a spectrum of symbols that form our brand.” says Smith. The building is a big part of the lifeblood of their brand. “The building means something to a lot of people.” The main logo is the outline of the building.
The Hand of the Mysteries
The hand of the mysteries logo on the vodka is Adam’s attempt to capture the magic of alchemy. The symbols above the fingers form the essential elements of distillation. “How something that is just 95% alcohol and water can express so much of a simple grain grown 23 km away from Strathcona Spirits is amazing.”
The process of the artwork evolved many times on its way to completion. In classic jam pad fashion – Adam, Andrea and their friends bounced around ideas for months.
Celestial skies of Starland County
The gin label’s inspired by Starland County, in southern Alberta. It has a celestial feel. Very dark at night being a good distance from any city. It’s a land of hoodoos and dinosaur bones. “It’s an incredible place.” marvels Smith. “We wanted to have that eerie, moody feel on the label.”
The products are good, bearing almost none of the tell-tale signs of a first time distiller. They are excellent for their category. Ready to use in either classic or modern recipes. The look of the products feel connected to the history and culture of both distilling and the fabric of the place from where they come. Tasting Strathcona Spirits allows you to explore the Alberta Badlands – which is one of the best things a terroir driven spirit can offer.
Currently the products are available in more than 60 stores in Edmonton and Calgary. Click this MAP to see where they are available now.