A Still in Saskatoon: LB Distillery

Let’s talk about booze.  

Most people probably have a list of favourite craft breweries in their own cities and across the country—Picaroons and Propeller are two east coast breweries I’m very excited to get reacquainted with, but probably very few people have the same kind of dedication to craft distilleries.  This likely has to do with the fact there are only about 25 craft distilleries across Canada today, whereas prior to prohibition, there were about 500 micro-distillers across the country, and nearly 5,000 across the US.  Only in the last decade or so have micro-distilleries started sprouting up again.  

Carey Bowman, one of the owners of Lucky Bastard (LB) Distillery, was inspired to start a distillery after a trip to Europe, which revealed an age-old culture of craft spirits.  Bowman came back to Saskatchewan and started working with the government to create policies that would allow for micro-distilleries to exist in the province.

LB is a single malt distillery, meaning the entire process—mashing, fermenting, distilling, and barrel-aging—is all done in one place utilizing malted grains.  In order to make alcohol, the grains need to be converted to a sugar, so they are first ground into a coarse flour, or ‘grist,’ that’s put into a mash kettle.  There, the malting process takes place.  The grist is cooked in water long enough to activate the grains’ naturally occurring enzymes, which will convert the grain from a starch to a sugar.  Once the grain has been converted, the mixture is pumped into the fermentation tank, where the yeast is added.  The yeast feeds on the sugar, and the by-product is alcohol.  About ten days of fermentation produces what is essentially a 10% un-hopped beer.  

Next, the mixture is transferred to LB’s still, a German-made, hand-hammered copper beauty named ‘Ginger’.  In the still, the alcohol is separated from the water.  There are good alcohols and bad alcohols within the mixture, and the first to vapourize are the bad ones (think nail polish remover).  The final process yields about 70L of premium spirits from an initial mixture of 300L. 

The copper is an important factor in distillation, and it’s one of the most important differences between craft and commercial distilleries, who use cheaper stainless steel stills.  Stainless steel cannot remove sulphur, a big factor in the final flavour.  During distillation, copper sulphite will precipitate out of the mixture and leave a cleaner, more pure-tasting spirit behind.

Copper Sulphite

The LB Distillery also features an extensive carbon filtration system, during which the vodka travels through 20 million square metres of charcoal.  The distilled, filtered vodka is then blended down to 40% with some intensely purified water to create an incredibly smooth spirit.

I was most excited to try the gin, my drink of choice.  It was interesting to learn that gin is really just vodka that has been distilled again with botanicals.  LB’s ‘Gambit Gin’ features a slightly weaker note of juniper berries (generally the flavour that makes you love or loathe the stuff) and favours floral and citrus notes, blending 8 different botanicals including lemon peel, chamomile, cloves, anise, and Saskatoon berries (it’s the only gin in the world that uses Saskatoons).

If you ever get to try one of these spirits, you’ll notice they are a lot thinner than commercial spirits, resembling the consistency of water.  Commercial spirits are not distilled as intensely, and thus a lot of the harsher alcohols and sulphites remain.  Smoothing agents—typically glycerin, simple syrup or rosewater—are added in order to soften the taste and create a smoother finish.

LB will be releasing their first rum in December 2013 and their first whisky in 2015, once they have both been aged sufficiently.  LB also produces a line of incredible fruit liqueurs including haskap, carmine jewel (dwarf sour cherry), Saskatoon, and seabuckthorn (sweetened with honey).  These were some of the most flavourful and fruity liqueurs I have ever tasted.  They tasted like the fruit on their label, rather than a sugary syrup.  We have the seabuckthorn and honey liqueur tucked away for a special occasion—like when we feel in of a Vitamin C boost!

It was incredible to leave so enlightened about the tasty adult beverages we all enjoy, and to truly appreciate the difference between craft and commercially distilled spirits.  Anyone want to quit their job and start a distillery with me?