Spirits of the West
By Trevor Bacque 7 June 2019 4 min read
“Any banker or investor would look at the whisky industry and say, ‘you’re telling us, you don’t know what it is going to taste like in three to five years, have no cash flow for three to five years, and you think that’s a really good idea?"
Well, they wouldn’t, but ATB did. Today, we are quadrupling our footprint in Turner Valley, investing in Alberta’s people and keeping everything within the four walls of this great province.” -David Farran, Founder and President, Eau Claire Distillery
When Millarville-area entrepreneur David Farran sold off a chain of veterinary clinics in 2013 and decided to open a distillery, he made a couple important calls. One was to his old friend, colleague and future business partner Larry Kerwin.
The second was to ATB to establish a bank account with the financial institution that prides itself on agriculture and the entrepreneurial spirit of the West.
“We knew that, A: they were great supporters of ag and value-added agriculture and, B: that [we wanted] the whole project to be Albertan—from banking through to our ingredients, grain and how we went about it,” said Farran.
“They’ve been very supportive of this. They like what we’re doing. We’ve proved we have a really good concept and we like working with them. We don’t have to go and check with Toronto credit departments to see if our ideas are good.”
ATB’s Chad Dell is the relationship manager for Eau Claire and works with Farran and the gang. “We are here for producers—they are the lifeblood of Alberta,” he said. “People like David are the embodiment of hard-working honesty, and he brims with life. ATB knew it had a winner the first time we spoke to David. Five years later I would proudly make that claim again.”
Farran and Kerwin submitted a plan to the provincial government and began to establish the Eau Claire Distillery, located at the base of the Foothills in the centre of Turner Valley. But they still faced an uphill journey as they created history by being the first Alberta distillery to work on a single-malt whisky and do their part to build out the province’s distilling scene.
They added the talent of Caitlin Quinn, a Canadian-born, Scottish-raised wunderkind, who came complete with a master’s of brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, to work alongside the semi-retired Kerwin.
The distillery began to age their single-malt whisky immediately, made from 40 acres of barley planted by horse-drawn carriage and cultivated as though it were 1918. They also started creating a series of clear spirits, such as gins and vodkas, while the whiskies were—and still are, in some cases—aging.
Farran’s favourite saying is, “to make a masterpiece, no compromise may be tolerated.”
“To me, that epitomizes what we’re trying to accomplish. We’re not going to cut corners. We’re going to make a top-notch product and to do that you have to have a top-notch team,” he said.
As the popularity surges in Alberta’s craft brewing and distilling industry, so do the number of those curious to get up close and personal to see how the beverages are made. This has caused a boom in the province’s agri-tourism industry and Farran is struggling to keep up with demand.
“We never dreamed that there’d be such a positive reaction, we’re thrilled by it,” he said. “What happens when you have an enthusiastic customer base? You’re forced to grow because people want your product and they’re demanding it.”
To that end, the distillery offers two daily tours and tastings in its facility and is open seven days a week from May through September. They have a 60-guest tasting room and carry a rotating food and drink menu. But word has spread, and more people want in on the Alberta-grown libations.
In March 2018, Farran obliged and purchased seven acres directly behind the distillery. It will be turned into a visitor centre, small-scale barley farm complete with horses on site, market garden and a larger area for patrons to enjoy Eau Claire’s wares.
The distillery’s popularity has attracted attention from around the world. Their Parlour Gin has consistently earned bronze or better for best gin on earth in contests from San Francisco to Berlin. Their products are now on store shelves in US cities including Chicago and New York. The expansion and growth of Eau Claire has been a three-fold success story—the award-winning liquor, Farran’s business acumen and the distillery’s relationship with ATB.
ATB’s Chad Dell says Eau Claire’s staff has a can-do attitude and, combined with ATB’s financial and community support, they are one of Alberta’s newest industry success stories.
“You don’t see too many groups like Eau Claire pop up and stick around long term. They embody the Alberta work ethic and are champions of not only one of the biggest industries—agriculture—but also the people who have made them what they are today.”
Farran is excited that he, along with many other breweries and distilleries—are reigniting interest in connecting urbanites with the agricultural industry that is so vital to the grain to glass movement.
“Increasingly, people want a transparent food chain where they know exactly how a product is made and where it comes from,” he said. “That is something that we really want to show, the transparency. You really have to be part of the community because they’re looking for products that are local that they can believe in.”
The first phase of the Eau Claire expansion should be complete and ready for patrons in the second half of 2019.
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