Almost a decade ago, southern Alberta's Eau Clair Distillery became the first craft distiller in the province, but that was then. According to the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission, licensed distillers rose from seven in 2016 to 47 in 2021, partly because the province lifted minimum production requirements in 2014-- marking the advent of small batch distilleries across Alberta, from Edmonton's Strathcona Spirits to Rig Hand in Nisku and Confluence Distilling in Calgary. These and an ever-growing list each have their own spin on distilling, all with a focus on Alberta grains.
Dark Sky is one of the newcomers; a family-operated, grain-to-glass distillery that is the first in Sturgeon County. The startup is making a splash with its innovative, energy-efficient operating techniques and accolades for some of its white spirits at the 2021 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco and at the New York International Spirits Competition.
"The awards are huge confidence boost and a great validation that our hard work is paying off," said Kristina Craig, who with husband Jim started Dark Sky with a creative spirit and a determination they could do things better. "Five years ago, Jim called from his oil industry job in Iraq and said, 'we're building a distillery'. I had two little ones at home, but that's how the adventure began."
Creating vodka and gin by milling malted wheat and barley sourced from Alberta producers, the pair say they're proud of the meticulous attention to quality using two state-of-the-art, energy-efficient stills; a 2,000-litre still to make the alcohol and a 500-litre still for distilling a 'sippable, premium spirit'. Craig says though she's never loved gin, she vowed to make one for all those that aren't partial to the herbaceous spirit. To make it less 'piney', Craig explains, she lowers the amount of juniper in the gin and adds a unique ingredient--haskap berry.
"We distill the Aurora Gin with the berries inside--it comes out flavourful and clear. Now I'm a gin convert--I even prefer it to vodka," laughed Craig.
Along with the boutique gin and vodkas sold online, Dark Sky has introduced Ready to Drink (RTD) gin and vodka cooler-type drinks under the Nova label.
"We went into liquor stores during the pandemic, launching on Zoom," Craig said, adding Dark Sky is now producing hundreds of bottles of each of its signature products monthly and is nurturing a venture with the Edmonton Riverhawks. "Randy Gregg took a chance on us, putting our product into the 'craft corner' at the stadium for home games. We wouldn't be where we are without our partnerships."
"We've got plans for a 'destination distillery'; with a working distillery in the back and a restaurant/lounge in front--maybe even a rooftop patio, near the Sturgeon Valley Golf Course," said Craig, adding that dream is set to become a reality starting this spring.
On how the pair came up with product names like Stormy Vodka, Aurora Gin and Moonshot Vodka, Jim pointed to their property being in a designated 'dark sky' area, adding, "My city girl wife was always amazed at how clean and clear the night sky was compared to being in the city with all the light pollution. It was something I took for granted growing up outside the city, but I was inspired by her awe and wonder."
Craig is equally proud of the company's green technology, where solar panels reduce demand from the electrical grill and provide energy to recycle cooling water through the distillery floor. State-of-the-art stills helps Dark Sky cut its energy usage by about 90 per cent, according to Craig. Even an innovative rain capture system allows for using pure Alberta water to enhance the distillation process.
"And we're looking at more ways to reach the public--farmers markets, golf tournaments, on social media--we just hired our first employee to help us move in that direction," she said. "But the bottom line is, we think people want and deserve to drink better. We're all in."