Edmonton-area distiller Geoff Stewart has a couple of reasons to toast his recent successes.
First, Stewart and his Rig Hand Distillery opened newly expanded digs on the outskirts of Nisku, a few kilometres from the Edmonton International Airport.
He’s also still basking in the glow of having one of his products chosen as the first-ever Canadian whisky to be recognized by the House of Commons in Ottawa as the official Speaker’s whisky.
Rocking R, a golden rye whisky made with strictly local products, was chosen by Speaker Anthony Rota to be the official drink distributed out by his office as gifts for dignitaries or purchased in the parliamentary dining room.
It was selected following a blind taste test of six short-listed Canadian whiskies sampled by members of parliament, apparently winning by a landslide. The official announcement that Rocking R had won was delivered to Stewart last Dec. 24.
“It was a nice Christmas Eve present for us,” said Stewart. “It’s a feather in our cap for sure. We’re changing history, it’s a cool thing.”
The tradition of selecting a special Speaker’s whisky was started by former Speaker Peter Milliken, who picked up the idea during a visit to the British parliament in 2001, where a special Speaker’s scotch is regularly available. But not everyone in Canada was satisfied with continuing to only choose scotch products, since by law all scotch must be made in Scotland.
“For some time now, (Canadian MPS) have been asking that we have a Speaker’s Canadian whisky,” to complement the scotch, said Rota. “But I figure this is our Canadian parliament, and we should have a Canadian whisky.”
MPs can buy the whisky in the parliamentary dining room or purchase bottles as gifts for their constituents. Rota has provided gift bottles of Rocking R to British House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle and to his counterpart in the Scottish National Assembly, Alison Johnstone.
Rota visited the Rig Hand distillery earlier this year to meet with Stewart and his team, which includes several family members in various roles.
An expanded distillery with a bar, general store and dining room was built on a new Nisku site, with a licence to sell alcohol obtained in early April. A grand opening is scheduled this spring/summer.
The distillery is housed in a building resembling an old grain elevator. The facilities are custom built using some locally sourced materials like natural wood and stained glass and tiles, some of it made to look aged to provide character.
The dining room includes a large outdoor balcony with views of Saunders Lake. The dining area, which seats up to 150 people, is available to rent for weddings or other special gatherings.
The distillery offers over 80 products, including various beers, whiskies, honey mead, gin, vodkas made from corn, potatoes and wheat, plus dozens of flavoured vodkas, and a series of rum-like offerings called 'brum'.
In a competitive industry that has seen craft distilleries explode in the province in recent years, Rig Hand is leaning into its oil industry-themed name. Labels and many bottles reflect western themes like oil rigs, for example. The company’s number one seller is Double Double Coffee Cream, which won an award for best cream liqueur in North America five years ago.
Rig Hand has two affiliated outlets in New Brunswick and Texas. They sell their own products plus use Rig Hand recipes for others. Stewart says there are a lot of provincial trade barriers involving regulatory red tape which make it tough to expand into other provinces, although overseas markets are being eyed.
“It’s easier to ship this stuff to China than it is to ship to British Columbia,” said Stewart. “It doesn’t make any sense at all.
“Our vision is to expand into European and Asian markets."
Winning the Speaker’s whisky competition may help further that goal in the long run, he hopes.