Distillery set for grand opening of its new Leduc County digs in late June
By Steven Sandor | June 15, 2023
It’s located across the street from a pond. There are pigs and chickens on the property. The buildings look like a miniature grain elevator attached to an old western saloon. Walk inside, and there are wood beams and a wide bar stacked with whiskey, vodka and gin. All that’s missing is a sheriff telling you that pistols need to be checked at the door.
This is the new home of Rig Hand Distillery, and, when you look at the prairie countryside that surrounds the building, it’s hard to believe you’re just a few minutes from Edmonton International Airport.
“When I picture a distillery in Scotland, it’s got rolling hills, it’s on a stream, and there’s cattle grazing in the distance,” says Geoff Stewart, Rig Hand’s president and distiller. “A lot of them grow their own grains. I wanted to create that exact same thing in Alberta.
“Our wheat farmer is two miles from here. Our barley farmer is half a mile from here. Our rye farmer is about 10 miles from here. We also wanted to create a place where people who maybe didn’t grow up on a farm could see these crops growing, and learn the difference between barley and wheat, that sort of thing. We have a working farm and distillery.”
Rig Hand is leaving its original home, located in Nisku’s industrial park. It has facilities in New Brunswick and Texas. Stewart says the new distillery, which also has an upstairs events space that will host regular Tuesday night country shows, can welcome 80,000 visitors a year. The Nisku spot could handle 25,000, and it was maxed out. As well, Rig Hand needed four warehouses — and now its Alberta operations can be centralized in one space. It’s making whiskey, gin and vodka, flavoured drinks and is even in the beer business.
And, Rig Hand’s rye was just selected to be the official whiskey of Canada’s House of Commons, the first Canadian whiskey to earn the honour. (So, if you don’t like the legislation coming out of Ottawa, you can blame the rye.)
“It’s ironic, they normally pick a Scotch,” says Stewart. “We believe we may have broken the mould, and that now, going forward, it will always be a Canadian whiskey. It’s important. We produced some amazing whiskey products here in Canada and they need to be showcased to the world.”
Rig Hand just inked a deal with the Edmonton Elks to provide canned Caesars (with rimmer under the can cover) at Commonwealth Stadium.
While Stewart is the distiller and face of Rig Hand, he isn’t the sole owner. The distillery has Indigenous shareholders and has partnerships with Indigenous-owned businesses. For example, Mother Earth Essentials works with Rig Hand to make the blueberry tea that goes into the Kikawinaw sparkling gin, and it’s sweetened by birch syrup that is naturally sourced. Rig Hand takes its share of the profits of that gin and donates it to the families of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
And Stewart has no issue talking about the complicated role alcohol has played in Canada’s colonial history. In the new space, plans are to take a portion of the area and create a space that helps educate visitors about how alcohol has impacted Indigenous communities. Stewart knows that it’s a controversial thing to put in a distillery, but he thinks the conversation is more important than needing to be politically correct.
Stewart makes it clear: He doesn’t want to sell out to a major conglomerate like Smirnoff; he wants to compete with them. And he hopes that his customers spread some of that love to other beverage makers in Alberta, too.
“It’s an uphill battle when you’re fighting against companies that have had a stranglehold on the industry for 85 years,” he says. “Us little guys, the only way we have any hope of stealing some of that market share from them is by working together [with other distillers and brewers].”
The distillery officially opens its new digs June 22-24, with special (secret) musical guests and a prime rib dinner on the 24th. Tickets are $120.
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