Banff vodka unveiling goes down smoothly

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It’s been a labour of love for makers of Banff’s first legal spirits product.

The newly opened Park Distillery hit a milestone in its short duration with the official release of Park Vodka on Oct. 1; now available at the restaurant store.

The bronzed distilling equipment, proudly showcased in the tall glass enclosure at the heart of the restaurant, teased patrons’ taste buds for months, but now the product is here.

Having a laugh while sipping his newly conjured mixture of original vodka, Master Distiller Matt Hendriks spoke to the beautiful chaos he and restaurant co-owner Stavros Karlos have experienced over 18 stressful months in finally having their spirit philosophy of “Glacier to Glass” in hand.

“The biggest thing was creating our own product,” said Hendriks. “We’re keeping it local from grain farmers and really showing that Banff has some of the cleanest water in the world and creating a local product that we can share with everyone else.”

In 2013, the Alberta government changed the rules on what constituted a distillery. In the past, a distillery needed to produce a minimum of 600,000 litres of sellable spirits to receive certification, which left the would-be distillers dry. However, a rule change that lowered the production number went down smoothly for the minds behind Park Distillery who have brought something uniquely different to Banff – the first distillery in a Canadian national park.

Hendriks says in the first year they expect to make about 15,000-lt of product and grow to eventually reach the 30,000-lt maximum the distillery can produce.

A 750 millilitre bottle is now available, with plans to add a 200ml bottle in the new year. Additional flavours are also being eyed to accompany the original flavour, including an espresso vodka with beans from Banff Roasting Co.; a vanilla infused vodka; a chili vodka using bird’s eye chili peppers from Thailand; a white rye or a rye-whiskey that isn’t aged and a gin is being produced for the new year.

But if you ask Hendriks or Karlos what they’re eager to produce, their eyes light up for a product that’s three years away.

“What I’m really excited about is getting the whiskey out,” said Karlos.

Canadian whiskey must be aged three years before it’s considered a whiskey.

Hendriks has already set aside the first cask of the product, but it won’t be ready for 30 years.

“I just turned 30 so when I retire from work at 60, it’ll be my legacy barrel,” said Hendriks. “Everything else will be between three years and 10 to 12 years.”

Hendriks, who is one of Canada’s top cocktail mixologists, has worked with Karlos for the past five years. He recalls the day nearly two years ago when he got the offer for the unusual position of master distiller.

“That was very shocking and of course I wanted to do it,” said Hendriks.

He added that in his stunned and excited state of mind, he realized he didn’t really know what the job entailed.

“I thought I knew what spirits actually were at that point, but without knowing the science behind them. I started researching them; I read more books in the past 18 months than in 10 years,” he joked.

“That was a big thing, just a lot of self education … there really isn’t a school for distilling out there, especially in North America.”

Stavros, who co-owns several businesses in Banff, took care of the business side of things and admits the past three years have been a huge learning curve.

“It’s been blood, sweat and tears, like full on,” said Karlos. “Basically, I’m Hendriks’ work wife. There were a few months were I saw Hendriks more than my family.”

The challenging part of getting the restaurant with a distillery attached was working with legal requirements from Canada Revenue Agency and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission. From there, working alongside the municipality, including putting together a 200-plus-page business plan, and making sure fire code requirements were more than satisfying to the Banff Fire Fepartment.

“This is such a new thing in the country that we have to go through each step in the process,” Karlos said. “This was one of those challenges where I was like, I really think the industry is cool and didn’t know a lot about it and jumped in face first. That process has been satisfying. I love figuring it out.”

One of the challenges in the process for them was figuring things out without an instruction manual. There was a panic as the coppery metallic pieces arrived on a quiet Banff Avenue at 4 a.m.

“I didn’t sleep the night before because I knew it was coming in,” Stavros said.

It quickly turned into the “ultimate IKEA” project as about 100 pieces individually wrapped in bubble wrap with no labels or instructions was in front of them.

“So we laid out 100 parts on the ground and I started sort of freaking out because the still was three months late and we had to build it in that glass enclosure,” Karlos said.

“I measured that room maybe 50 times and I was 90 per cent sure it was going to fit, but I wasn’t 100 per cent so I had a total meltdown. Hendriks kicked me off, so I sat in the corner, kind of sulking, and took pictures for a bit and then I left … all day my heart was racing.”

With no instructions, Hendriks managed to assemble the distill in 13 hours – impeccable timing. Only one part was upside down, but that was quickly figured out.

“It’s funny because Stavros and myself have been working side by side on this project, but he got all nervous and panic-attacked because of course it all looked bigger than what we expected,” Hendriks said.

Looking forward, hitting the larger Calgary and Edmonton markets is a goal for the future, but first the distillery aims to keep the national park stocked with the local goods.

Park Distillery offers free tours every day at 3:30 p.m. with an optional upgrade to spirit tasting for $20. Retail for a 750ml bottle of Park Vodka is $44 – local prices are available.

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