15 days to go - the raw facts
There are not many days from more than 25 years ago on which I can remember precisely what the weather was like, but that late afternoon in 1991 on the shores of Loch Harport stands out as a vivid memory. My camera was suffering the effects of being in the pocket of my ‘showerproof’ jacket during a Scottish deluge, but wouldn’t have done the scene justice even if it had been working. Rembrandt perhaps might have done a decent job on canvas if he could have kept his easel still in the wind, but luckily for me the image will be imprinted on my brain forever.
I can only describe that sky as angry layers of black, perhaps with some blue or purple tinge thrown in for contrast, and with two fiery shafts of sunlight trying desperately to fight through the storm like the glowing eyes of a great beast. Next to me the whitewashed building I was visiting stood out in stark contradiction against the dark green rain-drenched hills of the Atlantic coast, and the intimidating black peaks of the Cuillin mountains behind.
That was the coast of Skye in April many moons ago, and to be specific the Talisker distillery. It was viciously cold, weather-battered and remote, and I struggle to think of a bleaker place that I have ever been. In a word, it was raw. But oh, do I have happy memories of that place, for inside those whitewashed walls was Talisker single malt scotch – to this day my favourite tipple, with its thick smoky nose and its wildly peaty flavour. I will never know if my love for that scotch is because of the taste or because it offered me warmth and shelter on a wild day. And I care not!
But now let’s fast forward 26 years and picture a different scene. A sunny and breezeless day in front of another distillery set to a backdrop of breathtaking mountains. And once again, in a word, it is RAW.
SOMETHING BREWING IN THE ROCKIES?
Canmore is an awesome place for a food and drink festival. Even without so many outstanding restaurants, a mountain town of 13,000 people having 2 breweries and 2 distilleries would be remarkable in itself. Grizzly Paw Brewery last year celebrated its 20th anniversary in Canmore, starting with a brew pub on Main Street and now with its impressive Brewery just outside the downtown core. Over the past year, the town has seen the addition of Canmore Brewing Co. and two new Distilleries – Wild Life and RAW, and it is here at RAW Distillery that I found myself for the next leg of my festival preview.
It is staggering to think that the last time I visited a distillery was 26 years ago, though I hadn’t clocked the fact until asked by Brad and Lindsay, the husband and wife team behind RAW. Their vision is to use Alberta grain and water from the Rockies as a platform to make cutting edge spirits with an awesome tasting experience, and their passion for Canmore and getting out in the surrounding backcountry is the perfect match for their passion for brewing and distilling.
THAT’S THE SPIRIT!
My first question was obvious – how (and why) did they get into distilling? I think I expected to hear about careers in chemistry and/or commercial booze production, but no – he was a firefighter and she comes from a business background. Together though they have been brewing (award winning) beer at home for a dozen years and for them becoming distillers was the most natural thing in the world. After all, the process of making spirits starts with distilling beer.
The operation shares space with Canmore Brewing Co., but RAW have their own brewing equipment and make all their own base product – taking most of a week to make the unhoped beer from wheat mash or rye mash, and then about 24 hours for the distilling. I suspect that Lindsay is only half joking when she says Brad pretty much sleeps at the distillery.
The Still is the pride and joy of their operation. Before starting they ‘researched like mad’ and finally came across the perfect piece of equipment that was for sale at a small distillery in Butte Montana – as Lindsay says, it “sealed the deal”. The CF-1000 is a single-pass Still that offers the same technology as the major spirits producers but for craft-size operations and budgets. Built by John McKee, past-head of the US distillers association, it is an impressive-looking array of pipes that is one of only 9 operating in the world.
I won’t get into how it works, because a) you need to go and hear for yourself during Canmore Uncorked when tours will be available on site, and b) I’d be lying if I said I understood it; Brad lost me at ‘heat-exchanger’. Two things really stood out. One was that it can all be controlled by an App (though I am assured it is highly technical to operate), and the other was that it all came in a box for self-assembly, presumably with a couple of allen keys, some Swedish diagrammatic instructions, and some other household furnishing suggestions from the SCHTILL product line. (OK, in reality Mr McKee came and oversaw assembly himself, but I like my way better).
Best of all though is the botanical basket at the back of the still, and it is here that the magic happens to turn a raw spirit into a RAW gin. Brad and Lindsay spend hours trying different mixes of citrus fruits, herbs and spices to come up with the perfect flavours, and clearly have a lot of fun doing so.
I have tried their product before, and while their vodka is extremely smooth and their un-aged rye has a great front-of-mouth fruity taste, I am not really a vodka or rye drinker. I am however a huge fan of craft gins, and their peppercorn gin is truly excellent. It is made with an infusion of peppercorns (fresh from India) juniper, lavender, coriander and green cardamom, and works well on its own, with a small amount of tonic, or as a Martini with a dry vermouth.
Tastings of RAW product will take place at Crush & Cork on 7th Avenue during Canmore Uncorked, and tours are available on site at the Distillery. And of course they will take their hometown place alongside Wild Life and Grizzly Paw at the Cornerstone Whisky and Spirit Festival on May 12th. A wee bit of Uncorked spirit not to be missed!
RAW Distillery - 1460 Railway Ave, Canmore
Crush and Cork - 1000-7th Ave, Canmore
Cornerstone Whisky & Spirit Festival, May 12th