In true Alberta entrepreneurial spirit, two local whisky enthusiasts have set out to create a Canadian whisky they hope will become known as the best in the world.
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Great Plains Craft Spirits receives 2020 Canada Whisky Award of Excellence Best New Whisky (Photo: Business Wire)
Calgary oil and gas project management professionals and good friends, Michael Gordon and Victor Mah, and their brand Great Plains Craft Spirits (Great Plains), are receiving early accolades from judges, whisky enthusiasts and reviewers. Their debut product, a western Canadian 18-year-old whisky, finished for over twelve months in Spanish Jerez Brandy casks and bottled at cask strength, took home the Gold Medal and the Award of Excellence for Best New Whisky at the 2020 Canadian Whisky Awards (www.canadianwhisky.org) in January of this year. One of their trial products, still in cask, was awarded a silver medal at the highly prestigious and influential San Francisco World Spirits Competition in February 2019.
By employing a finishing and blending process that is rarely applied to very well-aged whiskies, the pair are creating world-class, artisanal whisky products which most large distillers are not able to create or are not interested in taking the time to produce.
"We wanted to bring something to the market that most of the big distillers can’t or won’t do," says Gordon, President, a long time whisky aficionado. "Canada produces some really good whisky, but often the great stuff is hidden away in the corners of old distillery warehouses. Typically, these stocks are set aside for years for special releases or blending. What we are doing is unique — we are buying these old stocks and then blending and finishing them in a way no one else does."
"The vast majority of Canadian whisky has a reputation for being good, but it’s usually not considered great. We want to continue to move the dial," adds Gordon. "Some Canadian distillers will release over 100,000 barrels of a single whisky product in a year. We have chosen to release our whiskies when we feel they are ready, in very small batches — as small as two barrels and as large as 24. Sometimes, we’ll even release a single cask."
Already selling in a number of Alberta retailer locations, the two recently had more reasons to celebrate when they secured a trial order with the BC Liquor Board. This trial order is part of the BC Liquor Board’s Premium Spirits Release Program where new ‘cream of the crop’ whiskies are selected for an exclusive advance pre-order program in the lower mainland and the BC interior.
"We’re thrilled to have been recognized by the San Francisco competition and the Canadian Whisky Awards so early on," says Mah, Vice President of Great Plains. "Getting approval to bring our products into BC is difficult and rarely happens, so that was also a big win for us. It’s a bit of a homecoming to get into BC since that’s where the whisky was originally distilled, at the Potters Distillery in Kelowna. Given the spectacular critical response, we know our product will appeal to every persuasion of whisky aficionados."
For Mah, who loves the classics but also loves innovation and all things mechanical, hot rodding whisky seems to be a natural.
"With the holiday season closing in, we’re hoping to get more interest from other retailers to carry us and we also hope to attract people who are buying gifts and those who are willing to experiment and try a higher quality whisky. We’re pretty sure they’ll never look back," adds Mah.
Gordon and Mah have big plans for the Great Plains Craft Spirits brand with two new products planned for release in 2021. They also hope to significantly expand the number of retail locations which carry their whisky throughout Alberta and BC and from there, add locations in other provinces.
Mike is a Civil Engineer and has been a proud Albertan for almost 25 years after moving from Ontario to work on the first wave of oil sands mega projects in the late nineties.
"I’ve lived in many places around the world, but few are as inspiring as the wide open prairies and ruggedness of Alberta’s mountains. Canada’s bounty, especially in the West, is incredible and I feel truly fortunate to be able to explore and express that through our creative, handmade products."
Mike is a dedicated foodie, skier, mountain biker, and enthusiast for all things that are authentic and artisanal.
Born in the Yukon and after obtaining his commerce degree from the University of Alberta, Victor stayed and has been an Albertan for almost thirty years, working in the energy sector on some of the province’s largest oil sands and refining projects in business development and supply chain management.
As an enthusiast of the outdoors, classic pop culture, and things mechanical, "I’ve never been thoroughly interested in 'off-the shelf' or the 'new thing.'"
Great Plains Craft Spirits Background
Great Plains Craft Spirits was incorporated in 2016 in Calgary, AB. We are pioneering the production of limited run, custom-finished, ultra-premium and luxury whiskies in western Canada. We source and finish small lots of well-aged Canadian whiskies in select barrels from European regions like Jerez, Cognac and Armagnac. Through discerning selection and careful innovation, our focus is producing custom whiskies that are distinctive and in both quality and taste.
How did a start-up produce an award-winning 18 year-old whisky?
Great Plains acquired several batches of 17 year-old 100% corn whisky originally from the old Potter’s Distillery in Kelowna BC. One batch was then transferred from the original bourbon barrels to 22 freshly emptied vintage Brandy de Jerez casks. Then, after more than twelve months of finishing, it was blended and bottled at high proof (54.5% ABV) without colouring or chill filtering, producing a taste and character unlike anything else on the market.
The company has another batch of 17 year-old whisky from the same distillery that is in the process of a 24-month-long finish in vintage Cognac barrels that were re-coopered to a small size. We also have a very special and rare 34 year-old whisky that’s currently finishing in Armagnac Barrels. Our goal is to produce limited runs of interesting whiskies that appeal to enthusiasts who can appreciate the uniqueness of our products.
Our limited run whiskies are custom crafted with expressions that simply aren’t available from the large producers.
Great Plains' founders are long-time friends and have a shared obsession for seeking the best and then tinkering with it to see if they can improve it. When they began to explore the idea of creating their own line of whisky products, they spent a great deal of time on research. Gordon went as far as Europe to learn about and buy the finishing casks. Their background in project management and supply chain management has also been beneficial in their success with GPCS.
What sets Great Plains Craft Spirits’ whisky product apart is three-fold. First, whisky, like fine wine, improves with age. Many producers do not include age statements on their labels which means the whisky is likely as young as 3 years (the minimum age to be called whisky). With their 18 Year-Old, 12-month Jerez Brandy Cask Finished Whisky, Great Plains Craft Spirits is taking the opposite approach and asserting that the stated age is key to authenticity and quality.
Secondly, the whisky is tasted and then paired up with a complementary finishing barrel that augments the flavour, but doesn’t dominate it. Samples are taken every few months to ensure it is bottled at just the right time. This results in a perfect combination of flavour combining the base character of Western Canadian grain and yeast, the dry fruit of first fill oak, and the polish of the European finishing casks.
Finally, Great Plains Craft Spirits blends and bottles at cask strength because this means better value and greater taste intensity. The whisky is non-cold filtered at room temperature to ensure as little flavour is removed as possible, and no colouring or additional flavourings are used to preserve the intention of the distiller and blender.
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