Eau Claire Distillery brings a Spirited Story to Life
Most people would think it enough of an undertaking to open Alberta’s first craft distillery, producing award-winning grain-to-glass artisanal spirits.
But the founders of Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley recognized the potential for more ─ a destination for visitors to learn about the storied history of moonshine stills on Whisky Row, revisit a time of pioneer farmers hand-harvesting the world’s finest grains, and savour the flavours of unique small-batch gin, vodka and whiskey.
Thus was born a highly successful tourist attraction that within a year of opening has peaked the interest of international tour operators.
“We’re all about providing a more interactive experience,” says David Farran, president and co-founder. “We get people walking through the distillery floor, handling the grains, smelling the aromas and tasting the products.”
Another key to success, he says, is attention to detail, right down to authentic period décor, and how tour guides dress and talk.
“And we haven’t rested. We keep amplifying the experience.”
Right Time and PlaceA fifth-generation Albertan who grew up on a farm near Millarville, Farran has spent time in the diplomatic service, as an adventure travel outfitter, a leader in the veterinary industry and as a vice-president at Big Rock Brewery.
His love for draft horses led to a project with the Bar U Ranch National Historic Site where he and a group of like-minded hobbyists ploughed and seeded land using antique horse-drawn farm equipment.
In the fall of 2013, Farran wondered what they could do with their bountiful harvest of premium Alberta rye. He’d recently visited his sister near Portland where craft distilleries were flourishing.
“I thought if they could do it in Oregon, we could do it in Alberta,” he says. “We have the best grain in the world right here.”
Farran reconnected with his former Big Rock colleague Larry Kerwin, a master brewer and distiller. Before long they were in Germany buying a custom-made distilling system.
The distillery opened in June 2014 in Turner Valley’s circa-1929 former movie theatre. A tasting room opened about a year later.
“We were shocked by the incredible response and run off our feet at first,” says Farran. “From June through October, we had hundreds of visitors a day.”
Authentic ExperiencesFarran says tourism was part of Eau Claire’s vision from the start. “We always wanted people to come and see how we were making our products and how we were doing things differently.”
Offerings include tours, tastings and a full slate of special events.
Visitors watch a video (with subtitles available in five languages), get a hands-on look at the copper distilling towers, a visit to the barrel warehouse where long-table dinners are also held, and a tasting of Eau Claire products, some of which are available only at the distillery.
The tasting room is decorated in 1920s décor, harkening back to the Prohibition era. It’s filled with exhibits and artifacts on Alberta’s colourful distilling past.
This summer, Eau Claire is adding light meals and enhancing its bartending program with a new featured cocktail every day.
“We’re really intensifying the theatre of the cocktail culture,” says Farran. “These drinks will be very special and fun.”
Power of Partnership
Eau Claire Distillery is part of Calgary Brewery Tours “Spirit of Alberta Tasting Tour” including stops at Big Rock Brewery and Chinook Arch Meadery.
“We work closely with our community to cross-promote other tourism partners,” says Farran. “We don’t view ourselves as just a single attraction, but as one stop in a day’s worth of great experiences.”
Local response has been positive. Turner Valley Mayor Kelly Tuck told the Calgary Region Focus publication that Eau Claire Distillery fits into the town’s vision to bring vibrancy to the downtown core and expand cultural and tourism experiences.
“This is exactly the type of business we are trying to attract,” said Tuck.
Farran sees his biggest market as visiting friends and relatives (VFR). “People are more interested than you might expect in natural, home-made products and the link between urban and rural. And they love to take a drive outside the city.”
Travel Alberta’s Canada’s West Marketplace Scholarship Program is helping Eau Claire connect with the international market as well.
“We are already part of several international tour operators’ FIT (Free Independent Traveller) programs and in year two will be part of bus tours,” says Farran.
“It’s been an incredible experience. We are doing what we love, and loving where we live.”
Check out Eau Claire Distillery’s business profile on travelalberta.com. Find out how to set up a profile for your own Alberta tourism business through ATIS, Travel Alberta’s free online marketing platform.
This is the sixth in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.