By Patrick Brooks
Nisku-based distillery finds niche with rig-themed brand.
Carpal tunnel syndrome finally caught up to Geoff Stewart after 22 years of tattooing and cleaning teeth. Now forced to look for something else to do, he and his wife Karen, a dentist, talked about starting a craft brewery, so when a motorcycle trip to Ohio included a tour of a craft distillery, Geoff came home convinced that a beer operation was not in their future.
After a few email exchanges with the Ohio operator, Geoff and Karen confirmed that they’d forgo a brewery in favour of a craft distillery, in large part because of the upcoming changes to Alberta’s Prohibition-era laws that banned small-scale distilleries from obtaining a license. Like craft beer breweries, Alberta would soon allow craft distilleries and the market would be virtually untapped according to the predictions of those in the industry. It appeared that the Stewarts were ahead of the curve on this business opportunity. Geoff found himself learning the distillery trade in Seattle but acquired a practical, hands-on understanding after he apprenticed at the same Ohio distillery they visited a few years earlier.
Preparing a 95-page business plan was rigorous and time-consuming. Geoff ran into delays as he completed the Marketing section of the plan because the 250 catchy names he had in mind for their company – such as “Seven Sins” – were all taken. In a moment of clarity, he realized that if they were going to market their product in Alberta, it would make sense to reflect one of the major industries in the area – agriculture or oil and gas. And since the Leduc #1 rig could be seen on his ride to and from work everyday, the light bulb went on during one commute: make a bottle that looks like a drilling rig! So he and Karen actually named the company after the bottle, a replica of Leduc #1. “Big Rig” still had the catchy alliteration sound he had hoped for (like “Seven Sins” had months earlier), but thematically the name was ideal. (He did give “Nodding Donkey” serious consideration but realized that no one outside of Texas and a few other jurisdictions would understand the pumpjack reference).
Although their business plan was very thorough and accounted for every paper clip for the next five years, creditors weren’t comfortable financing a craft distillery, an unproven industry in Alberta. After five bank rejections, the Stewarts cashed in their RRSPs, sold off their rental houses, remortgaged their home, and borrowed as much money as they could from Karen’s business, they raised close to $1 million dollars… enough to get the distillery up and running. Their next challenge was to find a location for the shop. Geoff admits that he’d love to be on trendy Whyte Avenue in Edmonton and cater to foot traffic in their tasting bar, but zoning laws ultimately dictated where they could operate. Geoff seems to think that he and Karen were fighting against the stereotype that they were merely a backyard moonshiner whose equipment had a penchant for “blowing up,” as depicted weekly on a popular moonshining show being broadcast on TLC at the time. The reality was they had professional distillery workers using specially engineered equipment so the risk was minor, and this was the argument he made when they approached municipalities as they tried to secure a business license. Due to the classification of their equipment and the fact they are producing 99% pure ethanol (which is extremely flammable in its vapor state), Big Rig was eventually granted a distillery license – the first in northern Alberta! – to set up in the Nisku Industrial Park. Coincidentally, this location ended up being a perfect fit since their new neighbours were drilling and well servicing contractors, the type of clientele they want to come by and buy their product!
Ironically, the current economic downturn turned out to be good timing for Big Rig as they continue to get established. They were able to lease their space for a lot less than what it was six months earlier. They even have people walking in their door dropping off resumes showing 20 or 30 years of experience but are willing to work for minimum wage.
Keeping a distillery running for its first three years is always a challenge. The typical business model is to only make regular vodka for the first three years and while you’re doing that, you’ve got a barrel of whiskey aging for the minimum three years before you’re able to sell that off. Geoff saw this as a flawed business model simply because if a visitor toured the operation but wasn’t a vodka drinker, they’d leave empty-handed with a vague promise to return in three years when the whiskey is ready. So he and Karen wanted to offer a whiskey product, a rum product, a gin product, a coffee liqueur product, and so on. They wanted diversity in their lineup, which is not the norm for start-up distilleries.
The definition of a “craft” business is to source local products, employ local people, sell locally, and stop sending jobs out of the country. For Big Rig, they didn’t have to look far to find a supplier for the hard red wheat that is the workhorse of their vodka, gin, and whiskey. It’s harvested from
a farm down the road from their Nisku shop; that farm is part of the same fertile wheat fields which Leduc #1 sat on in 1947 when it discovered a bounty a mile beneath its surface! Big Rig had come full circle. The land which yields the wheat that goes into their products is also home to the resource which drives their brand.
One of the advantages of running a craft distillery is that you can innovate much more easily than a big distillery. This means trying different flavours or finding different ways of achieving an end result. If Geoff wants to try a batch of saskatoon berry vodka, for example, he can source a local supplier for the berries, produce a barrel of it, and gauge its acceptance but not investing a lot of time or money in the event the new flavour is a dud.
Big Rig’s biggest seller is a result of this type of innovation: Garlic Vodka. Blending garlic with vodka was a whim Geoff had one day and it was a surprise hit with the Caesar crowd! Their vodkas are also unique because they add 5% rye to the mix to give it a “Canadianized” flavour, particularly to customers in Texas who are familiar with Canadian rye smuggled into their state during Prohibition.
Big Rig offers a variant on their White Dog Whiskey as well. Instead of the mandatory three-year aging process in a white oak barrel – they offer White Dog Distillate; a white oak splinter dangles inside a bottle of White Dog whiskey and customers then “age” it to their own preference. Because of the wood surface-to-liquid ratio, its colour and flavour changes significantly from week-to-week and as far as Geoff knows, no other distillery in Alberta does this.
The land which yields the wheat that goes into their products is also home to the resource which drives their brand.
With a strongly integrated name, bottle design, and locally sourced materials, Big Rig has the beginnings of a strong brand, but they want to extend that sense of brand franchise to include “experience.” Because this has been happening naturally anyway, up to 200 or 300 people a day inevitably take a tour of the operation once they’ve made their way to the shop to find out more about the new upstart craft distillery. As Geoff states, “We’re selling more than alcohol, we’re selling an experience. Where else can you walk in, take a tour of the back to see the equipment, learn how it’s made, hear the story of its origin, talk to two people who make every drop, and come to the tasting bar to try a bit of everything they make. And meet Charlie, the distillery dog!”
They must be doing something right. Big Rig recently landed an order for 22,000 bottles of vodka! With their capacity limitations and the fact that every bottle is filled and numbered manually, it will take them about four months to fill the order. And the oil rig theme continues to find new applications with their brand as more and more customers are asking for specific bottle numbers that match the rig number that someone had worked on. That level of customization is not only unheard of at other craft distilleries, it reflects the passion of the rig workers for what they do.