Alberta quenches thirsts in Japan
Alberta has long been known for the pioneering spirit of its hard-working and dedicated people. Now it is gaining fame for the hand-crafted spirits that are produced in the province.
Fifty years after Canada’s favourite cocktail, the Caesar, was invented in Alberta, a new wave of craft distilleries is carrying on this tradition of innovation and creativity — and making its way to Japan.
The industry plays an important role in the Canadian economy. According to Spirits Canada — the national association rep-re-sent-ing Canadian distillers— in 2017 Canadian spirits businesses sustained more than 8,500 full–time jobs in Canada, contributed C$5.8 billion to Canada’s GDP and exported products valued at C$600 million around the world. Although Alberta’s craft distilleries contribute only a small amount to these figures, the fact that they are thriving is all due to an important change in policy.
In 1993, Alberta became the first Canadian province to privatize liquor retailing, creating an open and competitive market. However, it wasn’t until production limits were lifted by the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Commission in 2013 that craft distilleries could become a viable industry.
Before that, breweries and distilleries had been required to produce a minimum of 500,000 litres per year to be able to sell commercially. That amount might be attainable for a brewery, but not an upstart dis-tiller. Now more than 20 small-batch producers can be found across Alberta, each with its own perspective on the time-honoured art of distillation, but sharing one thing in common: a focus on using quality grains, pure glacier water and botanicals from the province.
As André Corbould, deputy minister of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry Trade, said during a recent trade mission in Japan, these are products and resources for which the province is known: “Alberta has always been an abundant agricultural heartland, with some of the best grain-growing regions for barley, wheat and rye in the world. And then of course there’s our pristine water that comes from the glaciers of the Rocky Mountains.
“With all those high-quality ingredients readily available in province, it would only make sense that we could produce some of the best-tasting quality spirits. Until recently, however, this was not the case. Most of our grains were being shipped all over world, some destined to end up casked and in liquid form, but not value-added [made into finished products] in Alberta. Now, with the changes in the provincial liquor regulation requirements, we have begun to see a great deal of diversification and strength emerge in the spirits industry, not only with success in the province, but also for export opportunities as well.”
In May, three Edmonton-based distilleries and producers — Hansen Distillery, Strathcona Spirits Distillery and Token Bitters — came to Japan, to take part in a cocktail competition at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo and debut their products at the Tokyo Bar Show 2019. Both events made it very clear just how strong the export opportunities are for Alberta craft spirits in Japan.
In 2016, Token Bitters business partners Keenan Pascal, Cam O’Neil and Jamie Shtay took note of the growing number of locally produced spirits and saw an opportunity to marry them with bitters made from organic ingredients sourced from Alberta farms. As Pascal said, the products caught on al-most immediately at home, and this popularity led to the chance to take the products overseas.
“The popularity of our handcrafted artisanal aromatic bitters has been incredible,” Pascal noted. “Bartenders and mixologists in Alberta loved having another tool of creativity in their arsenal. So when the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) approached us to explore the Japanese market in 2017, we felt it was a great next step to grow and diversify the business in a market that appreciates cocktail artistry.
“On that first trip, we found that Japan’s cocktail scene has drawn attention from some of the world’s best bartenders, who turn to it for inspiration. Much like Japanese cuisine, mixology is done with precision and perfection, elevating the craft of cocktail making to an art form.
“Our bitters use organic ingredients and are then hand-made and bottled without chemicals or preservatives. We felt confident our products would fit well behind the Japanese bar and with the help of the EEDC and the Alberta Japan Office we were fortunate to find Heavenly Vines as an importer.”
Pascal said that the first trip to Japan was an inspiration: “Being here, we gained insight from some of the world’s best, which has resulted in creative new ideas and inspired our work back home. On this most recent visit, we were incredibly pleased to formally debut our products alongside Strathcona Spirits Distillery and Hansen Distillery at the Tokyo Bar Show, and to hold the Token Bitters Competition at the Embassy of Canada to Japan in Tokyo.”
This competition — dubbed A Dash of Inspiration — was noteworthy for at least two reasons: it was focused solely on bitters, and was held at an embassy. Perhaps the interesting combination was the reason that applications for the competition were filled within 24 hours of its being posted on the website of Bar Times’ Ginza store. Also strong draws were the competition’s prestigious judges: the legendary Yoku Miyazaki, owner of Bar Tenderly, and the illustrious Hiroyasu Kayama, owner of Bar Ben Fiddich.
The competition challenged Japanese bar-tenders to experiment with one, or a combination, of Token’s four original bitters — Calder Chai, Ritchie Cherry, Strathcona Orange and Whyte Lavender — to create a winning cocktail. Six finalists competed on May 8, and Takeshi Oba, owner of Bar Cacoi won with a drink called Kotan (see below). He earned himself a trip to Alberta to meet local bartenders and create his own original flavour of Token Bitters.
It will be rewarding to have new Alberta products in glass to which we can toast.
It will be rewarding to have new Alberta products in glass to which we can toast.
The competition was followed, a few days later, by the Tokyo International Bar Show, the largest such event in Japan. Held at Tokyo Dome Prism Hall, the show drew more than 13,500 attendees.
While the event is designed for professionals, for a meager ¥5,000 mere spirit-loving mortals could join in the festivities and not be disappointed. The booths were decked out and featured well-known names from around the world, the tasting pours were generous and the atmosphere was lively and festive.
There were also opportunities to participate in master classes and seminars, and to watch some of the best bartenders in Japan shake, stir and serve drinks at Grand Prix competitions. This year, it also marked the debut of Alberta’s artisanal gins and bitters.
“In setting up at the show I must admit I was worried whether we were punching a bit out of our league,” admitted Shayna Hansen, owner of Hansen Distillery. “But as the show started, people seemed to be really drawn to our booth in search of a unique flavour profile and I was really pleased to see we fit right into the level of prestige at the show. This is certainly a new chapter in the Hansen legacy, from our roots in moonshine now all the way to Tokyo.”
Adam Smith, owner of Strathcona Spirits Distillery — which is touted as the smallest distillery in North America — added: “Alberta’s botanicals were begging to be discovered. I often personally pick the juniper myself from Alberta Badlands and the seaberries from Edmonton’s Southgate neighbourhood, and it was rewarding to see the response both our story and our taste profile received in Japan.”
As David Anderson, managing director of the Alberta Japan Office explained, craft distillers and producers such as Token Bitters, Hansen Distillery and Strathcona Spirits Distillery fit into a larger picture of Alberta’s commercial ties with Japan. “Japan is a key partner for Alberta and its third-largest export market for agri-food products. We are keen to continue to work with Japan to find increased and diverse opportunities of mutual benefit in both trade and investment across all sectors.
“This is particularly true now that we are enjoying new advantages presented under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. Our province has enjoyed a strong relationship with Japan for decades and in fact, our office here in Tokyo represents Alberta’s longest-standing office any-where in the world. With next year mark-ing our 50th anniversary in market, it will be rewarding to have new Alberta products in glass to which we can toast.”
Sift the green tea powder into a bowl. Add Token Bitters, maple syrup, whiskey and hot water. For best results use water just under boiling point. Whisk vigorously in a zig-zag motion until the tea is frothy. Garnish with hanahojiso and serve with a traditional Kyoto Yatsuhashi cookie.