Dram Initiative #011 – Alberta Distillers Limited with Norm Little
Norm Little and I have very different ideas of retirement. When I get through with the great grind, I can promise you the last thing I plan to do is hang around the old stomping grounds with all of the people I’ve toiled with through the years. My feet will hit the road for parts unknown (and for those known and loved) and work will be the last thing on my mind.
But maybe that speaks volumes about our respective jobs. Or our attitudes. Or simply the people we meet in the fields we engage in. It’s not work when you truly love what you’re doing, right? Either way, Norm still loves what he does. And it shows.
Norm is, even in his pseudo-retirement, an unwavering ambassador for Alberta Distillers. He travels the circuits here, and has become what they call the ‘rodeo ambassador’ for the brand, throwing back great drinks with the ‘rough and tumble’ sort that make a living (or at least a loving) out of the more traditional Western way. And speaking with the man, that is exactly where he wants to be.
You had to know that it was only a matter a time before we delved into Canadian whisky. The Dram Initiative is a whisky club after all, not just a Scotch club. While still a relatively niche market in the global sense, Canadian whisky is now on the upswing again, and we could easily have had our choice as to which brand(s) we wanted to present to the collective.
The reality is though, our choice was a no-brainer. Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL) is a distillery right in our own backyard in Calgary. They have been responsible for some of the most well-received and highly awarded rye whiskies Canada has ever produced. They are also the only Canadian distillery that can legitimately say that they are producing 100% rye spirit.
The past couple years have seen the distillery finally seeming to take cognizance of the fact that they have something the world wants, and it ain’t just a mixing whisky. This is damn good stuff. Of late we’ve been privy to an exceptional 25 year old (grossly underpriced), a stunning 30 year old (also shamefully affordable) and the latest innovation, Dark Horse.
Hopefully the distillery continues this trajectory of experimentation and premiumization. It’s not that I want to pay more for my drams; it’s that I recognize a quality to price ratio that is simply not in sync with the rest of the world. Don’t believe me? Get your hands on some of this and then tell me otherwise.
As with all DI events, we cobbled together our unique resources to create an occasion. Making memories is what this is all about. The committee, with the help of Kate and Beam, pulled together an exhaustive line-up of the distillery’s whiskies, then complimented it with a couple of related gems to fill out the big picture. But whisky is only half of it, you know.
Norm dug deep into his saddle bag of trail stories and mischief to share some stories with those in attendance. We heard tales relating to the early days of Calgary and Alberta, the start up of the distillery, the evolution of the spirit and development of the brand, and some neat little nuggets relating to the people involved along the way. We also heard some tales of Norm’s hijinks and shenanigans. These little musings are what keep us coming back to the drink.
The evening’s line-up went a little something like this:
- New Make Spirit (White Dog) Unaged Rye
- Alberta Premium
- Alberta Premium 25 y.o.
- Alberta Premium 30 y.o.
- Alberta Premium Dark Horse
- Tangle Ridge
- Alberta Springs 10 y.o.
- Pendleton Let ‘Er Buck (*)
- Pendleton 1910 12 y.o. (*)
- Whistlepig 10 y.o. Straight Rye Whiskey (*)
You’ll notice the latter three have an asterisk beside them. These whiskies, while they may be sold under the banner of another brand, are all produced right here in Calgary at the distillery. In the past, ADL has sold and tankered away much bulk spirit prior to bottling. This distillate is subsequently matured and bottled by various other companies, but the DNA remains prevalent. You just need to know to look for it. This external demand for ADL’s whisky is as clear an affirmation of the quality of spirit produced here as anyone should need.
I’ve heard rumblings that internal demand for the Alberta Premium brands is increasing, though, and this practice of ‘off-saling’ may be dead or dying. What can we say, world? We make good stuff here in Calgary and would rather see it held to our standards, than those of anyone else.
After our friend Norm had shared some stories from his years of accumulated lore, another mate of ours, J Wheelock, came up (with a little bit of arm-twisting) to share a few laughs and some of the story behind the Pendleton brand. This is one of the afore-mentioned outside bottlers of ADL spirit (though not so transparently). J is arguably one of the best presenters I’ve ever seen. Better still…he’s one of the good people. I count myself lucky to have him in my circle of ‘more-family-than-friends’.
J had the room laughing and talking it up amongst themselves before turning the room over to yours truly to discuss the rather…errrr…questionable tactics of Whistlepig. Fortunately, this company’s disingenuity seems to be behind it and they are moving in the right direction of late (and winning back a few fans, it would seem). Bottles of Whistlepig had to be sourced from Binny’s down in Chicago. Well worth it to try something like this, jacked up to 50% abv. A relative rarity in the Canadian whisky style.
I should repeat though…all of the whiskies we tried this eve were produced right here in Calgary at Alberta Distillers.
I know we managed to make a few converts this eve. To those that came out and were surprised at the quality on offer…here’s hoping you enjoy your journeys in Canadian whisky. It will be a fun ride for the next few years. We’re just putting this stuff back on the map where it belongs.
Many thanks to Norm Little for all of his time and effort. I know rooms this big are not normally Norm’s thing, but he did a bang-up job, and we were tickled pink to have him out. And to Beam Global for all of their kind support and assistance…our sincerest thank you. Finally…many thanks to one of my favorite couples: J and Kate. Both shared much time, physical effort, unparalleled insight and simply bucketloads of their ‘J and Kateness’ with us for this wonderful evening. To all of you…slainte!
And if any of you should happen to meet Norm in your travels…tell him Curt said to ask about his ‘booze’.
– Words: Curt
– Photos: Curt