The Interview with Bryce Parsons
With a huge shop local push on right now around our region, what better time to support local brewing and distilling than right now. The Wood Buffalo Brewing Company, while well known for its craft brewing since they opened their doors in 2012, has since upped their game when it comes to distilling spirits right here in Fort McMurray.
We sat down with Bryce Parsons, the master distiller of Bearhill Brewing Company (the parent company of Wood Buffalo Brewing Co, along with their three other Alberta based locations) to ask some questions about their ever-expanding list of locally distilled creations and the impact it’s making on our region.
Q: How did you get your start with Bearhill and subsequently Wood Buffalo Brewing Co.?
A: Wood Buffalo Brewing Co. opened shortly after I returned from Scotland with my MSc in Brewing and Distilling. However, they were not able to connect the still due to provincial regulations at the time. The founders had the foresight to feel rules would be changed. I was running a brewery in Edmonton at the time and they knew I had the background in distilling. Fate brought us together, and the rest was history. Was an easy choice, they are great people to work with.
Q: Bearhill Brewing has four locations across Alberta. What makes the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company stand out to you?
A: Distilling wise, it’s where I get the most creative. Our German copper still is a gem to operate and produces lovely product. Pub wise, its how we interact with the community both inside and outside our doors.
Q: A few months ago, I had the pleasure of trying something called “Meatsweat”. It was so different than any spirit I’ve ever tried before. Can you explain what that is, where it got its name and why you think everyone needs to try it?
A: Meatsweat is definitely on the creative front! In short, it’s a Northern Albertan take on two types of spirits smashed together -- Scandinavian Aquavit and Mexican “Pechuga-style” Mezcal. In long, It was made with our house whisky base that is peated and double distilled. Than, flavoured with cumin, coriander, caraway, chipotle, and chocolate malt before undergoing a third distillation. Now, the “pechuga-style” has the addition of meat hanging in the still. Traditionally its chicken or rabbit, but in this case I used bison. The hot alcohol vapors slowly pass by the meat cooking it and getting some body added to the spirit. The flavor is subtle but it definitely adds a primal quality. The spirit is finished in a mix of American and Canadian small barrels for seven months before being bottled.
Q: After the wildfire in 2016, something special happened. You decided to take some malt barley that was left outside during the fire and turn it into whiskey. Can you tell us about that experience and what you have been able to do with it since then?
A: I was in Calgary at the time of the fire. I have always believed whisky can tell a story and lock history in a bottle. After confirming modification of the malt, we made a 100% all malt whisky titled “The Beast” after the fire to forever lock in history. 100% of the proceeds go to the Friends of Fort McMurray Firefighters charity fund. That event was impactful to the community, a lot was destroyed, but we rebuild, move on and reflect. The Beast Whisky helps us do that.
Q: The locally made vodka and gin that’s already sold here seems popular. Tell us about their flavour profiles and how you were inspired to make them?
A: I just wanted to get something in the hands of the people and something that is only available in Fort. McMurray. The Vodka is malted barley and wheat based making it smooth, fruity and flavourful. I have made a couple gins, the first was bold and full of sage. The second was more classic with lots of juniper and spice, and the third is floral and citrus. Gin can be playful and adventurous, two qualities I find in the YMM community.
Q: One thing always seems clear to me about the leadership team at the Wood Buffalo Brewing Company - they want to be a part of the community and get deeply entrenched in the culture. Why is this so important to not just yourself, but to the ownership group and local leadership as well?
A: We are a bit different than the average pub in that we also make products within our communities. These are only successful if we engage the people in our communities to help shape these products. It’s open, it’s honest. The pub lets us have a venue to give the best experience of these products and becomes the “clubhouse” per se.
Q: We talk about the culture of a community, why do you think locally brewing beers and spirits can be part of that identity?
A: As mentioned before, you can inject personality in beers and spirits. It might as well be the local personality.
Q: Thanks for teaming up with Your McMurray Magazine to create a new community collective gin series. We’re really excited to be making something very local, and supporting such a cool organization with the proceeds (Theatre; Just Because). Tell us more about the very first gin in the series and what we can expect from it?
A: Treeline Northern Dry Gin brings on characteristics of floral and spice. It’s fun, playful and very versatile. The rose and elderflower are inviting. The juniper is soft, thus approachable. The grapefruit and lemon peel add a refreshing quality. Sarsaparilla brings in the exotic. Chamomile makes it calming, and the Paradise Grains, and Cardamom bring in a sharp finish.
Q: Can we expect a new gin every year in this series and do you have any ideas for what’s next in the line-up for locally distilled spirits right here in Wood Buffalo?
A: I just finished 52 gins in one year from our sister distillery Last Best in Calgary. One a year is definitely doable! For other upcoming spirits, we are approaching some aged rum, whisky, and maybe some botanical vodkas.
Thanks so much to Bryce for taking the time to answer our questions and for putting so much time and effort into doing something very unique and special for our community. If you haven’t tried all of these locally distilled spirits, we recommend getting some for the holiday season. These special bottles also make incredible locally inspired gifts and would be well received at any event.