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It’s a sweltering day in July and David Farran is throwing up clouds of dust, pelting down the back roads from Turner Valley, Alta., into the foothills west of town.

Here, under the long shadow of Ware Ridge, Farran farms — oats for his horses, and barley for the Eau Claire distillery he co-founded three years ago.

Growing barley for the business is a vastly more hands-on process than most distillers undertake. But Eau Claire’s down-on-the-farm backstory doesn’t end there. Farran farms with Percheron horses as he ploughs, turns, sows and reaps. He buys them from the Ohio Amish, among the last people in North America still farming this way.

Eau Claire Distillery David Farran Whiskey

David Farran pours whisky at his Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, Alta. (Kate MacNamara/CBC)

The plan for a distillery, Farran says, was inextricable from the farming he was already dabbling in.

“After a hard day of harvesting in the hot sun, you’re sitting around having a whisky, and the idea was born: like, we should distill this stuff.”  

Now, it’s all part of upstart Eau Claire’s pioneering image, the link to the province’s settlers, to generations-old family farms, the love of land, and its particularity. With the old wheat pool swept aside, distillers like Eau Claire are touting grain, defined by the specificity of terroir, the concept of soil and climate’s effect on crops.

barley David Farran Eau Claire Distillery

Barley is harvested close to Ware Ridge, Alta. (Kate MacNamara/CBC)

Authenticity and heritage, Farran acknowledges, are an important part of selling his products: spirits like gin, vodka, and later this year, whisky. In an age of giant brands, “this crazy horse farming,” as he puts it, broadcasts his company’s diminutive size, local Alberta standing, and independence in a way that cuts through the contested language, including words like craft, authentic, and artisanal, used by small players like him, but also easily deployed by multinational competitors.

Roots at Big Rock

It’s no coincidence that Farran cut his teeth at Big Rock Brewery (as did his business partner and Eau Claire distiller, David Kerwin). Though much larger now, Big Rock was a newly established Calgary microbrewery when Farran joined in the mid-1980s. Its founder, the late Ed McNally, was a hobby farmer himself and always played up the brewery’s rural roots.

“Big Rock really connected to the agriculture and farming industry across the Prairies,” says Shelley Girard, the current vice president of marketing at the now publicly traded company, noting that the company’s most iconic advertising campaign deployed two round hay bales, stood on end, in western grain fields. The bales were covered with Big Rock tarps, and looked like giant beer cans, set out to be visible to road traffic.

Craft brewers played up farm connections

That echoes an ethos common to many of the small breweries that have proliferated across the United States and Canada since the ’80s. And the process-oriented, craft movement, as it became known, snagged a growing piece of the beer market, something the big brewers quickly noticed. Many began buying up craft names, the likes of Creemore Springs Brewery, bought by Molson Canada, now part of the multinational Molson Coors Brewing Company, and Mill Street Brewery, bought by Labatt Breweries, itself owned by the world’s biggest brewing group, Anheuser-Busch InBev.

That blurring of lines so stoked tension between big beer companies and small independents that a U.S. industry group has now formed to represent only small, independent craft brewers.

Eau Claire Distillery David Farran horses percherons

David Farran poses with the Percherons he uses to work his farm. (Kate MacNamara/CBC)

The farm connections help draw a similar distinction, though they are sometimes a trade-off. Big Rock’s communications manager, Suzanne Fox, says she still gets calls about those hay bales, now moldering in farmers’ fields, the tarps deteriorating and flapping disconsolately. And Farran admits that three straight days perched on the metal seat of a plough in springtime reminds him it’s a labour of love.

But it is an important point of differentiation, says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of the book Canadian Whiskey, the Portable Expert, and someone who has followed the Canadian industry for more than 20 years. He says small distillers like Eau Claire that are able to tap into consumer’s growing affinity for farm-to-glass processes, have an edge.

“When you see [people] talking on the whisky boards and things like this, they’re all talking about process, and where the grain came from, and GMO versus non-GMO. I think it’s huge, quite honestly … I think it’s a really, really powerful selling tool.”

A boom in craft distillers

It’s that burgeoning interest that has global spirits companies’ attention. According to Mintel, a market research firm, craft spirits are growing by leaps and bounds. In 2012, only 6 per cent of total spirits retail launches were positioned as craft; by last year, that figure had risen to 17 per cent.

In some instances the big distillers have released craft-style extensions of their own brands, the likes of Jameson Caskmates. But the landscape is also increasingly dotted with new entrants. Five years ago, de Kergommeaux estimates, there were no more than a dozen micro-distillers of craft spirits in Canada. Today, he says there are in the region of 120. And the takeovers are coming.

“This is something that’s been going on for a while in the United States, but they’re starting to take a look at Canada, now, as well,” he says. Big fish like Constellation Brands, William Grant and Sons, and Moët Hennessy have been among the buyers.

Small players will either cash in by selling up, or they’ll have to find a way of broadcasting to consumers that they’re still small, and independent. That’s where horses come in.

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