Edmonton Business Review: Hansen Distillery

A bit of family history before being led into the production area.

Opened mid-December of 2016, Hansen Distillery was, by a slim margin, the second producer to enter the Edmonton market. Strathcona Spirits beat them to the punch by just a day. Although, to their advantage, Hansen Distillery has been welcoming customers through their doors from the very start.

Located in the west end of the city at 174 Street and 111 Avenue, their warehouse and retail space sits in the middle of a largely industrial area, which would be easy to miss. Nevertheless, the shop’s sweet lounge (available Tuesday to Saturday) as well as the tour and tasting offered Thursdays to Saturdays have given locals a great reason to pop by and expand their knowledge and palates.

Back around the Christmas holidays, I was given a certificate for two people to attend a tour and tasting at Hansen Distillery. I had been meaning to redeem it for a while, but I ended up holding onto it. Upon researching potential wedding venues in the new year, I came across their retail space as an option. I decided to reach out to owner Shayna Hansen to inquire about renting it out. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to use my voucher and to preview the place in person at the same time.

My fiancé and I were scheduled in for the 2:00pm slot on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were no formalities. We were simply asked if we were there for the tour and when we nodded in confirmation, we were told that we could just relax until the rest of the group made it in. As we waited for things to start, I walked around the room snapping photos. For a business that has only been open for a little over a year, they have certainly done a fantastic job with the branding. The custom logos, signage, metalwork and bar are a perfect mix of rustic and industrial design. Along with that, history and Albertan roots are hammered home here.

Several minutes later, our tour kicked off with Shayna talking about her family’s long tradition. Moonshiners go back four generations to her great grandparents who made it through World War I only to have to deal with the Great Depression. In those years, the spirits were made as a means of trading for food to keep the family fed. Fast forward to a framed photo of her grandparents driving a 1928 Ford Model A (the same vehicle sits in the showroom) in a parade with “Moonshiners” blatantly painted on the side. Things certainly have changed from then to now where moonshining has become a legitimate business. The trade passed down to Shayna’s parents and, after some hesitation, down to Shayna’s now husband, Kris Sustrik, who handles it all from the distilling down to the bottling at Hansen Distillery.

When we passed through the doors into their production area, we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous copper still, named The Mistress. It happened to be distilling a batch of their Barn Owl Vodka on that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t retain the exact details of the distilling process. I will chalk it up to the fact that I’m encouraging everyone who reads this to book their own tour and tasting in support of this local business. Yet, I can relay that we were allowed to taste vodka directly from the machine by dipping our finger into a tiny pool of the liquor. I probably wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances. However, Kris assured us, at 98 to 99 per cent alcohol, it was extremely sterile. The lick of vodka was strong, but also quite sweet.

Each ingredient used for their spirits are natural and/or locally sourced. The single fake ingredient (Kris was very honest about this) is the stabilizer in the cream used for their cream liqueurs, giving the products about a year of shelf life. As soon as a batch of liquor is ready, they bottle it right there. On a typical day, they’ll likely be able to do 500 bottles and labels, although the record stands at over 700. It’s actually such a small crew, that Kris pretty much has his fingerprints on every single item that leaves the warehouse.

Expanding their current line of vodka, rye, gin and moonshine, they’re just over a third of the way to finishing their first batch of rye whiskey, which by Canadian standards must be mashed, fermented and then distilled in a wood cask for a minimum of three years. When the barrels are ready, they’ll bottle and sell everything through the shop to ensure fans of Hansen Distillery get to be the first to try them. Explaining the steps and how the wood of the cask affects the flavour, I could tell that Kris is incredibly passionate about the craft. A year in, they’ve already won a couple of awards. Call it beginners luck, or perhaps it’s a real knack. Either way, Hansen Distillery seems to have a good thing going for them. If anything, they’ve come into it at the right time, acting as influencers in a new and burgeoning industry.

The tasting begins.

As the tour came to a close, we were led to a long table laid out with popcorn, water, and taster cups sitting in specially made horseshoe-shaped trays. While most of the hard liquors were quite smooth, admittedly, I’m not inclined to drink them straight, so I only had small sips of their vodka (a bit like disinfectant), Border Crossing Rye (a decent precursor to an aged whiskey), and Trouble Gin (lots of juniper berries with a hint of citrus). They absolutely knocked it out of the park with their seasonal spirits though. After initial tastes of the two cream liqueurs (Saskatoon Berry and Chocolate Hazelnut), Ring of Fire, and Cherry Rye, I went back to finish each of those off as they were all delicious on their own. The one that took me by surprise the most was the Ring of Fire. As a rye spirit, I was fully expecting not to like it, but the cinnamon really comes through and the chilli peppers provide just the right amount of heat to warm the body.

For about an hour and approximately three ounces worth of alcohol, the usual price of $7 per person for the Hansen Distillery tour and tasting is well worth it. Plus, if inclined, grab a bottle of a favourite as they’ve recently lowered the prices of their bottled spirits, passing along savings incurred when the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Corporation reduced the markup for small manufacturers who self-distribute products. When the tour and shopping spree is over, the cozy lounge space is ideal to relax and chat over a cocktail, too. Heck, it’s so adorable that I really could picture having a wedding reception there. At about thirty seats, including the bar, it would be quite intimate. A few extra tables could be squeezed in though. It may not work for me and my fiancé. Yet, it could be another couple’s dream spot.

Overall, this was a fun, casual learning experience. Shayna and Kris have been hitting it out of the park. With more than twelve months under their belt, I wish them the best of luck as they continue building the family’s legacy. They are the true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in Edmonton and Alberta, and I look to them as an example for what can be accomplished here in my hometown.

A fun use of storage in their warehouse.

Edmonton Bakery Review: Moonshine Doughnuts

Up close and personal with the doughnuts from Moonshine.

This past weekend, I published a review of Doughnut Party, one of Edmonton’s newest bakeries. Today, I thought I’d shift the focus to my experience of their sister enterprise, Moonshine Doughnuts.

Unlike Doughnut Party, Moonshine, the older of the two, functions as a marketplace vendor or by special order only. Although their goods are regularly available at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market and the downtown City Market, their schedule is prone to change. To seek them out, I recommend checking the “Find Us” page on their website for a detailed calendar of where they will be and when.

My co-worker and I had talked about picking up some of their doughnuts at one of the university pop-ups taking place either at the end of February or beginning of March. Between Grant MacEwan and the University of Alberta, the latter location turned out to be the best option as the train from Central Station was the quickest mode of transportation during our lunch break.

The February U of A pop-up must have been cancelled because it was taken off the calendar prior to the date, so we decided to go the first week of March instead. Everything timed out perfectly during our excursion; less than ten minutes from leaving work, we were already on campus.

Moonshine’s table was set up in the Student Union Building (SUB) along with several others stalls. Surprisingly, the place was buzzing with people, but the market was fairly quiet. There was no one ahead of us when we walked up to pick up our boxes of doughnuts.

As we were standing there making our transactions ($10 cash for four), I noticed that a board was set out with a list of that day’s flavours: earl grey, pear & chocolate chip, horchata and raspberry rose. Similar to Doughnut Party, Moonshine tends to keep posts on social media to a minimum and they rarely seem to inform their followers of what’s going to be available ahead of time.

Boxes of four doughnuts each were already packaged and sealed.

As my co-worker and I assume, this adds a sense of mystery and it also encourages people to stop by despite the lack of information. If Moonshine posts the selection early, it’s entirely possible that customers may be deterred if a flavour they’re not entirely fond of is included in the pack. As a business, they’re taking a chance, but I think it works to their advantage. Once patrons make the trek all the way there, they’re likely to buy regardless of what’s inside the box since they’ve already put in the time.

Honestly, I was slightly skeptical about what was included in the pack. After the strawberry rose from Doughnut Party, I wasn’t sure I could go floral again here; however, I was pretty ecstatic to see horchata on the list.

Contrary to the Party’s yeast based doughnuts, Moonshine, alternatively, goes with a vanilla cake foundation that comes out of the oven as a nice ivory colour. The vegan recipe is non-greasy, soft, yet perfectly dense. The dough bakes thoroughly without becoming firm on the outside and it’s moist enough that the cake stays together with every bite. No crumbs! I’ve heard that Moonshine even offers a gluten free version for those who have intolerances. I haven’t had the opportunity to try those though.

Now comes the best part. Eating them!

Since the strawberry rose was my least preferred out of the ones I managed to get my hands on at Doughnut Party, I decided to make the raspberry rose my first taster out of this box. I found the glaze to be a bit thick and slightly grainy from the sugar, but, in this instance, the raspberry flavour fared much better against the hint of rose. Whereas the strawberry rose tasted overwhelmingly floral, the raspberry rose had a great balance.

Later that afternoon, I cut the pear & chocolate chip doughnut in half to sample it. Personally, I found this to be subtly sweet and it definitely had the natural flavour of a juicy pear (I’m guessing that they may use real juice in the glaze). The semi-sweet chocolate chips added texture and more depth to offset any cloying sugariness. Visually, the chocolate also made the doughnut look more appealing as it, otherwise, seemed rather plain.

Before I left the office, I had also tried a portion of the earl grey. I was somewhat disappointed with the flavour of this one. In fact, I thought that the vanilla in the cake almost overpowered the taste of the earl grey tea mixed into the glaze and that’s saying a lot. I could see specks of the tea leaves throughout the glaze, but the flavour just wasn’t intense enough to warrant much satisfaction from eating it. There was only one bite where I sensed that slight bitter aftertaste that comes with drinking tea.

I saved the horchata for my after-dinner dessert and it was the right thing to do. This was by far my favourite of the grouping. The first time I’d learned of horchata, I was told by a staff member at Tres Carnales that it’s like Christmas in a glass. As made in Mexico, horchata is a milky rice-based drink with vanilla and plenty of cinnamon. Cinnamon is one of my go-to spices and it came through strongly here. It packed a punch and I was hooked.

Having a photo shoot at work before I devoured the doughnuts.

My boyfriend didn’t end up finishing all of the remaining halves that I had left for him, so I kept them covered and found myself eating the rest the following morning. My co-worker and I suspected that there was a chance the cake base wouldn’t stay fresh for long, and, in a way, we were right. The edges where I had cut the doughnuts were kind of dried out by morning and the glaze had grown harder; however, past those bites, they were still okay. My recommendation is that they should be eaten on the same day as purchased.

Generally, I’m not a cake doughnut person, so I can usually take or leave them. Yet, I really did enjoy these ones from Moonshine. I may even like them more than the ones from Doughnut Party.

While I probably won’t make a specific trip to grab a box on the regular, I’d certainly be keen to give Moonshine’s doughnuts another go if I happen by them at the market one day. No doubt about it, these are some tasty and indulgent treats.