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 Restaurant Review: CRAFT Beer Market

Since CRAFT Beer Market opened their first Edmonton, Alberta location back in December 2013, within the last month it has quickly become a bustling downtown venue for a casual, yet fun night out. Whether you’re meeting friends for late night snacks or heading out with co-workers during lunch or having a vent session over drinks, it has turned into the new popular place to see and be seen. I would also say that it is acting as an additional anchor in the revitalization of the downtown core.

The bar - the focal point of the restaurant.

The bar – the focal point of the restaurant.

I have been there on three separate occasions, all for different reasons, so I now feel like I can give a fair review of the restaurant and bar.

My first visit to CRAFT was for what was considered to be the VIP grand opening on December 17th. We were invited as our office had just booked out the top floor for a company mixer to take place in the New Year and this was a chance for a few of us on the party planning committee to check out the space, the food and the extensive drink selection.

Surprisingly, upon stepping into the restaurant, my initial thought was that it was way larger than I expected it to be. The main floor is deep set with booths at the front as well as bar height seating taking over a wall on a slightly raised area of the section. There is essentially no wasted space. If they can fit a seat, they probably will. The back portion of the street level space is lined along the east and west walls with booth seats, bar stools and raised wooden tables and at the very back some lower booths look into the room where all the beers and wines currently available are stored and tapped. However, the real focal point is the huge bar that houses over 100 different taps with large pipes running the kegs from the back room to the bar, giving the place an industrial rustic feel. If you love beer, I really think you won’t be disappointed. And, if, like me, you don’t know much about beer, this is the perfect place to test some out and find one you enjoy drinking.

The restaurant's main floor.

The restaurant’s main floor.

The second level overlooks the main floor. Windows give you a peek into a kitchen and there are large booths and long tables that are perfect for hosting larger groups. Come summertime, the rooftop patio should be open and I think it will be wonderful for soaking up the sunshine over lunch or an early supper. Although, I suspect there will be long lineups to get a table. The basement provides extra keg storage, a coat check and the bathrooms along with ATM machines for those who find themselves in need of extra cash. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler in the basement, which, believe me, is fantastic as the main and second floors can warm up rapidly.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering about the food. At this grand opening event they had two stations set up. One served their Baja Fish Tacos and the other their Hawaiian Ahi Poke. I have to say that, on this occasion, the fish tacos were just okay. I think that there just wasn’t enough fish in the taco, so mostly I was eating cabbage, wrap and hot sauce. On the other hand, the ahi poke was amazing. The sashimi-grade tuna was incredibly fresh and melted in my mouth. The dish is served with cucumber, vinaigrette and crispy wonton chips. I believe if you order the dish there is also a spicy sauce that can be added, but that was included at this event. The texture of the fish against the crunch of the chips and cucumber was great, and the coolness of the tuna and cucumber nicely offset the spice from the sauce. It was my favourite appetizer. Servers also came around with samples of the Fast Food Sushi (cheeseburger and fries wrapped in bacon) and pretzel bites (stuffed with cheese and served with what I’m guessing is an aioli). What I like about CRAFT is that they do source out local produce if they can, and, from those few tasters, I saw the potential of the food. Without a doubt, the ahi tuna was enough to convince me to make a return trip.

For their first night being open, the service was superb that evening. Our server seemed very knowledgeable about what was on tap and she made recommendations based on what we mentioned to her. She even brought us small glasses of a few different beers to try before we made our decisions for our full pints. Overall, on first impression, the staff was very friendly. It was extremely busy though, so it took a bit of time for our server to make it back to take an order or drop things off. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. If you go in without the expectation of making it in and out within an hour, you’ll have a good time.

The extensive beer selection - over 100 on tap!

The extensive beer selection – over 100 on tap!

I visited CRAFT for the second time on January 10th. This is where I was a little less than impressed. I had phoned two days prior to make a lunch hour reservation. The hostess took my information and, while she initially mixed up the date, I corrected her and expected that they would have it on file when I arrived to meet my friend. Unfortunately, when I approached the desk, the hostess working that shift could not find my booking at all. Thankfully, she explained the situation to her manager and he immediately offered me two seats at the bar. His quick solution was satisfactory on this occasion since I was meeting just one person. Yet, if I had made a reservation for a group of four or more people, I would have been quite upset. Sitting at the bar with that many people doesn’t allow for conversation and, from what I could see, most of the other tables were occupied or likely reserved. I have absolutely no idea what happened with my booking as they never figured it out, but I really hope that it isn’t a regular occurrence. For the time being, I’m just glad they are taking reservations at all. They may rid of that eventually as I think the CRAFT site said it is temporary since they are new and unsure of how busy it will be, but typically their restaurants are first come, first serve. All I know is that had I not made a reservation, I may have been waiting for a table for a long time as one woman who was at the front when I walked in asked how much longer it would be and was told it was still going to be about twenty minutes and she replied, “but that’s what you said twenty minutes ago when I arrived.” Yikes! I understand that new restaurants are always going to have growing pains while they figure out staffing, routines and procedures, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

In terms of the food that afternoon, I had their CRAFT House Soup – a cheddar, jalapeno and Rice Howard House Ale concoction – that was quite delicious. It wasn’t overly creamy, the cheddar wasn’t overpowering and the pepper gave it a nice kick, but not so much so that it burned my taste buds. I also tried the crab cake sliders, which had crab cakes sandwiched between cucumber, arugula and a pretzel bun with citrus aioli and pepper salsa on the side. I enjoyed them, but make sure you eat them with the aioli and salsa as that really upped the flavour quotient. My suggestions for improvement with them is that the crab cakes should have been charred a bit to better keep the crab meat together and that maybe the cucumber only be placed under the crab cake rather than above and below it which acted as a press that subsequently squished the cake every time I took a bite of the slider and resulted in the meat falling out the sides. I’m also not a huge fan of the pretzel buns that seem to be more of a staple nowadays. Unless they’re baked fresh I find them to be too hard and dry to really add to a dish. I would much prefer a soft whole wheat bun over a pretzel bun. Of course, that’s just my opinion and I’m sure that many out there love pretzel buns. My friend ordered the Yucatan Chicken Salad, which looked really fresh and like a very substantial meal. The service, again, was stellar. The bartender was very attentive and checked on us throughout to take our orders, make sure the meals were alright and refill our glasses.

My third and most recent visit was just this past Friday, January 17th for my workplace get together. It took a bit of convincing to get some people to go, but quite a few of my friends either wanted to try something new or had been to the Calgary location and were looking forward to checking it out in Edmonton, so this party was the perfect excuse to do just that. We rented out the second floor for four hours of the evening. The package we went with included six different appetizers, two drinks per person and a variety of bite sized desserts. They moved the long tables usually situated in the center of the space to the sides and placed cocktail tables in the middle making for a variety of places to sit or stand. Initially, I was skeptical that the floor would accommodate 125 people, but it worked.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

The selection of appetizers chosen included a veggie platter with hummus and flatbread, chicken wings, pulled pork sliders (not available on their regular menu), fish tacos, pretzel bites and the ahi poke. I can’t speak to all of them as I only tried four out of the six items. However, I can say that the fish tacos were much better than at the grand opening – plenty of fish and more flavour. The ahi poke was just as delectable this second time around, so much so that many of us said we would have just taken the whole bowl of tuna if we wouldn’t have been frowned upon. The pretzel bites were soft and had just the right amount of cheese stuffed inside, but I tried them after they had been sitting out for bit and they were no longer fresh. Had I had some when they arrived at the tables, I’m sure they would have been even more enjoyable. The last appetizer I tasted was the pulled pork slider. Now, I love pulled pork sandwiches. They have become one of my favourite meals, and while I won’t say that these were terrible, they certainly could have used a little effort from the kitchen. It was literally just a bit of shredded pork on a pretzel bun. The sauce was subtle, but should have packed more of a punch with the barbeque flavour and it needed additional texture such as a slaw to really bring it up a notch. I was satisfied though and everyone else I spoke with raved about the food. CRAFT also did a good job of ensuring that the dishes were replenished regularly, so there was food consistently present.

Another aspect that I was happy with was the fact that CRAFT supplied servers to our party, and that they actually took drink orders throughout the evening. Prior to attending the party I wasn’t sure if we would have to take our drink tickets down one floor to the bar, but this simplified things for the party goers. And, for the most part, the servers were excellent at bringing the beverages back to the proper people (difficult at times as people moved around as they mingled with others), only seldomly mixing something up. In addition, I did read some of the reviews of the restaurant on Urbanspoon that complained of them being out of certain beers that were listed on their menu, so I was a bit worried that would be the case for our party, but it wasn’t. From what I could see they didn’t have a problem fulfilling the orders that were taken. This being one of CRAFT’s first large events for hire since opening, I would say they provided us with a memorable time and great service.

One thing I will note is that the acoustics were terrible. We were provided with a PA system for a quick speech and the handing out of door prizes, but with the music in the background as well as all the commotion from the patrons on the main floor as well as our zone, it was almost impossible to hear even from 10 feet away. I’m not sure if the microphone was turned up, but that’s something to consider should you decide to throw a party there and require that.

Also, I know it’s too late to make this suggestion to CRAFT, but they certainly should have contemplated adding an elevator into the building. I can see potential issues with overzealous customers who’ve had a little too much to drink having a difficult time navigating the staircase. If anything, as a precaution, I suggest they think about placing a bouncer in the stairwell area who can escort anyone who needs help to a cab.

All-in-all, I really like CRAFT. The sleek look, the relatively well CRAFT-ed (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) food (seriously, the ahi tuna makes this place), the welcoming atmosphere and the pleasant service are all things that will bring me back.

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

Grab some friends and have a nice meal, a couple drinks and some good conversation. More than anything, this place is about bringing people together and rediscovering the social aspects of your life again. They also offer daily deals on drinks and food, so check them out here.

If you’ve tried CRAFT in Edmonton, tell me what you thought of it by leaving a comment below. You can also follow the restaurant for up-to-date news on Twitter: @CRAFTbeeryeg.