August 28, 2018
“Distilling is an art and a science,” says Jen Schmunk. “You put your touch on every single product with your own twist on flavours.”
Together with her husband, Andy, the Schmunks are working to open Medicine Hat’s first craft distillery.
“We had planned to open a business for a couple of years and chose distilling,” says Andy Schmunk, who co-owns Grit City Distillery with Jen Schmunk. “We thought we could introduce something new and exciting to Medicine Hat.”
The Schmunks are part of a growing group of entrepreneurs who are cracking an untapped market.
Ian Hathaway, research director at the American Centre for Entrepreneurship, has identified a trend in the growth of small distilleries.
Similar to the brewery industry, there has been an exponential increase in the number of small businesses in the distilling industry. In the United States, the distillery industry nearly doubled employment between 2009 and 2015. The growth, he writes, can be attributed to shifting consumer tastes and changes in regulations.
Indeed, the trend is mirrored in Alberta.
David Farran, president of the Alberta Craft Distillers Association, opened Alberta’s first distillery in 2014. He helped push for changes to Alberta’s distilling regulations, which opened the market to craft distillers in 2013.
“There has been a slight cultural change with people drinking less and moving to quality products,” he says. “This has also helped open the opportunity for producers of premium, craft spirits.”
Alberta’s craft distilling market went from zero to 35 distilleries, and counting, since 2014. In a few short years, Park Distillery and Eau Claire Distillery are among Alberta spirits that have been internationally recognized with awards for taste and quality. And they’ve tapped markets across borders, too. Eau Claire is now selling in Chicago and other distilleries are selling online.
“The most important thing for new entrants into the craft spirits market is to focus on quality products,” says Farran.
Jen, who took a took a master distilling course in Kelowna, B.C., is using local, quality ingredients in Grit City Distillery’s line of craft spirits. The grain is sourced from Schmunk Farms, just less than 100 kilometres from Medicine Hat and only natural botanicals and ingredients will be used to flavour vodka and gin.
Jen’s gin will be crafted with traditional botanicals and locally sourced ingredients. There will be a Honey Gin, Signature Gin and Forbidden Fruit gin. Vodka flavours will be unveiled in the future.
Rum and whiskey lines are planned for Grit City, and Jen expects to tap the barrels in the next couple of years.
Grit City’s premium craft spirits have already captured the attention of the local market. Medicine Hat’s local restaurants are keen to add Grit City’s spirits to their menu, having signed on to carry the spirits alongside local craft food producers such as Sweet Pure Honey and Medicine Hat Brewing Company.
The spirits will be crafted in a newly renovated 2,000 square foot building on South Railway Street. Inside and out, the former exterior siding shop is getting a prohibition-style makeover. Vinyl siding will be replaced with a rustic, modern look and neon signage.
Inside, the HVAC and electrical systems were replaced and there’s enough space for the distilling operation, office and small store.
“The two things we’re most excited about are, obviously, producing the spirits, but also creating a really cool building,” said Andy.
The Schmunks opened Grit City Distillery in fall 2018.