Meet the Maker: Canmore distillers have moonshine in their blood
Calgary Herald Swerve
You could say that the art of distillation runs in Brad Smylie’s blood. A hundred or so years ago, his great-grandmother was a bootlegger in a tiny mining town in northern Ontario.
In the early 1900s, it was illegal to sell alcohol in mining towns, but Smylie’s nonna could see a market for quality moonshine. She put the distillation skills she’d learned in Italy to use in her newfound home, and she became a local legend, even inspiring a book about her boozy exploits.
Smylie was born after his great-grandmother’s death, but as the owner, with his wife Lindsay, of Raw Distillery in Canmore, he’s channelling her success by making and selling—legally—spirits. To date, his products include vodka, peppercorn gin and an unaged rye finished in port barrels. A citrus gin is next to be bottled, followed by a botanical gin, as well as some collaborations, including a peppercorn gin caesar with Bow Valley BBQ’s Parkway Clamato.
“The name refers to the raw form of whatever ingredients we’re using, and also the granite that’s in the Rocky Mountains,” Lindsay says. “We want to be bold, expressive and celebrate raw ingredients.” You’ll find Raw spirits on restaurant lists and at liquor stores in Canmore and Calgary, including Crush & Cork, Co-op Wine Spirits Beer, Crowfoot Liquor, Liquor Depot, Willow Park Wines and Spirits and others.
Born and raised in Northern Ontario, Smylie moved to Calgary to work as a firefighter. He and Lindsay met through a mutual love of the outdoors, a passion that eventually led them to Canmore. Brad’s other interests included making beer. In the course of a decade spent brewing in his basement, he realized the family history was calling to him; he wanted to try his hand at distilling. Production started in January, and the first products hit the stores in early May.
Business has been booming, and the Smylies have plans for expansion and the addition of a tasting room. It’s a far cry, Brad notes, from his first experience working with a still. That came courtesy of his grandfather, Pep, his bootlegger great-grandmother’s son. Every fall for a few years in his teens, Brad was roped into stoking the fire under the still, while the elderly man and his buddies made grappa, a high-test Italian spirit.
“It was a really nerve-wracking experience, to be honest,” Brad says. “A bunch of old Italian guys who’d yell at me because they didn’t want the smoke getting too high in case someone was watching.”
On the plus side, however, the experience became early training for both of Brad’s careers: firefighter and distillery owner.
Brad’s grandfather passed away a few years ago and, not long after, the Smylies thought it would be nice to own the old family still. They haven’t been able to find it, but they’re not giving up yet. “It’s in somebody’s basement somewhere,” Lindsay says.
History in a glass
Brad Smylie’s great-grandmother used to deliver her moonshine—dubbed Recreation Rye and Cobalt Bloom—in milk jugs to “blind pigs,” another name for a speakeasy. The idea behind the name was that people would pay for a look at a blind pig (or some other unusual animal) and, along with a peek at said critter, receive an alcoholic beverage.