“We really wanted to create an industry for Alberta, and I think we’ve accomplished that. We now have 37 distilleries in the province, and we are a force in the beverage industry here,” says David Farran, President of Eau Claire Distillery and of Alberta Craft Distillers Association.
Fifth generation southern Albertan, Farran grew up on a farm in South Calgary, where Woodbine is now. His maternal grandfather had the OH Ranch, and he grew up a young cowboy, even riding bareback bronc.
His father, Roy Farran, had married a Calgary girl and immigrated from Britain. He founded North Hill News, and was a politician, alderman, Solicitor General, and head of the Alberta Liquor Control Board.
Farran is the ultimate entrepreneur with a string of successes under his belt from good judgement and excellent timing. “One of my first jobs was with Ed McNally, who ran Big Rock Brewery, and he was a great mentor for me,” Farran says. “I was the first employee at Big Rock in 1984, and I did everything but make the beer.”
McNally encouraged him to go to school, and Farran took an economics degree at U of C. He graduated during the cost-cutting Thatcher years, and with dual citizenship, was appointed British Vice Consul, based in Edmonton. When that ended, he and his wife went on an expedition to West Papua, and on returning started Pipestone Travel Outfitters. They had three stores in Calgary as well as 120 adventures that they sold to travel agents around the world, selling the company just before 911 when the travel industry plummeted – which was sheer good fortune.
A spell back at the growing Big Rock followed, and Farran bought property in Calgary. Again with great timing, he sold at the height of the boom, and with veterinary partners, bought small animal veterinary clinics, which they grew substantially to own 65 clinics across Canada and build the first specialty hospital. They were bought out in 2013.
Farran and some likeminded enthusiasts were farming with horses as a hobby and producing grain, but they weren’t big enough for the Canadian Wheat Board. “We were drinking whiskey and thinking ‘wouldn’t it be fun if we could turn this into something made with horse-farmed grain’,” he says. “And then I visited Oregon and saw the growth of the craft industry, and thought ‘this is coming here’.”
But it wasn’t allowed in Alberta; to start a distillery you had to produce a million litres of alcohol. “There was a clause in the legislation that you could take 18 months to reach that level, so with Larry Kerwin, Big Rock’s brewmaster, I submitted a plan and took a bit of a gamble,” Farran laughs. “I bought equipment in Europe and we started producing – and in 2014 they changed the legislation.”
So what is bottle is closest to Farren’s heart?
“The most special one for me is Ploughman’s Rye. It was one of the first whiskies that came off the line at Eau Claire, but more importantly it’s made with the horse-farmed rye that we produced. So it really is the farm to glass concept, which wraps up the pieces of what we’re trying to do,” says Farran.
“We produced it with horses at Bar U ranch, and we carefully squirreled it away in barrels. It’s a superlative product for us, and it really reflects what we’re about. We may never see it again, but it’s received great accolades – I’m very proud of it,” he continues.
“I will celebrate this bottle with my fellow horse farmers. We do this every year, so this is symbolic of all the hard work that we’ve invested in that, and it’s a very special product to be able to share with them.”