Despite challenges facing the competitive liquor industry, The Fort Distillery is seeing steady growth, and company owner/founder Nathan Flim says it's the people, the product and the hustle that get the credit.
It may seem launching a distillery just before the pandemic, and then trying to grow it amidst industry uncertainty might be a case of bad timing. But that's not how Nathan Flim and the team at The Fort Distillery see it; the startup has found timing to be on its side, and Flim plans for it to stay that way.
"I've always had the drive to own my own business and when I read a magazine article about a chemist getting into distilling, that's all it took," said Flim, whose own background in chemistry provided him work in government and agriculture before he and wife Kayla took the entrepreneurial leap in 2018. "I researched, talked to suppliers and other distillers, and thought, ‘the timing is good, and Fort Saskatchewan has a tight business community. We're young; if it doesn't work out, we'll start over.”
He hasn't had to do that. Now with about 25 full and part-time employees, The Fort Distillery and its companion offering, Tumbler & Rocks, (ready-to-serve premium cocktails) are navigating an industry that remains challenging. Distribution in other provinces is one hurdle, as differing regulations restrict access to those markets. Then there's the federal liquor tax, which (with a rate tied to inflation) saw a hike of two percent this go-round, less than anticipated, for the time being.
In an industry still trying to reboot after the pandemic, Flim approaches it all through his business' core values, focused on fun, relationships, growth, and bringing craft cocktails to consumers that are unique, yet familiar—think cosmo, margarita, old fashioned. And with a few key sales and production people helping lead the charge, Flim has his sights set on western Canada and more of the US market.
Heading up much of the fun and creativity is operations manager and head distiller Julia Le. In what she describes as a bit of fate, Le saw Flim’s online job posting when she was travelling in Vietnam, just after finishing her science degree. She took on the steep learning curve with Flim when she joined The Fort, and says she’s found her ‘accidental joy’ creating products that include a signature whisky and a couple of yearly specialty products (a cranberry gin and a two-bean brew — a coffee/chocolate liqueur — her personal favourite).
“Nathan and I were jacks of all trades at first,” Le remembers. “There were some missteps along the way, like when I was trying to get a certain shade of blue, using red cabbage. I ended up with a sweet alcoholic borscht.”
A few years on, Le says she’s excited about The Fort’s upcoming whiskies (whisky must be aged a minimum of three years) that she says is ‘100 percent mine’ and utilizes non-traditional chocolate malt or oat bases. “It’s the most labour-intensive thing I’ve done; to go the funkiest I can within a normal range.”
Le is also making her mark as a female distiller in the very male-dominated industry, though one she says is cooperative, kind and supportive. She tries to be the same with her own (mostly female) staff.
“I’m a manager and I love my job. I always strive for a happy workplace,” she says, pointing to bi-weekly staff barbecues and team-building trips to visit with partners like local berry farmers.
The Fort Distillery’s Tumbler & Rocks is making waves in the west and in some US market (mostly the northeast) with spirit forward, premium, ready-to-serve cocktails. In Alberta, Amanda Gaydos serves as brand coordinator, and though she majored in management at university, Gaydos says the job is now largely creating social media posts and video reels spreading The Fort Distillery message (sometimes featuring Flim), or showing people enjoying the products.
“Mountain Pass Whisky is in about 350 locations across Alberta — the focus on mountains and use of glacier water make it an easier sell in places like Jasper and Banff, but since we’ve partnered with the Oilers, the brand doesn’t have quite the same interest in Calgary,” laughs Gaydos.
The business has already scored big on that front, with the Fort Distillery claiming bragging rights as the house whisky at Rogers Place, and provider of Ready to Serve (RTS) cocktails at Edmonton's Jubilee Auditorium. An airline partnership is in the works too, and Fort Distillery is a regular presence at Farmers' Markets (Old Strathcona, Downtown, Red Deer, St. Albert) and beer and wine shows.
“We are even partnering with a furniture company, so opportunities go beyond where we would traditionally think to market liquor — and they even came to us. That is happening more as we get our name out there,” says Gaydos, adding she has freedom to run with ideas and get inspiration by mentoring up-and-coming social media/marketing students from NAIT who come to The Fort Distillery on job placements.
Such aspirations were barely a dream when Fort Distillery opened a lounge/distillery in a former flooring store showroom at the edge of Fort Saskatchewan five years ago. While still holding down a day job, Flim and a few staffers used their own-made vodka and gin on a shoestring budget, "with a 600-litre still and a couple fermentation tanks," as the basis for drinks in the cocktail lounge, which Flim acknowledges kept the company going in early days.
The lounge was forced to shut down during COVID-19 just as Flim and company launched Tumbler & Rocks - another fortuitous bit of timing. Riding the craft cocktail wave, Flim says Tumbler & Rocks has elevated Fort Distillery's profile, especially among those who are not inclined to create their own cocktails at home.
"Maybe you've had an Old Fashioned at a bar, but don't have the ingredients or know how to make it yourself. We want to make it easy for you," says Flim, adding that decisions around price point, using bottles versus cans for the RTS cocktails, and buying vodka from other local distillers rather than making it themselves, have all been part of the marketing process.
The Fort Distillery hangs its hat on creating small batch spirits with a twist. Flim says all products have at least one uncommon ingredient in the recipe, from haskap berries to toasted malt barley. Experimenting with unique grains and old wine and rum barrels, Flim, Le, and the team, have a lineup that includes limited releases as well as signature offerings like Canadian Boreal Gin, and the economical, corn-based Mountain Pass whisky.
"The industry is maturing a bit—there's probably about 80 distilleries in Alberta today," Flim says. "When I started, you could launch with a gin and vodka, and you'd be okay. But I like where it's going, especially around the craft cocktail culture, so our focus there is, 'drink less but drink better'."
For those living around or visiting in central Alberta, The Fort Distillery's tasting room in Fort Saskatchewan is open for try-before-you-buy sampling.