Rig Hand Distillery: Bottling the Spirit of Alberta
Since craft distilleries started emerging in Alberta in 2014 the province has seen a number of spirits brands that evoke a taste of the provinces’ bounty of grains and other ingredients, but few have been as unabashedly Albertan as Rig Hand. Located in Nisku, the distillery immediately won attention for its distinctive bottles, designed to mimic the shape of the Leduc #1 Oil Well, but it’s since earned its longevity with a wide array of products that are just as Albertan as that oil rig bottle.
Beyond those signature bottles, part of what has set Rig Hand apart since it first opened as part of that first wave of Alberta distilleries is that while many craft producers have chosen to operate as boutique spirit makers that specialize in one or two exclusive products, Rig Hand’s owner and president Geoff Stewart came out of the gate with plans to go big. When he caught wind of provincial regulations changing to allow for small batch distilleries, Stewart, an entrepreneur by nature, promptly schooled himself on the spirits industry, visiting a number of distilleries in the States and writing up an elaborate business plan so that he’d be ready to apply as soon as local laws allowed for it.
Wanting to make sure that every Albertan who likes to imbibe would have a Rig Hand product they’d enjoy, having a diverse product range was always part of the game plan. Today, Rig Hand makes almost 80 different products.
“Most places tend to try and make one or two things,” Stewart says. “When we decided to make everything, people thought we were crazy. But it gives us the option to pour something different for somebody if they don't like one of our products. We realized we're never going to make one thing that everybody likes, but if we make enough things there will be one or two you do like.”
Stewart says that Rig Hand’s top seller is its Double Double coffee cream liqueur, with its Caesar-appropriate garlic vodka coming in second. Beyond that, the brand has a strong lineup of other flavoured vodkas (including unique flavours like jalapeño basil, saskatoon berry, and pink lemonade), rum-like sugar beet “brums,” gins, liqueurs like blue curaçao and limoncello, and whiskies. As with most distilleries, ready-to-drink cocktails have become a going concern and Rig Hand has a new line of canned cocktails with pre-seasoned rims, packaged with a special lid to keep the seasoning in place.
Rig Hand’s dedication to ensuring that everyone can find a drink they like is matched by a community commitment to help other budding distillers join the industry. Stewart routinely mentors other entrepreneurs, brings budding distillers into his facility to learn the craft, and even holds classes for both amateur distillers and those who want to turn their hobbies into businesses. He clearly is having a lot of fun building Rig Hand (despite what he calls seven years of non-stop work) and his infectious enthusiasm is trickling down to other Albertans with beverage-related dreams.
“We don't look at the other craft distillers as competition,” Stewart says. “For us, they're brothers in arms. Our competition are the companies that have had a stranglehold on the spirit industry for 85 years. We want to become as big as a company like Seagram, without compromising craft principles. We still want to source our ingredients locally. We still want to employ human beings to do the work and not automate things. But we decided that instead of our community just being Leduc, we want our community to be half the planet.”
Stewart is getting a few steps closer to accomplishing that goal by opening sister distilleries in New Brunswick and Texas that will help extend Rig Hand’s reach. He’s also in the midst of moving Rig Hand’s main operation to a brand new facility near the Edmonton International airport. That new building will not only serve as the brand’s manufacturing headquarters, but will also be a tourist attraction, with an old-time Western theme, a tasting room, events spaces, and an Indigenous interpretive centre that will help to reconcile the affect that the introduction of alcohol to North America has had on Indigenous communities. All of which goes back to Stewart’s commitment to dreaming big by not only outselling major liquor brands, but also creating a better, stronger industry.
“Most businesses have a three-to-five-year business plan. I started with a 50-year business plan,” he says. “I’m trying to build a legacy. I’ve got a couple granddaughters and a grandson on the way, so we're building this business for that generation to take over down the line.”