The brewmasters at Yukon Brewing have been known to put all manner of things into their beers, from pureed ginger and stinging nettle to hand-peeled grapefruit and espresso coffee.
This Christmas they even have an ale that co-owner Bob Baxter describes as “a Christmas fruitcake in a bottle.”
So when Baxter and his business partner Alan Hansen got a call from a farmer with haskap berries to sell, the obvious choice for Whitehorse’s beer barons was to make … well … not beer?
“We got a call in the summer from a guy who was growing them out on the Mayo road, and he was wondering where he could sell them. He asked if we were interested in making a beer with them or something,” Baxter said.
“Anything that’s grown in the Yukon, we want to at least ponder it. Where our mind went when we got a sample of it was to make a spirit instead of a beer, something a little more unique. We ended up ordering about 400 pounds of berries from him. We had to run out quick and buy a freezer,” he said.
The new drink, a liqueur, retails for $30 per 500 ml bottle and there are only 850 to be had before they’re gone. It hit the shelf on Monday and is only being sold at the brewery storefront.
Haskap berries, considered by some to be a type of honeysuckle, are a blue tubular fruit that looks almost like the oblong offspring of a blueberry and a grape. While sweet and tart, the haskap is actually more closely related to tomatoes than North American berries. It is native to Japan and parts of Russia, but was introduced into northern Canada in the 1990s because it seems to thrive in subarctic and boreal conditions, according to the Haskap Canada Association.
The beverage is a hefty 23 per cent alcohol and starts with a clean, sweet blueberry flavour before finishing with a tart kick courtesy of the hearty haskap.
“A haskap is kind of like a blueberry, raspberry and saskatoon berry cross. It’s a kind of crazy explosion of flavour in the berry when you’re eating them raw, and that came through in the spirit as well. It’s really good either on its own or over ice, or over ice cream or whatever people experiment with,” Baxter said.
A liqueur might seem a surprising choice for the brewery that’s known more for its kegs than its casks but Baxter said it’s all part of a grand, if somewhat daring, scheme to branch out and have some fun with Yukon Spirits, the brewer’s sister company.
“The whole idea is to start playing with things a little more,” Baxter said.
“It’s time for us to recognize that we have a still sitting in the corner, let’s go have fun with it,” he said.
That still has been sitting in the corner since Yukon Brewing decided to try its hand at whisky making five years ago, but that process is taking a little longer than expected.
“Where we spent a ton of our time is on the whisky. Our old stuff will turn five this year, and we tried a bit of a blend. We did a blind tasting of our blend against a Glenfiddich and a 40 Creek, thinking that those are two pretty good single malts.
“We did pretty well, but we could tell that it still had some maturing to do. It’s barking up the right tree, but when we put a product out for the first time we want it to be great, not good,” he said.
To help the whisky along, Baxter said he’s been playing with different types of barrels to age it in, including sourcing some used port barrels from Europe.
At the end of the day though, the whisky just needs more time, but that also means more time for Baxter’s and Hansen’s imaginations to run wild. The liqueur isn’t the only creation two have been tinkering with.
“What we’re doing with this is starting a new line called Concepts. (The liqueur) is concept number one. Concept number two is going to be coming out sometime after the New Year.
“We took the leftover pulp from the haskaps, and added some leftover local black current pulp that we made beer with, we put that all together into our still and made a grappa with it,” he said.
And that’s just what’s coming in the next couple of months. Yukon Spirit’s drawing board also includes things like a sage and juniper gin and even a possible absinth with Yukon-grown wormwood.
The company already has one spirit – Solstice – that’s been out for a couple of years now, though it has often confused the customers, Baxter said. It mixes sage, rosehips and raspberries into something that isn’t quite rum, but also isn’t quite vodka or gin either, and it didn’t turn out to be a particularly strong seller.
“We hope the bruising on our foreheads has gone away from the Solstice and bringing something out that people didn’t understand, but our whole point of view is that anybody can be ordinary. We want to see what we can do that’s a little bit different,” he said.
Baxter admits that the latest plans are equally unconventional, and it’s certainly a risk producing something other than the standard lagers, ales and stouts. But buoyed by their strong beer business, Yukon Spirits can afford to take some chances.
“They are a bit oddball. It’s off the beaten path. It’s either going to sink us or vice versa. It’s a little bit of a risk to bring out things that are different, but we’re trying to show off what we can do here with things that grow here,” he said.
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