Yukon Brewing is brewing up something special: whisky.
“It’s become a real fun project,” said president Bob Baxter.
It was a natural fit for the Whitehorse-based brewery.
“We already owned 90 per cent of what we needed because it starts with making beer, essentially,” said Baxter.
You wouldn’t want to drink that beer, though.
Brewed up from a special blend of yeast and malted barley, the 10 per cent beer used as the basis for the whisky contains no hops. It’s wood that gives whisky its distinctive flavour.
Tucked into the back of the brewery, more than 100 wooden barrels are slowly but surely turning into whisky.
Before it goes to the barrels, though, the beer has to be distilled into a spirit.
When Baxter, a mechanical engineer, and his partner Alan Hansen, a chemical engineer, designed the brewery, rather than running a chimney out of the roof, they fitted their kettle with a stack condenser to capture the steam and turn it into water.
“We didn’t want more holes in the building than we need in the Yukon,” said Baxter.
When making beer, the kettle is where the works are boiled and the hops are added.
A still is basically just a kettle with a condenser, designed to capture alcohol rather than water, so when Baxter and Hansen decided to start making whisky they took another look at the kettle and they got an idea.
With the help of a German still maker, the two engineers designed an attachment to go on top of the kettle that turns the whole thing into a still.
“It’s basically a big copper helmet,” said Baxter. “We pick it up and plunk it on top of our brew kettle and the first distillation we do is in our brew kettle.”
Because the kettle has a capacity four times larger than the still that they have, it saves a lot of time.
“We can do a week’s work in a day,” said Baxter.
As far as they know, they are the only ones doing it this way.
“Every time we talk to brewers that distill, who are mainly in the U.S., and we mention what we’re doing, they always look at each other and go, ‘Why didn’t we do that?’”
The “high wine” that comes off that first run in the kettle is about 35 per cent alcohol.
It’s then distilled again in a proper still, which brings the alcohol content up to a whopping 85 per cent.
Before it goes in the barrels to age it’s blended down to about 65 per cent alcohol.
Under Canadian law, to be called whisky it has to be aged in a wooden barrel for a minimum of three years.
Since they started making whisky in 2009, the first batches could be ready to go, but Baxter is in no hurry to rush it to market. “The longer we leave it the more complex it becomes, the more dimensions it attains, and that’s exactly what we want,” he said. “We don’t want simple, we want complex, and as the complexities continue to develop they amaze us every time we try it.”
Right now they’re playing around with different finishing techniques, different types of barrels and different blends.
Each batch is a little different.
“There is a whole bunch of different flavours,” said Baxter. “We used some peated malts, we used Munich malts that are roasted differently from just plain malt, all to create different flavours.
“The time will come where we have a little bit of this and a little bit of that and we’ll go, ‘eureka!’”
But there’s no rush. Good whisky takes time to mature.
“Maturity is like people, nothing can make them mature like age,” said Baxter. “You can try to speed that up, but the reality is, it just takes time.”
They still have to pick out a name for the whisky. It would make sense to use ‘Yukon’ in the name, said Baxter. However, because that is a place name, it can’t be trademarked, he added.
Whisky has a greater potential for wider distribution than beer. It doesn’t freeze, doesn’t go bad and is far more valuable by weight.
“A pallet full of whisky is worth 10 times a pallet of beer, but it costs the same to ship it,” said Baxter.
But it’s not all about money, he said.
“I can’t stress enough how fun it is to make whisky,” said Baxter. “I just wish we had more time to play with it.
“I have a life to live beyond whisky, or so I’m told.”
Contact Josh Kerr at email@example.com