Progress on the Prairies

Last Mountain Distillery, Where are they now, and what are the doing?

!It was an exciting time for Canada’s Province of Saskatchewan in 2010 when Last Mountain Distillery became Saskatchewan’s first Micro Craft Distillery.  They opened their doors in 2010 in their garage at their home in Lumsden Saskatchewan, Canada.  This was the beginning of the Craft Distillery movement in Saskatchewan Canada.

You may not think this was a big thing, but this is a province that is so conservative in its views that in the 1980’s at it’s city fair in Regina, the province shut down a spandex aerobics demonstration at the beer gardens because it was to provocative.  Beer drinkers are extremely loyal to the old commercial breweries in the province such as Pilsner, Bohemian and not Molson Canadian or Labatt’s Blue, that Pilsner beer is an official sponsor of it’s provincial CFL team the Saskatchewan Roughriders.  Who at that time had only won 1 national championship in it’s 75 year history, but they have the highest home attendance in the league.

But, to be the fist craft distiller in a new market, invest everything you own, and where your customers are known to be hard core loyal brand customers, is an incredible achievement for Last Mountain Distillery.

The Saskatchewan people of the province are extremely loyal to their brands.

As Last Mountain Distillery was the first, the Provincial Government really did not have the legislation for the craft industry, so LMD was one of the leaders that pushed the Saskatchewan government forward in developing the legislation that we see today.  Our hats are off to LMD because we have a thriving craft industry in the province because of distillery and breweries like them.

LMD 1200L Kettle
1200 Liter Still

LMD Columns
Columns

They started out in their garage in Lumsden, Saskatchewan with a DIY still built from a keg.  From my interview with Colin Schmidt, the owner of LMD, is what I did not know is that they had transformed their garage into a legit commercial building to operate their distillery out of.  They were hand grinding their grain to filling bottles of spirits with a kitchen picture.  It was just not a home car garage with some boilers and still.

LMD's first still.  Now used for Gin.
LMD’s Original Keg Still

They soon outgrew their home distillery and they built a stand-alone commercial distillery in Lumsden around just a couple years after.

It was around the Spring of 2014 that I had an opportunity to go on my first tour of their distillery with a buddy of mine and his Kinsmen chapter from Regina.  What a great evening that was.  We even wounded up at the Lumsden Hotel & Steak Pit for a nice steak after.  Regardless of my fond memory there, the tour was very interesting how they utilized every square inch of their new space.  You can tell they had already been quickly outgrowing their new distillery as soon as it opened. 

One thing I noticed that they had little space for aging their whisky.  I had asked a question about rolling their barrels for aging the barrels and they said that they had to move the barrels around the

distillery often that rolling the barrels was not necessary.  So, you can tell then they already outgrew their space and expansion had to be on their minds.  More on this topic a bit later in the article.

Their newly built distillery was much larger than a garage.  However, it was full of all the necessary equipment, as well as a new much 1200 Liter column still.

Regardless of all that, they were achieving success with their LMD vodka and their specialty Dill Pickle Vodka was all the rage.  I remember at Christmas time that I wanted a bottle of their Dill Pickle Vodka and all the liquor store were sold out of it.  But I remembered that Last Mountain Distillery usually had a booth at the Saturday Farmers Market that was being held at our Shriners Hall in the winter months.  And what did I find?  Last Mountain Distillery’s booth with their Dill Pickle Vodka.  And for $5 less that the provincial liquor store.  Score!

In Canada, you have to mature your spirits for 3 years in a wood barrel before you can call your product a whisky.  It becomes an expensive and risky investment for a start-up craft distiller to make and age the spirts just to wait for profits 3 years away, only be sold at the same price as vodka.  Where the larger commercial distillers have already done this for decades and have a continuous stream of whisky barrels coming available for sale every season.  That is why you don’t see too many craft distilleries with a signature whisky for some time if at all.  It’s just less risky and expensive to stick to Vodka and Gin.  This is where LMD separated from the rest.  Colin and his wife Meredith invested and risked it all and jumped into the Whisky market. 

An Interesting fact about Canadian Whisky.  Unlike American Whisky, American Oak barrel must be aged in American Oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years.  In Canada, you can use any species of wood to age your spirits in.  This provides Canadian Whisky makers a huge variety of flavour profiles to distinguish themselves from their competitors.  And you must age the whisky for a minimum of 3 years.

So Where Are They Now

Fast forward over the next 5 years, Last Mountain Distillery have expanded its product line a lot due to its maturing in the market.  They have brought to market a seasonal limited-edition Cherry Whisky that is a crowd favorite, Hard Iced-Tea, a full line of Flavoured Vodkas, Limoncello and much more.  Their Saskatoon Berry Vodka is really good.

LMD's 2016 expansion
LMD’s 2016 Expansion

This July 2020, I had an opportunity to meet with Colin Schmidt one on one for a tour of the distillery and discuss what they have done the last few years and their achievements.  It was such a pleasure to be able to have Colin take the time out of his Saturday and away from his family to meet with me.  It was a fantastic tour.  But he wouldn’t spill some of his trade secrets even though I tried really hard.

Barrel Storage
Barrel Storage

In 2016, LMD endeavored to upgrade their distillery with a 3,500 square foot addition to store and age all their products.  As I mentioned earlier, it was very evident in the early years, they were lacking room to age their whisky.  But WOW, this addition is amazing.  They have gone up and above themselves to make work easier for their staff to now roll the barrels in place with having the barrels sit on rollers.  The barrels themselves sit on metal shelving that can be moved with fork lifts as well so they can sort their barrels in columns by age.

Colin mentioned that this not only makes their work easier, this also limits the amount of the angles share they loose in the barrels.  Their new barrels are only used for a few years then the spirits are bottled.  Collin said that aging the spirits in the new barrels for longer, that the spirits get too much of an oaky flavour.

They use a combination of used and new barrels, all imported from the USA. 

They need all this new space because they now produced 150 barrels of whisky just this year alone, that was an approximate 5000L of Whisky per year of output.  That is not even talking about how much vodka they distilled.

Products

2020 Rye
2020 Rye

The oldest barrel they have aging right now is a 6-year-old barrel of Whiskey followed by a 5-year-old barrel of Rye.  Which I had the privilege of sampling, and was that a nice drink.  As I noted, I’m not much of a strait Rye drinker, I like Whisky more, but this was very pleasant and not spicy at all.  The rye was smooth and not over powering.  It had some bite as you would expect from a rye, but it was not overpowering.  If you have a chance to get your hands on a bottle, you will not regret it.  But you will have to wait another 3-5 years for this barrel that was just barreled in July of 2020.  An interesting note about LMD’s distilling process, 1 out of every 10 runs is a specialty run.  This ensures a never-ending supply of special edition whiskies for us down the road.

As I mentioned, they have also introduced a Hard-Iced Tea which was pretty good.  They make their own tea in house.  I tried it for the first time camping a couple years ago and it was a pretty good iced tea on its own.  Now for the Non-Canadians, ice tea in Canada is not like the American iced tea.  Canadians like it pretty sweet.  It doesn’t resemble cold tea at all actually.  But it is a refreshing summer cocktail, with or without alcohol. 

What was a kid favourite, is now for adults!

Dill Pickle Vodka is great in Caesars, a Canadian favorite.  With a production of around 37,00 Litres a month, it has become a core product of LMD.  They source the ingredients from the local farmer markets in the scenic region between Lumsden and Craven Saskatchewan.  The ingredients are infused together with the vodka.  No pickles are made in the process.  But wouldn’t that be a boozy treat, instead of cherry bombs, boozy dill pickles in a jar.

Remember that original still that was up on the shelf?  That has now been repurposed to make the LMD Gin.  Everything is firing on all cylinders.

Working Environment

Colin Schmidt - Last Mountain Distilery

Last Mountain Distillery has grown not only with some important equipment that most craft distillers don’t have, but also grown in staff.  They have gone from 4 to 6 full and part time employees to around 20 employees in the last 5 years.  Some of their staff are retirees who have found retirement jobs that allows them to also spend time with their families.  Something that they focus on as a business.

I mentioned earlier that LMD has worked to make working there easier for their staff which also improves production.  They now have an automated grain crusher and feeder system.  This makes work much easier for their staff.  Hauling and grinding grain by hand or a drill for our home brewers out there, is still a lot of hard time-consuming work.

Automated Grain Crusher
Automated Grain Crusher

They have also added a steam distillation unit to accurately measure their distillate at every step in their process instead of sending it off to a lab to be tested.   This doesn’t only save time, but it also improves the safety of their product to their consumers.  Again, thinking about their welfare of others before their bottom line.

Steam Distillation Unit
Steam Distillation Unit

At the end of the day, LMD is proud to have started and grown in the small town of Lumsden and to employ locals within their distillery.  They want to keep the small town feel in an ever-growing commercial distillery.  Balancing family life with work life.  Something we all strive for living in larger cities.

Lokel

LMD's sub brand Lokel

Recently LMD has recently introduced a subsidiary brand called Lokel.  Lokel is branded to bring the customer lower priced vodka.  To do this, they bring in neutral grain spirits that is not distilled on site.  Then redistilled on site in a separate dedicated do their cuts.  This is a practice of bringing in neutral gran spirits from large ethanol plants is done by a few other craft distilleries in the province, and puts Last Mountain Distillery on a level playing ground in this market.  This gives Last Mountain Distillery both a premium and economic line of spirits.

Under the Lokel brand is where LMD have chosen to launch their  Root beer Schnapps, a Coconut Vodka and of course the Lokel Brand Vodka.

LMD feels very comfortable with the quality of the Lokel brand that they are now branding Lokel along with Last Mountain Distillery in marketing ads to associate the quality of Lokel with the quality of LMD.  A smart move with LMD with all the competition in the market in Saskatchewan now.

What makes Last Mountain Distillery different

What does make LMD different besides being the first craft distillery in the province?  I would have to say it is their culture in their distillery and their dedication to the craft industry.  They are a family first company, putting their staff and their families lives in the priority of things at work.  Nobody wants to miss out on an important life moment, and LMD is there to make that happen.  By keeping LMD in a small community where the spirit of these small Saskatchewan communities has always put family first, Last Mountain Distillery’s decision to expand their distillery in Lumsden instead relocating closer to their market ensures this culture moving forward.

Creating the Lokel brand to separate their economy brand from their premium brand was also a great idea.  With their premium Last Mountain product line, they can continue with their grain to distilling process and knowing what they are putting in that bottle, and know that it is the best product they are making.  While at the same time the Lokel brand offers the economy brand of spirits being backed by a distillery known for its dedication for putting out a premium product.  This gives credibility to Lokel in the market that it is not just a cheap lowest market priced product.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Last Mountain Distillery for a tour, I recommend that you take the time to do it.  Colin is a great guy, and a wealth of information.  He wasn’t shy on sharing what they are doing, but he did keep some of their secrets so all you distillers out there can’t replicate his tasty products.  So don’t try, I tried a few times on the tour and he was pretty sharp lol.

Happy Distilling,
Still On Tap