In 2014, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats opened the season in Regina, then stayed in the city for a few days between games. With time to kill, I went to the downtown farmer’s market one morning to check things out.
In one of the stalls, there was a micro-distillery selling spirits, something I’d never seen before at a market. The purveyor told me the story of the company: a husband and wife team that started making vodka in their garage, found some success and were growing rapidly. They had a small selection of products and I bought a bottle of vodka to try. It was delicious.
Almost three years later, I reached out to Last Mountain Distillery to see if they were interested in partnering with 3DownNation on our CFL Week coverage. It was something we’d never done before and I wanted to work with a company whose product I enjoyed and story I liked.
Colin and Meredith Schmidt are the couple behind Last Mountain and this week they were kind enough to give some of the 3Down crew a tour of the distillery in Lumsden, about 30km outside of Regina – yes, they’ve moved out of their garage.
Colin was drafted by the Oilers in 1992 and is a former AHL hockey player – he played “left bench” for the Hamilton Bulldogs – who was born and raised in Saskatchewan. He met Meredith, a native of Vermont, while working in the States after his playing days were done. After chatting with an old hockey buddy who had a distillery business, they decided to give it a try.
“He was on the cutting edge of what was cool and I asked him what he was doing and he said he was making vodka out of pineapple living in Hawaii. I was like ‘tell me more,'” Colin says. “We started researching the micro-distillery idea and couldn’t believe that nobody was doing it.”
That was 2011 and they were the first micro-distillery in the province. Since then, business has essentially doubled each year, forcing them to expand quickly and on the fly. They make vodka, gin, whisky, a variety of speciality products – apple pie moonshine among them – as well as seasonal offerings (a cherry whisky last Christmas, for example.)
But their biggest seller is a dill pickle vodka they didn’t want to make.
“A local bar asked us to make it for them and I shot it down three times,” Colin says. “We finally made it for them and held back 100 litres for us. We took it to the farmer’s market and boom, it was sold out just like that.”
Made by adding real ingredients to the vodka – fresh dill, cucumbers, garlic are all cut up and added by hand – the end result is a product that’s spectacular in Caesars. I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it but the flavour is subtle and refreshing, more dill than pickle and remarkably smooth.
“Dill pickle seems to be the one because it’s kind of unique,” Colin says.
Last Mountain uses Saskatchewan ingredients whenever possible – all its whisky is made from wheat grown in the province and milled at the distillery. Using essences to flavour their products would be cheaper and easier but it goes against their approach and mindset.
“There’s are lots of ways to do it but people like to know what they’re eating and drinking,” Meredith says. “We don’t do many things the easy way.”
Last Mountain sells more than half of its product from their store and tasting room at the distillery. While their products are in liquor stores across Saskatchewan, much of their success stems from a loyal customer base that follows them on social media to take advantage of special offerings.
But they are at something of a crossroads. In order to make the jump to the next level, Last Mountain must find new markets and that’s why they are going through the long, arduous process to bring their dill pickle vodka to liquor stores in Ontario by the summer of 2018.
At the same time, they want to stay true to the things that have made them so successful.
“We know our limitations and we want a certain quality of life, time together, time with family,” Colin said “We keep coming back to our strengths: quality products that are unique using Saskatchewan grains and Saskatchewan ingredients.
“We think we’ve found a balance.”