It’s a wild and rugged place, this strip of land at the southern edge of Alberta. The very name “Alberta” conjures up images of flaxen grain fields swaying in soft summer zephyrs. Behind that image is the reality of a blistering arid landscape pierced by strange geologic columns called hoodoos.
Sure-footed horses once picked their way over this rocky terrain, lugging sunburned riders and packs filled with whisky. Bad whisky. There’s a cool and welcoming oasis nearby, though. Some 90,000 people make the city of Lethbridge their home today. So does the esteemed Black Velvet distillery.
In a land rich in whisky lore, tall tales thrive. But the time-honoured story of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police and their creation in 1873, is not the stuff of barroom fabrication. Whisky really was behind the founding of these red-tunicked Canadian icons. The whisky in question was a foul, adulterated brew packed north from Montana and sold and traded in the notorious Fort Whoop-Up, near the site of what is now Lethbridge.
Whisky still figures large in the city’s economy, though the days of illicit rotgut are distant memories, despite the iconic Western scenery. Exactly a century after Prime Minister John A. Macdonald sent his newly formed national police force west to close Whoop-Up, the Black Velvet distillery was built, in 1973. Ever since, high quality Canadian whisky has headed south into the U.S. at a rate of more than two customized rail tanker cars each week. This popular Canadian whisky generates a reliable market for 10 incoming rail-car loads of grain weekly. And members of some 60 Lethbridge families are gainfully employed in the whisky business.
With steady sales across the U.S. and Canada, Black Velvet could comfortably rest on its laurels. But that’s not how whisky makers think. Buoyed by their recent growth in Europe, and new international prospects, the brand recently introduced something entirely new: Black Velvet Toasted Caramel.
It was an instant success. According to Black Velvet manager Chris Spearman, “Initial orders were very strong and we struggled to keep up with demand.” Flavoured whisky appeals to a different customer, so sales of Toasted Caramel are not cutting into sales of the company’s other brands.
“Women and younger consumers who may have rejected the harsher profile of a regular whisky appreciate the smooth, caramel taste profile of Black Velvet Toasted Caramel,” says marketing manager Patricia Pinkney. Perhaps this is one reason interest in flavoured whiskies is skyrocketing right around the world.
Although these whiskies are most often infused with spice or fruit, in a series of focus groups, Black Velvet’s new-products team learned that consumers particularly love toffee. Eighteen months of work developing, testing, and tweaking blends resulted in a winning flavour combination. Flavours already present in Black Velvet whisky were enhanced by adding toasty caramel tones, creating a drink with almost liqueur-like smoothness that appeals to a whole new whisky crowd. “At the same time Black Velvet Toasted Caramel has brought attention and focus back to the base brand, reinvigorating sales overall,” a clearly delighted Pinkney enthuses.
Lethbridge has come a long way since Montana whisky traders thrust unidentified concoctions that they called whisky through holes in the walls of Fort Whoop-Up in exchange for buffalo hides. Today, the whisky heritage of Lethbridge is a proud one. Some of the finest and most sought after Canadian whiskies first see light of day in this small Alberta city where Canada’s first prime minister, himself no teetotaler, once sought to put an end to the whisky trade.
Photography by Brandon Gray