May 21, 2018
Everyone dreams of quitting their job and doing their dream gig, but few people actually have the gumption to pull it off once, let alone twice. Rob Gugin is one of the fortunate few who’s been able to engineer his dream job twice during his career.
He started out working at a small local brewer over 15 years ago and while he says he loved living the craft beer life, it wasn’t paying the bills, and soon Gugin was forced to trade sacks of hops for stacks of paperwork as he shifted to life as a public sector employee.
The Draw of Distilling
Gugin’s mind was always plotting his next move, however. Missing the upstart local brewing industry, he began to look at diving back in and creating a business for himself.
“I started looking at options as to the viability of a distillery,” explains Gugin from his facility in Lacombe, Alberta. “I looked at the trend that seems to be following the craft brewing market into craft distilling and that it looked promising. Fast forward two years later and here we are.”
Old Prairie Sentinel; Local Small Batch Spirits
‘Here’ is inside the facility now known as Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery. It opened in 2017 and began by distilling two kinds of vodka, and two kinds of gin. Gugin says Old Prairie Sentinel’s goal from the outset was to craft small batch spirits that have character and depth, and that are just a little different from what the ‘big guys’ are making.
“We use only malted barley for our products, which adds a little bit to the production costs, but really does lend itself to the finished product; it gives it a real nice smoothness and a nice mouth feel as well.”
Old Prairie Sentinel’s Spirit Lineup
Old Prairie Sentinel makes a Premium Single Malt Vodka, Prairie Berry Dry Gin, Barrel Spice Gin and a Pickled Pepper Vodka, all of which are available at select Co-op Wine Spirits Beer locations.
“Typically, vodka is a fairly boring spirit class. It’s supposed to be mostly devoid of flavour and characteristic. And to me, that's just odd that as a consumer I would go and spend $50 or $60 on a great bottle of vodka that doesn't taste like anything,” muses Gugin. “So we really wanted to redefine that for Albertans. We use only single malt barley. And as a result it gives a bit of sweetness and a tiny little bit of earthy character.”
Old Prairie Sentinel’s Prairie Berry is what Gugin calls a more “approachable” gin, muting the juniper-driven sharpness typical of gins, with the flavours of raspberry, Saskatoon berry and black current.
“You get those berries in the nose and the front of the palate as well, Gugin enthuses.“There's also a bit of malted barley sweetness through the middle,plus those hints of those berry botanicals, which really does help to round the corners off of that juniper.”
Old Prairie Sentinel’s Barrel Spice gin and Pickled Pepper vodka are what you might call passion projects for Gugin. He reverse engineered this spirit so he had just the right taste for a cocktail he loves; the Negroni.
“Negroni is a boozy cocktail involving one part sweet vermouth, one part Campari, and one part gin. I've noticed some gins are fabulous with a Negroni and some are not. So I wanted to make something that really lends itself very well to a Negroni and other boozy cocktails. So that's how that one was developed.”
Similarly, as a Caesar lover, Gugin needed just the right vodka to bring a little oomph to his glass.
House-made Pickled Peppers Flavour the Vodka
“We actually pickle the peppers in the back of our shop here every few days. So we put vinegar, salt, sugar, herbs, garlic and hot and sweet peppers in this big pot. We boil it down and scoop up all the solids and we're left with this brine. And it’s the brine we proof our vodka with.”
The result is a vodka very full of flavour that’s a perfect pairing for a Caesar. Gugin reveals what’s surprised him most about this vodka is how much people like it in other drinks. Pickle Martinis have been popping up, pickle vodka and tonic is another customer favourite, and Gugin elaborates, people are also enjoying it straight as a sipping vodka, since it’s subtler than you might expect.
Vintage Farming Makes Better Grains
Old Prairie Sentinel has a soft spot for using local suppliers, getting its malted barley from nearby Rahr Malting, and Red Shed. They also rely on a small group of vintage farmers called 24-2 Draft Horse, which uses horse-drawn and vintage equipment to seed and harvest the grains the distillery uses.
“I'd like to say you can taste hard work,” says Gugin.
Local values also extend to the company name; Old Prairie Sentinels refers to the old name for the army of grain elevators that once guarded the rail lines and dotted the prairies. That struck home when Gugin heard the story of a local man who, instead of paying for a brand new farm building, bought a run-down grain elevator to preserve a bit of history and save it from the scrap yard.
“I just really liked this idea that rather than just letting it be torn down and build something new that he took the time and was dedicated to tradition and history, and that he really wanted to preserve that piece of Alberta history.”
Premium Single Malt Vodka
Clean and smooth with a hint of sweet from malted barley and a “toasted biscuit” component after clearing the pallet, designed to be enjoyed on its own or in cocktails.
Prairie Berry Dry Gin
Juniper, Raspberries, Saskatoon berries, black tea, Blackcurrants, citrus notes from lemon peel and an element of sweetness from the malted barley, finishes dry and clean.
Barrel Spice Gin
A spice-forward culmination of nutmeg, clove, ginger, cinnamon, orange peel, vanilla, star anise, espresso, sarsaparilla, oak and smoke from barrel resting and some malted barley sweetness with a peppery juniper finish.
Pickled Pepper Vodka
Bursting with bold, spicy and savoury dimensions derived from a handcrafted brine of herbs, garlic, vinegar and peppers, finishes with a sustained peppery heat.
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