WILD LIFE DISTILLERY:
Q+A WITH MATT WIDMER
Interview by Tera Swanson
Photos by Kelly Schovanek
Good things come out of the Bow Valley, and this new craft distillery is just the latest. Bringing together local grain, local water, and local people, Wild Life Distillery offers authentic Rockies spirits made in small batches 100% on-site. We talked to co-owner Matt Widmer about the ins and outs of the distillery industry, and what to expect when they open their doors.
Q+A WITH MATT WIDMER
Tera Swanson/ How did the idea for a new craft distillery in the Bow Valley begin?
Matt Widmer/ I had an interest in spirits from my background in the hospitality industry. I was living in Tofino about 5 years ago and decided to fly to Chicago to take a 3-day course on distilling out of curiosity. There were a few craft distilleries opening in B.C., but I wasn’t in a financial position to start anything. That trip confirmed my interest, and when I moved home a year later, I began working on a business plan.
At that time the legislation in Alberta prohibited small distilleries from opening up based on extremely elevated production minimums, so I never thought it would happen. Then, in 2014 the Alberta government dropped the minimums, opening the door for small producers. That summer I shook hands with Keith Robinson on a backcountry camping trip and committed to beginning the journey. We have since been to Scotland to further study the art of whisky-making, and travelled across Western Canada touring other distilleries, while bringing our vision to life.
TS/ What does Wild Life Distillery offer? What sets it apart?
MW/ We offer a truly authentic product. Made with local grain, local water, by local people, in a small town in the Rockies. Both Keith and I grew up in the Bow Valley, and are excited to share our products which originate from this same area. We produce all of our products from raw materials, in small batches, 100% on-site. We are an ‘attention-to-detail-oriented’ producer in a market full of mass-produced products. You can taste the difference.
TS/ How did you and Keith first become interested in this field? What is your background?
MW/ Keith has a mechanical background from working on a drilling rig in northern Alberta. For many years, he learned the ins and outs of fluids, pumps, valves, fittings, metalwork, and engineering. Many of these skills transfer well to a distillery, as there are numerous facets of this business that can be associated with large-scale industrial processes, such as a drilling rig.
My background was in hospitality. I worked and managed our family restaurant (Ticino Swiss-Italian Restaurant) for more than 10 years. I also have a BSc degree from the University of Victoria, with a major in kinesiology. Science has helped me greatly in this endeavor, as there are many aspects of biology, chemistry and physics that come into play on a daily basis.
TS/ It has been quite a busy year for Wild Life Distillery. What have been some big milestones for you?
MW/ Lots has happened this year. We are almost at our biggest milestone, which will be opening our doors, likely sometime in the next week.
Some key moments along the journey have been receiving our building permit from the Town of Canmore, which basically meant we had the green light to go ahead and build this thing, having satisfied any building code issues. Finishing our renovations and getting the first product flowing through the stills has been great.
TS/ What were some of the biggest challenges in starting a new business? What have you learned?
MW/ Budgeting. We knew that this would be costly, but it was very difficult to be able to see the full picture until we had committed to the space. You need a lease to do pretty well anything, so many of the costs that we incurred through the project we couldn’t fully understand until we had signed our lease. Which was scary. Choreographing all the different pieces of equipment to arrive in a timely manner was tricky. Especially when dealing with items that have a lead time of four to six months. There were a few hiccups there for sure.
TS/ Any advice would you give to those starting out in this industry?
MW/ Choose your space very carefully. It’s difficult in the Bow Valley as there are limited opportunities in commercial real estate, and the building characteristics that you need to start a distillery are quite specific and important. The more of these items that you can check off your list when choosing a space the better, as it will save you money and time during your start-up. It’s not like a restaurant, for example, where you can move into an old space and many of the systems are already in place. You either have to build them from the ground up, or modify an industrial type space to make it work for you, which is what we did.
TS/ How do you see things moving forward from here? What can we expect to see from Wild Life Distillery this year?
MW/ We are launching our first product, Wild Life Vodka, early January 2017. You can expect gin and a few liqueurs in the coming months. We are excited to share some new products with the market, and also host visitors in our beautiful tasting and cocktail bar. We will participate in Canmore Uncorked and likely a few other food and drink festivals around the province. We are ready to hit the ground running, and can’t wait to get our spirits in your glass!
TS/ Anything else you’d like to add?
MW/ We are located at 160-105 Bow Meadows Crescent in Canmore. Kitty corner to Valbella Meats. We will be offering daily tours in the new year. Check our social media or website for information on these.
Tera Swanson is a freelance writer and graduate from Mount Royal University’s Journalism undergraduate program. Whether laced into hiking boots or clipped into skis, her favourite way to explore the mountains is on her own two feet. She’s always up for anything that will end in the telling of a good story; be it through photography, from pen to paper, or over a locally brewed amber ale.