October 27, 2016 – Months after one of Canada’s worst wildfires scorched nearly 1.5 million acres of the Alberta prairie, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and businesses with little more than the clothes on their backs, the region is still recovering. One sign of that recovery came Friday, when distiller Spike Baker and his colleagues at Fort McMurray’s Wood Buffalo Brewing Company filled their whisky barrels with a special “new make” spirit that will eventually be bottled as “The Beast”.
When they left the brewpub and distillery behind to run for their lives, they also left a pallet full of heavily peated Scottish malt outside on the patio. “It absorbed a lot of the smoke flavor,” Baker said in a telephone interview. “We sent it off to Canada Malting right away for them to run through their lab, and it came back safe on all counts, so we decided to go ahead and make a one-off unrepeatable whisky with it.” Baker will be putting the spirit through its final distillation run on Wood Buffalo’s still Friday before putting “The Beast” into barrels to mature over the next five years.
Even though that whisky won’t be bottled until at least 2021, the first ten bottles were auctioned to raise money for the Friends of Fort McMurray Firefighters Association charity fund. “The people who win the auction will receive a bottle with a scroll inside listing what number bottle they have and what they’re entitled to…and a little blurb on what it means to the community,” Baker said. Bottle #1 raised $7,100 CAD ($5,300 USD), and along with seven other bottles auctioned Friday raised around $31,000 CAD. Two bottles auctioned on eBay sold for a combined $7,800 CAD, bringing the total raised during the auction to around $39,000 CAD ($29,100 USD).
Baker and the Wood Buffalo team have been making whisky at the brewpub and distillery for the last two years, but have not released any of it while it continues to mature. While they had to dump hundreds of liters of beer that had been tainted by smoke, none of their maturing whisky was affected.
Nearly 2,400 buildings were destroyed in the wildfire, with many people losing their homes and still working to rebuild their lives as winter approaches.
“The word came down we had to get out of town…it was a little scary at times, but everyone made it out and the community has survived.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the results of the charity auction for the first ten bottles of “The Beast.”
Links: Wood Buffalo Brewing Company