At the Farm: Lars Hirch and Rachelle Fiset see their new distillery as the logical extension of their farm
It is one thing to grow the beans to distill strong spirits and another to produce whiskey and vodka at the retail level.
However, a couple’s blending from Rolling Hills, Alta. Produces a sustainable cocktail complemented with local produce.
For Pivot Spirits, the local is just that. Owners Lars Hirch and his wife, Rachelle Fiset, live opposite their distillery and restaurant while the fields on which they grow grain for their produce are located next to their house.
Hirch had farmed in the area 50 kilometers south of Brooks, Alta. With his family who grew up buying five quarter sections for farming and a small cow-calf farm in 1990.
While his grandfather died when he was a baby, Hirch said he knew his oldest had tried to make spirits.
âI was interested in it because my grandfather made spirits after WWII,â Hirch said, adding that he was too young to gain first-hand experience. “But I have heard a lot of stories.”
A trip to Scotland for a wedding and a chance to discover a scotch distillery gave him the inspiration to live this experience.
âAt the start of the tour, when they said all you need to make scotch is barley, yeast and water, it really made me think it was a better way to add value to crops such as barley rather than feeding livestock. â
Six months later, Hirch was enrolled in a distillation course and after five years of developing his skills on his own still and creating recipes, he and his wife started Pivot Spirits.
This does not mean that the operation went smoothly.
Pivot Spirits had the misfortune to open its distillery and adjoining restaurant in March 2020 just as the COVID pandemic began to close such establishments. But that didn’t change the couple’s plans to continue.
It just changed what they produced.
âThere was a great shortage of hand sanitizer in Canada and there was an immediate need in our community,â Hirch said. âBrooks Seniors’ Lodges were in desperate need of disinfectant. So I ended up delegating half of my production to hand sanitizer and giving it away for free. “
First responders and residents also received the product, as nearby Brooks experienced one of the largest outbreaks of COVID in Western Canada.
While this was unforeseen, it is part of Hirch’s mantra to make products from locally grown produce in an environmentally sustainable manner to be returned to the community.
âThe downside of this place is that there isn’t the population base to support it. But I wanted to stay close to my farm so that I could continue my farm’s sustainable practices in my distillation, âsaid Hirch.
“One of those components is feeding the mash after I have finished removing the alcohol from my cows.”
All the equipment used in the operation is energy efficient, uses gravity to transfer the product rather than pumps and the building is made from a system of structurally insulated panels with energy generated by solar panels. which also function as a patio awning.
âIt’s a very tight energy-efficient building. It doesn’t take a lot of energy to heat or cool it.
It’s a message he underscores as interest in his operation grows with the advent of agritourism, which has seen organizations linked to the industry make Pivot a popular stop.
âI try to dispel misleading information about agriculture and the environment,â Hirch said, adding that there is a feeling among city dwellers that agriculture can be detrimental to the land.
This is not to say that the product itself is not a sufficient reason to show up.
Hirch said one of the benefits of growing what he uses is the ability to experiment with different grains.
He currently uses ancient grains like spelled for his whiskey. Although spelled contains gluten, Hirch said it was a grain first grown over 5,000 years ago and he said it did not have the same effects on people with gluten intolerance.
Although he cannot call any of his products rum due to the requirement of the sugar liquor to be made from cane, he does make a product he calls Rumination from. sugar beets grown just down the road. Pivot also created a honey-based liqueur using products from nearby Scandia Honey, as well as rye, barley, and triticale alcohol from grains he grows.
So far, the business model is paying off, Hirch said.
âI didn’t expect to sell a lot of bottles through our doors here,â he said. âBut as we got through COVID, and once the restaurant opened, we ended up pushing through our doors to a lot more people from all over Alberta.â
And one of the side effects of his business that he enjoys the most is being able to give people new to farming a pleasant rural experience.