John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote took a lot of detours on the way to the Best Cask Gin podium at the World Gin Awards in 2017. The Saskatchewan farmers turned distillers had spent much of their working lives tending 5,000 acres of grains: wheat, barley, canola, flax, oats, and canary seed. The land had been in John’s family for three generations, and the decision to switch paths was a difficult one fraught with anxiety and error.
“In grain farming, the trend and economics are driving for much larger farms—20,000, 30,000 acres,” says Barb on the phone from the couple’s new venture, Black Fox Farm & Distillery, on the southern edge of Saskatoon. “We couldn’t see ourselves doing that. Too large a scale, too removed from the end consumer.”
So, eight years ago they put the parcel of land up for sale, scaling down to a mere 80 acres closer to town. But what to grow? “We needed something higher value,” Barb continues, “so vegetables. But we had a small disaster.” The first year, they grew a test acre of corn, but they hadn’t secured a market and ended up donating it to the food bank. The next year they planted more, but a corn borer infestation meant it was all composted. That fall, the couple bought 28,000 tulip bulbs, planted the lot, and by June had lost 95 per cent of the bulbs. “It turns out, if someone gives you a fantastic deal on bulbs at the end of October in Saskatchewan, it’s not a good deal.”
John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote took a lot of detours on the way to the Best Cask Gin podium at the World Gin Awards in 2017.
Happily, the proceeds of the land sale saw their family (the couple, now 52 and 53, have four adult children) through the first years. But what would replace their income moving forward? Vegetables were out. Flowers were out. They’d planted raspberries and haskap berries, but plans to start a fruit winery quickly withered. “We realized we know nothing about fruit and don’t like wine,” says Barb. “A winery didn’t make sense. But a distillery did. We know how to grow grains [and] Saskatchewan has the best growing conditions in the country.”
In 2013, John went back to school. He spent time in Las Vegas at Carl, a custom fabricator of artisan distilling and mashing equipment. The following year, he apprenticed at Robert Birnecker’s Koval distillery in Chicago. In 2017, he began working toward his master distiller certification with the London-based Institute of Brewing & Distilling. Today, John is the family chef—head distiller and recipe creator at Black Fox, which started distilling in 2015—and Barb is the farmer. These days, the company produces 20,000 to 30,000 litres of vodka, liqueurs, and (mostly) gin a year. And for once the timing is perfect; in the last few years, the province has dramatically improved market conditions for local distillers, though they’re still waiting for expanded distribution. Black Fox is making the world’s best cask gin, according to category judge Cherry Constable, but few can try it; it’s for sale only in Saskatchewan.
“We realized we know nothing about fruit and don’t like wine,” says Barb. “A winery didn’t make sense. But a distillery did.”
Happily, I was able to secure a bottle of Black Fox Oaked Gin ($87) and, moved by feelings of generosity, I staged a tasting with friends. I pitted Black Fox against Victoria Distillers’ Oaken Gin, which won Double Gold at the 2016 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The two couldn’t have been more different, even in the glass. Black Fox’s had a caramel colour, nearly a whisky hue, compared to the chardonnay colour of Victoria’s.
But it’s in the nose that the two really diverged. Victoria’s had the traditional scents of oak aging: butter, caramel, vanilla, gingerbread. Black Fox’s was surprisingly vegetal, evoking bright hits of cactus, juniper, and lime; its 15 botanicals really asserted themselves. (Grains of paradise and citrus are imports, but 90 per cent of what’s in the bottle is grown on the farm.) The real point of difference, I suspect, comes from the base spirit. Most gins start as neutral alcohols, but Black Fox makes a base just for its gins, distinguished by triticale, a wheat/rye hybrid that ups the finished spirit’s spice. (Black Fox makes wheat, triticale, and black oat vodkas and will have an oat whisky in two years.)
We ended the night with cask-aged Negronis and a discussion of the genetic anomaly of black foxes, familiar yet unique—so very Canadian.