Winnipegger Jason Kang has taken many jobs since his family immigrated from China in 2003. He has worked in manufacturing and garbage disposal. He has been a dishwasher, a pizza delivery man and a commercial driver. But now he has a different profession behind his name, one that he hopes to make permanent — master distiller.
Kang, the man behind Capital K Distillery, the province’s first family-owned grain-to-bottle producer of spirits, has unveiled two products under his Tall Grass label and has plans to release more throughout 2017.
“Basically, from the grain itself we process everything right in this location until we have a finished product in the bottle,” Kang said from his Dublin Avenue storefront.
The story of Capital K actually begins with wine, not spirits. Tired of paying a premium for quality alcohol, Kang decided that he would try making his own. His first efforts with homemade wine were successful, but took too long in Kang’s estimation.
Looking for quicker turnaround, his hobby soon turned to beer. For the next several years, Kang produced consistent batches of brew which he would often share among his friends. One of those friends suggested he branch out into distilling.
“My friend said, ‘Well, your beer is so strong,’ Kang recalled, noting that it was not unusual for his batches to have upwards of 12 per cent alcohol.
“It’s still tasty, but it’s a little too much for beer, so they were saying, ‘Why don’t you just make the hard alcohol itself?’ So that’s where I started looking into it,” Kang said.
Start by learning online
What followed was at least five years of research, self-education and on-the-job training. He learned there was a multi-year degree program for spirits in Scotland, but that was impractical for someone juggling work with his new-found interest. Instead, Kang travelled to Seattle for a workshop covering the business aspects of running a distillery.
“I started reading everything I could find online, either articles or finding different books or watching different videos on YouTube, so basically just getting the information by pieces… from all over the place and then eventually, once you get enough pieces, you start getting the bigger picture,” he said.
He soon put that research into practice. Following the workshop in Seattle, Kang found mentors in the industry, including a 20-year veteran of distilling Chinese spirits. Reaching out to distillery owners in other provinces, Kang interrupted his day job for periods at both LB Distillers in Saskatoon and Rig Hand Distillery outside Edmonton. Eventually, he decided it was time to launch his own business in Winnipeg.
The right raw material
It was still early days for Capital K when Kang contacted Al Morris, president and commodity broker with Integrated Grain Ltd. Kang told Morris he wanted to source all of his grain locally.
As an over-40-year grain industry veteran, Morris was no stranger to brokering for small-batch liquor producers, having previously supplied barley to micro-malt plants in Ontario.
“We have lots of local breweries around that are buying malt, but to have, for the first time, a local distillery that needs local grain, it was kind of interesting,” Morris said.
Several varieties were put to the test over the following months. Morris reached out to farmers within 40 kilometres of Winnipeg, looking for No. 1 or 2 fusarium-free wheat that might fit the bill. He eventually landed on Brandon, a semi-dwarf CWRS variety rated as moderately resistant to fusarium head blight.
“Basically, I just, locally here, phoned up some growers, asked them what type of wheat they had and (said) we’re interested in buying from them and we want to get it cleaned up and put into totes and sent to this one buyer. We just go directly to the farmer,” Morris said.
Morris shifted away from uncleaned grain after initial efforts produced less yield than Kang wanted.
Finally, in October 2016, Kang debuted his first product, named Crystal Vodka, which appeared in Manitoba Liquor Marts across the province, touting its local source and priced as a premium product. Within a week though, Kang hit another roadblock, this time a legal one.
He was told the name “Crystal Vodka” verged too close to another company’s trademark and would need to change.
The resulting shuffle delayed his product launch until mid-December, when he returned with the newly rebranded Tall Grass vodka.
“Which is much better, it turns out,” he said.
But while the new name better evoked the prairie, appropriate for a brand priding itself on local Manitoba production, the delay made for challenging timing for a business still in its first year.
“We completely missed Christmas, so it’s almost like we miss Christmas and directly enter to the low season, which is almost January to April,” Kang said.
Regardless, Capital K stayed on track to launch its second product, Tall Grass gin, which appeared on shelves in January. The Capital K product line recently expanded to include espresso vodka.
Kang said other flavours will join the lineup — a recent Twitter post hints at a dill-flavoured product on the horizon.
Morris, meanwhile, has been kept busy co-ordinating future grain supplies for the business. He has already co-ordinated rye and corn sources for Capital K to try its hand at whiskey, while remaining close enough to the city to keep shipping costs low.
“I try and keep on top of him, find out what his needs are for the future so that we can make sure we can buy it as closely as possible,” Morris said.
The distillery’s website has announced its intent to branch out into other flavoured spirits such as rum and brandy.