Canada When a wildfire that had flickered for days in the forests of northern Alberta suddenly changed course and started careening towards Fort McMurray this May, the citys entire population was told to flee.
The order came just as Spike Baker was brewing a pale ale.
But there was little time to spare: the flames could be seen in the distance and a thick cloak of smoke had already enveloped some parts of the city, said Baker, the head brewer at Fort McMurrays Wood Buffalo Brewing Company. We just turned off the brew, left everything in the kettle and headed out the door.
The apocalyptic scenes that followed were seen around the world. Nearly 90,000 people struggled to evacuate the city, crawling in bumper-to-bumper traffic as ash rained down and flames licked the highways.
Days after making it to safety, Baker remembered that he had left his last shipment a pallet of peated malt from Scotland sitting on the patio of the downtown brewery.
He gave little more thought to it as he returned to the fire-ravaged city some four weeks later. The blaze had torn a path of destruction through Fort McMurray, consuming more than 2,500 homes. The brewery was left standing, but had been badly scarred by ash and smoke. Two tanks of fully brewed beer had to be dumped, as did 500 litres of a half-done brew.
Baker expected that the pallet of malt would also have to be thrown out. For that entire month, the entire town was incredibly smoky and when we came back we discovered that this malt had taken on a lot of that flavour.
Lab tests came back with a surprise: the malt was safe to consume, but was completely altered by the fire.
The finding offered Baker a tantalising opportunity to create what he described as a one-of-a-kind time capsule in the form of a stiff drink.
Its so meaningful because everyone in this community was affected by the event and weve all been changed by it, he said. As was this malt and now were just able to capture that in a whisky.
The whisky was first distilled last month, part of a process that will include five years of barrel ageing. You can definitely taste the smoky notes to it but it is balanced with more of a sweet peat flavour to it, and then the campfire flavour has brought through spruce and mint.
The whisky has been named the Beast, a nod to the nickname given to the blaze by the firefighters who fought it.
The brew is expected to yield some 200 bottles, most if not all of which will be donated to auctions and charities, said Baker. An auction of the first 10 bottles last month raised more than C$40,000 ($30,000) for local charities and attracted intense bidding, including by some who had lost their homes in the fire. For us its not about remembering the devastation although well never forget that, said Baker.
Its about remembering the togetherness of this community and how well everyone worked together to get out safely, he said. Theres so many stories of people just tossing keys to spare vehicles to absolute strangers or helping with broken-down vehicles. It was phenomenal.