I recently found some of my very early notes, dated July 2003, outlining ideas on producing a cake representing Alberta – basically, ‘Alberta’s official dessert’, I guess.
After spending some time reflecting on what I felt were Alberta’s values, as I wanted to embed these values into this cake – solid, bold, rich, authentic & spirited – the mission statement was determined as ‘to produce a world-class product that every Albertan would be proud to give or receive’.
Much of the funds generated from the sale of this cake were intended to support at-risk youth, by enabling their direct involvement in arts & cultural activities, and to support other local emerging artists. I have a soft spot in my heart for artists, as I have been trying to become a drummer myself for a few years – not easy! And I have 2 sons who have been directly involved in music most of their lives. I am grateful that they were provided opportunities to explore their interest areas, whereas many others don’t have this support. Also, I adore beautiful things! Which is exactly what artists provide for the rest of us – making our lives much more exciting, uplifting and peaceful through their creations in images, sounds, movements, impressions…
I started out working on this project with one of my best friends. Over the next few years, we would try out various recipes, and a few experimental versions of our own. Then, in about 2007, another close friend joined us, and the 3 of us met every Wednesday after work for about a year, bringing our ideas, sample cakes & feedback from our ‘taste testers’ for input from the others.
We had decided quite early on, that these would be liquor-infused cakes, as they would have a much longer shelf life (using a natural product – alcohol!) after being heat-sealed and produce a more moist & richer cake. It was one of my sons who suggested the alcohol be whisky, as the ingredients to produce rye whisky are grown locally – as opposed to rum, which is based on sugar canes.
Both of my friends dropped out of this project in 2008, and I had 2 choices – either park it or drive it! I continued with a renewed sense of purpose & passion. I kept getting up early every Saturday morning and trialing various cake recipes & changing the versions slightly to try to improve them with each cake. Actually, I had a number of testers who would rate them for me, according to the only question I asked of them, “Is this the best tasting cake you have ever had?” I was starting to win most of them over, except for one professional bass player friend of mine who repeatedly told me his aunt in Winnipeg made a better cake, but he couldn’t get the recipe as she had since passed. (I’ll admit, I found his pernickety comments a bit hard to take at the time, but glad I persisted!).
One of the scientists at the Department of Agriculture’s Product Development Centre in Leduc, Alberta, was also very helpful to me – we even spent a full day there having the cakes tested, the recipes reviewed & feedback provided on improving the cakes without affecting their texture or flavors. One of my mandates has always been to use the highest quality, as much local as possible and whole products. We only use whole fresh eggs, milk, butter – never powdered or frozen. Finally, after almost 4 years of baking test cakes weekly, I had 4 great flavors of Alberta Whisky Cakes. But, I only wanted to start with 1 flavor, so went back to my testers to ask them to pick a favorite between only 2 of them.
I knew I wanted to promote the maple flavor, as maple syrup is very much associated with Canada, and who doesn’t love rich dark high quality chocolate? Only problem was that the votes were always completely tied between both the maple & the chocolate! So, I went with both of these. Their ‘official’ names are ‘The Whisky Runner’ (chocolate) and ‘The Malted Maple’ (maple walnut). The other 2 flavors will be introduced later – now my original testers keep asking for them also!
Next, I also needed to figure out a way to get these cakes baked, as I worked (still do) full-time in the health care industry (I’m an Emergency Room nurse). I had met with a small independent baker, Katie, a couple of years earlier and was really impressed with her high standards & creativeness, the extraordinary quality of her own products and willingness to work with me to produce the AWC – yes, she is presently the only baker for AWC in her Cakery Bakery. I also did a lot of work during this time getting the branding, identification, packaging, promotion, website, etc organized.
Again, going back to one of my outlined AWC guiding principles – that being to support local first, then western Canada, then Canada, before going international – our associate businesses & suppliers are local first. Cakery Bakery is a small independently owned company, as is Highwood Distillers, where we get all of our whisky (produced from grain grown within 7 miles of High River distillery location). AWC’s printing is done by PK Printing, a small company started in Calgary by a father & his daughter in the 1970’s – he is almost 80 & still works daily! Kim, from Kim Petrigo Photography, stands me under a weeping willow tree every summer and casually snaps a few pictures – the result? OMG, she’s a genius with her camera. The creative & brilliant webpage designer is now Jennifer Jacura from High River. Our flour comes from Ellison Milling in Lethbridge, Alberta. Our distinctive black hexagon-shaped hatbox cake boxes were designed by the owner of a small independently owned packager, X-treme Packaging. The unique wooden branded AWC boxes were hand-made a few miles south of Calgary – unfortunately, this person is no longer in this line of business, and we are looking for a replacement wood box manufacturer.
So, Alberta Whisky Cake was officially launched in April 2010 with 2 flavors & in 2 sizes, medium (12-16 servings) and large (24-32 servings). The small (2 servings) size was just introduced in September 2012. I started with marketing them at the Millarville Farmers Market every Saturday starting in June 2010, and through word-of-mouth via friends & family. I am indebted a thousand-fold to my brother, who took them to every oil company function & really spread the word (aroma & flavor!) through ‘the patch’.
Every AWC cake comes heat sealed & most elegantly packaged, ready for gift giving, with a lithographed ‘Artist Card’ promoting the work of a local emerging artist – we have 7 so far, and continually looking for others. And, just starting in June 2012, we are including with every cake an ‘Art Collector Certificate of Exchange’ valued at $35 that the bearer can use towards the purchase of an original piece of art from any of the ‘AWC Unbridled Spirit Artists’, as we are now calling these 7 creative geniuses.
And, as we all know, life happens…
On June 20 2013, massive floods devastated many parts of southern Alberta, including downtown High River – completely destroying the bakery making our cakes. Yes, all the inventory & supplies, the equipment & the entire building were annihilated. Our whisky producer in High River, Highwood Distillers, was also closed for rebuilding for a few months.
Unexpectedly, I received an enormous number of adamant demands from many past & potential AWC consumers to ‘please get those cakes back!’ These requests were actually really appreciated during this confusing time. They provided the emotional energy, clarity & courage I needed to, basically, pick up & start over again. Thank you, fellow Albertans & Canadians – I had no idea that many of you felt this way about my little project.
AWC stopped producing cakes on June 20, but the ‘behind the scenes action’ didn’t stop. We co-hosted a very successful contest with Western Horse Review for the next artist to feature, made a number of changes to the labels, seals, delivery containers & got some processes worked out to ensure cake quality consistently remains at the very highest. Our logo sign even made it to a prominent location at the Olds College Rodeo. The baker started equipping & restocking her initial Calgary in-home commercial bakery.
On October 20 2013, exactly 4 months after ‘the flood’ closed AWC, we picked up 24 test cakes from the interim bakery. I shared these at work & with a few friends – Holy smokes, the response has been phenomenal!! Incredibly moist & rich in flavours. Looks like we’re back in the saddle.
We’ve now also partnered with the Huckleberry’s Cafe in Wetaskiwin. Both on menu & off-sales whole cakes are offered.
So, here you have it – the continually evolving & ever expanding story behind the Alberta Whisky Cake.