Davin de Kergommeaux wrote the book on Canadian whisky—literally. The author and preeminent expert reflects on how his country’s native spirit has evolved in the modern era.
This is my 20th year writing about whisky, and it’s an entirely different hobby now. After decades of marginally declining sales, we have seen a real turnaround, and sales are now growing a few percent each year. There have been some interesting changes in the industry. In recent years, we’ve seen Canadian whisky reverting back to the rich, bold, powerful blends that were in vogue before the 1980s.
I’m thinking about great old-time whiskies such as Calvert, Adams and Canadian Masterpiece. When people started demanding lighter whiskies in the 1980s, a lot of Canadian blends moved to a lighter flavor profile. Then, about five years ago, when the rye revolution really took hold in the U.S., Canada had lots of powerful whiskies sitting in warehouses.
That’s because of how we make whisky up here. We distill and blend each grain separately, then blend them as mature whiskies so there are a lot of different styles ready to go at any one time. Crown Royal, for example, uses about 50 different whiskies in just one of its final blends.
With the rye resurgence, American brands such as WhistlePig and Masterson’s were filling their bottles with Canadian rye. When people found out, suddenly there was a big demand for robust Canadian whisky, and the brands delivered quickly with new whiskies such as Lot No. 40, Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel, Collingwood, Alberta Premium Dark Batch and the like. Forty Creek already had big whiskies in the market. Now, nearly every distillery is releasing big whiskies, and they are doing very well, while sales of the lighters ones are starting to tail off. So we are going back to the kind of whiskies we were making 35 years ago, before consumers tastes went toward vodka.
It has been an interesting and unexpected journey. I was a dedicated single-malt scotch fan 20 years ago and didn’t give Canadian whisky much attention. A friend whose palate I really respect poured me some of the old pre-1980s drams, and I suddenly realized there was a wealth of wonderful whisky waiting to be discovered.
I felt like he had let me in on a connoisseur’s secret. Canadian Masterpiece from Seagram’s is still one of my favorite whiskies of any style. They just don’t make whiskies like that anymore. I wonder if Seagram’s had survived if Canadian whisky might have gotten back in the high-end game a lot sooner. Another fabulous whisky, maybe one of my favorites of all time, is Gooderham and Worts Centennial from the 1960s and ’70s. It’s so rich, complex and joyful on the palate. And there are so many others; I keep finding new ones from back then. I once bought a case of Calvert Canadian, for example. It’s outstanding if you get the old stuff.
I’m particularly proud of the new edition of my book, “Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert” ($20, Appetite by Random House). So much has changed since the first edition was released in 2012. I was able to update it to include more than 40 new microdistilleries, more than 100 new tasting notes and, best of all, a map that was specifically commissioned showing all the whisky distilleries in Canada.
There are new chapters that incorporate the latest science of flavor and taste, and, of course, updates on all the core production, history and changing players. It’s particularly gratifying to see the book gaining traction. All indications are that sales are way ahead of where they were at this point with the first book. That, of course, is a reflection of the growing interest in Canadian whisky.
The other thing that gives me both pride and satisfaction is the success of the Canadian Whisky Awards. I founded these eight years ago as a feature on my website canadianwhisky.org. There was so much interest that the following year the Victoria Whisky Festival, Canada’s most important festival, hosted an awards gala and ceremony. Attendance was really good, and almost all the brands sent people to accept their medals and awards. We have a panel of 10 volunteer judges who take about six weeks to taste and score nearly 100 Canadian whiskies, all done blind, to find the best of the best. Because the judging is done blind, the results are very credible and the competition is about as reliable as you can get.
Each year, we change the judging panel so we can get different opinions and don’t get stuck in a rut. As well, the producers want to win, and they send their very best whiskies. The Canadian Whisky Awards are now a fixture in the Canadian whisky industry and are held annually in conjunction with the Victoria Whisky Festival each January.