Whether you’re a longtime devotee of Canadian whisky or you’re just beginning to dabble in it, there’s never been a more exciting time for the spirit than right now. This is Canada’s 150th anniversary year, and the growth of Canadian whisky makes a fitting inclusion for the year-round Canada 150 celebrations.
Corby’s new whisky releases (image: Jake Emen)
“We’ve been around for a lot longer than that, and we’ve been making whisky for a lot longer than that,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert (McClelland & Stewart, $20) and chairman of the judges at the awards. Still, the timing can’t be denied. “2017 is going to see a lot happening, with Canada 150 especially,” says De Kergommeaux.
Understanding Canadian Whisky
The best place to start is to understand what makes Canadian whisky different in terms of its production and eliminate some lingering misconceptions. Standard practice with Canadian whisky production is to mash, distill and age different grains separately. This is different than American whiskeys, including bourbon, which are made with a mash bill incorporating each grain together from the start. “In America, they blend the grains before they distill them; here, we blend after they’ve been matured,” says De Kergommeaux.
De Vine whisky barrels (image: Jake Emen)
That adds importance to the role of the master blender, who is then able to very precisely fine-tune a final product. It also increases the flexibility of Canadian whisky. “Canadian whisky is therefore very versatile,” says De Kergommeaux.
Canadian whisky made by the major producers also generally falls into two camps: base whisky and flavoring whisky. Base whisky may be distilled all the way up to 94 percent ABV, making it very light in profile. Flavoring whiskies are kept richer and more robust by design and distilled to lower proofs to showcase the character of an individual grain, whether it’s rye, corn, barley or wheat. “We paint the base with these flavoring whiskies,” says De Kergommeaux. “I liken [J.P. Wiser’s master blender and Ph.D.] Don Livermore to an artist.”
De Vine whisky tasting (image: Jake Emen)
Blending post-maturation affords endless whisky possibilities. “[Canadian whisky] potentially could be the most innovative whisky there is,” says Livermore. “It’s adaptive; we can adapt to consumer tastes.” Regulations also allow for maximum flexibility. Canadian whisky can be distilled in any way. It can utilize those base and flavoring whiskies, or it could opt instead to use a mash bill if that’s desired, and it can be aged in different types of wood. The only real requirements are that it’s aged for a minimum of three years and that it has the flavor of Canadian rye, whether or not it’s a rye whisky.
That flexibility also includes the fact that, by law, 1 part in 11, or 9.09 percent, of Canadian whisky can be, well, not whisky, stretching back to the 1880s, when anything from rum to prune wine was used for flavoring and coloring. This has been used by outsiders to bash the category as low quality. But that allowance is far from common practice in today’s whisky world. “Most of [the brands] do not,” says Livermore. “It’s only the value brands.”
De Vine whisky tasting and master distiller Ken Winchester
Building on Recent Success
It’s thanks to that adaptability of Canadian whisky, switching to meet consumer tastes, that Canadian whisky is very much moving in the other direction. Recent years have seen new whiskies debut that are bolder, higher proof, older and better for cocktails, and more is on the way. “Canadian whisky had been in the doldrums for at least two decades,” says De Kergommeaux. He’s heartened now that that’s no longer the case.
“Over the last five years, we’ve really seen growth, and producers are addressing the market niche,” says De Kergommeaux of those who are looking for those bigger, bolder flavors. “People want great whisky, and Canadian producers are supplying it.”
The recent success of Canadian whisky was brought to the forefront when Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye was named the 2016 World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray. The move quickly saw the whisky sell out across North America, leading to debate on the merits of the award.
Whether or not one supports the notion of that particular whisky as earning that particular accolade, there’s no denying that it’s a signal of the rise of Canadian whisky as a whole. “Canada is bursting out,” says De Kergommeaux. Crown Royal then earned more unanimous praise with the release of Cornerstone Blend in 2016, the first of its Noble Collection.
The Canadian Manhattan at Veneto
Another Canadian whisky that has captured the attention of the world is Lot 40. “This whisky is a phenom,” says De Kergommeaux. And there are plenty of other whiskies that have emerged as well, from Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve to the Masterson’s lineup. Indeed, it was Masterson’s 10-year-old rye batch PSA3 that took home Whisky of the Year honors at the Canadian Whisky Awards.
New High-End Releases on the Way
Anticipation should be high for what’s coming next, too. That includes a lineup of four premium expressions from Corby due out this fall. The whiskies were tasted publicly for the first time at the Victoria Whisky Festival, offering a tantalizing look at what Canadian whisky can be at its best.
The Toronto at Veneto
“I think what we’ve done is give Canadian whisky a seat at the very top table—the best collection of Canadian whisky ever,” says Ross Hendry, the director of Canadian craft whisky at Corby. Corby took inspiration for the new range from lineups such as Buffalo Trace‘s annual Antique Collection as it creates the new range.
The four new whiskies include Pike Creek 21-year-old Speyside cask finish, Lot 40 cask-strength 12-year-old, Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 17-year-old and J.P. Wiser’s 35-year-old. Each is spectacular in its own way, highlighting a different aspect of Canadian whisky production. All four will be limited releases and priced in the $100 range.
Emerging Canadian Micro-Distilleries
For the first time, it’s not only the major producers who are making waves, it’s also the micro-distilleries of Canada. The movement is in its infancy compared to America’s, but slowly but surely it’s arriving. “Something is happening here with our micro-distillers,” says De Kergommeaux. “We’re finally starting to see some whisky emerging from these micro-distillers that we can be proud of.”
There are an estimated 100 distilleries in Canada, with about half located in British Columbia and within that Victoria emerging as a hub with nearly a dozen. “We hope that Victoria becomes the Islay of Canada,” says Ken Winchester, the master distiller of Victoria’s De Vine Vineyards and Distillery who apprenticed as a distiller at Bruichladdich. De Vine’s first whisky release was the one-year-old Glen Saanich single malt, which brought home a silver medal at the Canadian Whisky Awards this year. De Vine is also experimenting with bourbon-style mash bills and makes three types of gin and a full range of fruit brandies and other products. “We’re like the Willy Wonka distillery,” says Winchester jokingly.
Cynar Flip at Clive’s
More importantly, De Vine is connected to its local region. “We’ve seen a bit of a renaissance between farming and distilling,” says Winchester. “We’re relentlessly local, and we’re organic.” Even with a modest 600-liter hybrid Kothe still and less than three years of distillation under its belts, it has already emerged as one of the more prominent craft distilleries in Canada. Other names to look out for include Two Brewers, Dillon’s and Kindred.
One other stood out at the Canadian Whisky Awards: Still Waters Distillery won the Artisanal Distillery of the Year honors, and its Stock & Barrel rye cask strength won a gold medal, along with the title of the best new Connoisseur Whisky. “It just blows my mind,” says De Kergommeaux. “That’s a whisky you’re going to be hearing more about.”
At popular cocktail haunt Clive’s, head bartender Jayce Kadyschuk also turns to Lot 40 and Alberta Premium for a variety of Canadian whisky cocktails. In his Cynar Flip, he deploys Alberta Premium with Cynar, Cointreau, clove simple syrup and a whole egg. “The higher rye content works really well here,” he says. He also showcases a cocktail he describes as “loosely based on a Vieux Carré” and made with Lot 40. “I love Lot 40 in cocktails, especially if you play with the right kind of vermouths and amaros,” he says.
The strong cocktails and whisky selections seen at other spots across town, from Argyle Attic to Little Jumbo, showcase not only the growth of Canadian whisky but also the growth of Canada as a place where people simply love their whisky, wherever it’s from. “We’re raising the profile of Canada as a great whisky country,” says De Kergommeaux.