Part 1 – Those Crafty Canadians
When the subject of Canadian Whisky comes up, what are your first thoughts? Rye. Of course. How about Wiser’s, Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Hiram Walker, and Seagrams? The heart and soul of the Canadian whisky industry. But there’s more. So, so much more. In fact, Canada is in the middle of a whisky revolution.
Let’s take a short tour of Canada’s alcoholic past. It started out with whisky, brought over by the Scottish settlers. And throw in some rum smuggling along the east coast. Then we moved onto beer and the great legacy of Labatts and Molson. In the latter part of the 20th century, the wine industry sprang onto the scene. Then the craft beer industry took off. And now we’re back to whisky. The world has gone whisky crazy and the Crazy Canucks are right in the middle of it all.
But this time around it’s different. Granted, eight distilleries still make up more than 95% of Canada’s whisky production. And names like Gooderham, Forty Creek, and Alberta Premium are now officially in the big leagues. But that’s not where we’re headed today. With all due respect to these Canadian icons, there’s a new breed of whisky in Canada. And it’s making waves from coast to coast.
So, where do we start? In British Columbia, there are no less than eight artisan whisky distilleries. Some of these produce a more traditional dram, like Shelter Point and Liberty Distillers. But there are others that are dabbling in a more unique Canadian product. At Odd Society, the malt is prepared with maple smoke. Then, they age their whisky in ex-maple syrup casks. It doesn’t get any more Canadian than that. And over at Okanagan Distillery, they are adding hops to their mash. That’s right, hops. Talk about a unique taste.
Moving through the Prairie Provinces, Ontario, and Quebec, there are a smattering of small local whisky distillers nestled among the traditional whisky giants. Black Fox Farm, near Saskatoon, age their whisky in virgin oak casks which are stored in unheated warehouses. This, according to the owners, allows the casks to expand and contract with the temperature, creating a distinctive flavor. Over in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, North of 7 Distillers are busy doing everything from in-house milling to hand labelling. They roast their grain instead of the traditional malting, and then age their product in extra-toasted casks. You’ll need to try it to experience their unique flavor.
We finish off our craft Canadian whisky tour in Atlantic Canada. Now, this is traditional rum drinking territory. But lately, they’ve been coming to their oats (or barley in this case), so to speak. And we really can’t start anywhere else but Cape Breton Island, which is about as Scotland-like as you can get. Highlands, fiddles, bagpipes, and whisky. Glen Breton Whisky. This year’s first-ever 19-year is a superb dram. The packaging alone is world class. I recommend it for any whisky collection.
But there’s more. Hidden away in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the unlikeliest of whisky neighborhoods, is Signal Hill Distillers. Nothing fancy – just good, honest, corn and barley, pot stilled, virgin-oak-aged whisky. And along the south-eastern shore of Nova Scotia, there’s Glynnevan Distillers where they make traditional Canadian rye whisky and age it in good old fashioned rum casks.
It’s interesting to note that, while all these small and innovative distilleries are out there plying their trade, the big dogs are following suit with innovative and crafty products of their own. Hiram Walker has developed a superb dram called Lot 40, and Wiser’s has been dabbling with port and sherry finishes with their Pike Creek offering. Nothing like a bit of competition to up the stakes in the Canadian whisky game.
So where does that leave us? With a lot of really good Canadian whisky to try. And for you and I, that’s the best part. Cheers and enjoy!