Sunday, May 6, 2012

CANADIAN WHISKY: The Portable Expert

A week ago I would have said I didn't know very much about Canadian whisky. I don't think I've ever bought a bottle, and it's possible I'd never tasted it neat. And even then, I would have been overstating my knowledge, since most of what I  thought I knew was wrong, as I learned by reading Davin de Kergommeaux's magisterial new book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.1

De Kergommeaux is a leading authority and advocate for Canada's native spirit. He runs the website, is the Canadian Contributing Editor to Whisky Magazine,.and has chapters on the drink in a couple of well-known whiskey anthologies.

The thesis of his new book is found at the end of the Introduction:
One thing is certain, though: in the marketplace the most important ingredient in whisky is not the water, neither is it the grain. No -- the most important ingredient is the story.
Canadian whisky, you see, has its own story, and on the rare occasion when it's told, it's often told wrong. From earlier in the Introduction:
Attempts to discredit the nearly 200-year-old legacy of Canadian rye, based on foreign [i.e., American] post-Prohibition definitions of so-called "real" rye, have led some people to think that Canada should adjust its own long-standing definition. This, despite the reality that Canadian-style rye represents overwhelmingly the majority of world rye whisky production....
Canadian whisky is not Scotch and it is not bourbon. It is rye, and has been for nearly two centuries.
For me, this was the major lesson of the book. Canadian whisky cannot be understood as a Canadian variant of any other style of whiskey. Canadian whisky excellence lies in its blended whiskies -- in "the mingled souls of corn and rye," to quote de Kergommeaux quoting distiller J. P. Wiser. But Canadian whisky should no more be thought of as a sub-category of "blended whiskey" than should Irish whiskey -- especially not in the U.S., where whiskey excellence lies in straight bourbon whiskies, and blended whiskies are almost categorically inferior.

To tell the true story of Canadian whisky, de Kergommeaux looks first at the stuff itself: what it's made from, how it's made, and what it tastes like. (A word of warning: Reading Chapter 8, "Flavour, Taste, Aroma, and Texture," is thirsty work. You may want to have a sample on hand to follow along with.)

Section Four traces the history of Canadian whisky, chiefly through biographies of the major figures involved in founding and evolving the major distilleries. Patterns are repeated in various ways -- distilling was often just a side business at the beginning (which, perhaps, puts today's conglomerate ownerships in historical perspective); growth was a high risk, high reward proposition; rare is the family with more than a couple consecutive generations of interest in distilling. Through the years, ownership of brands has been relatively fluid, with rivals buying each other out as the opportunities arise.

If there is something missing from this book's all-but-encyclopedic treatment of its topic, it would be a summary chapter to this section, weaving together the various historical threads into a synthesized whole. The impacts of such events as the U.S. Civil War and Prohibition are described in the individual chapters, but a broader view across the industry would be helpful in understanding the story.

The final section of the book devotes a chapter to each of the nine distilleries currently making Canadian whisky. (Or maybe that should be the nine distilleries currently making whiskey in Canada, since Glenora Distillery in Nova Scotia makes only malt whiskey.) For each distillery, we learn about the setting, the process, the schedule, the brands, the markets, and the people involved. The variety -- from tiny, artisinal Glenora to massive, industrial Hiram Walker and Sons -- is striking, particularly given that Canadian law is not friendly toward craft distillers.

Speaking of which, one thought that occurred to me as I read about the largest distillery in Canada using "a proprietary yeast strain that Hiram Walker himself isolated" is that the difference between "artisinal" and "industrial" is a difference of scale, not of quality or craft. Canadian Club is a craft whiskey, it just happens to be one first crafted in 1882.

Canadian Whisky's concluding Epilogue strikes a somewhat downbeat note. After discussing some of the exciting things now happening in the industry -- including new and planned distilleries, as well as the "rye renaissance" fueled in no small part by Canadian rye bottled in the U.S. -- de Kergommeaux writes:
To say the future looks bright for the Canadian whisky industry would imply hope that regulators will allow whisky making to become as profitable in Canada as it is in other countries... At one time whisky was the single largest contributor to the Canadian treasury, the fabled goose that lays the golden eggs. Wouldn't it be ironic if instead of killing this particular Canadian goose, as happened in fable, Canadian regulators simply allowed her to fly elsewhere to lay her golden eggs?
 That sounds like a question I shall leave to Canadians to sort out. The question this book leaves me to answer is, which Canadian whisky shall I try next?2 To help me with that, there are tasting notes for more than 100 whiskies scattered throughout the book, from Highwood's Century Reserve 21 y.o. (page 6) to Seagram's V.O. Gold (p. 284) (not counting Still Waters Single Malt Vodka (p. 297), a newmake spirit most of which is becoming malt whiskey as I type).

1. Full disclosure: I read a free review copy of this book. (If I were sent a free review copy of your book, would I write a blog post about it? Send one and find out!)

2. And yes, there is a "next" Canadian whisky for me to have, since I had my "last" one (or possibly my first one), a Forty Creek Barrel Select, while reading this book in a hotel room. Not the best circumstances for a tasting, but according to my notes I got "springtime forest" on the nose -- which I think means wood and green leaves, though reading it back it sounds damned pretentious -- and a palate with both cornlike sweetness and something I put down as "sourness," unlike anything I've tasted in a bourbon or American-style straight rye.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review of this interesting and important book. Canadian whisky is a sadly generally overlooked area. De Kergommeaux's book should stimulate scholarship and interest in this area. Personally I enjoy Canadian whisky a great deal and am looking forward to reading this with keen interest.