Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The State of Canadian Whisky

The eye-rolling I had to endure during my month researching and writing this New York Times piece on Canadian whiskey! With the possible exception of vodka, there is perhaps no liquor category that liquor enthusiasts and bar professionals get less excited about than the whiskies made north of the border.  Every time I brought up the subject, boredom and indifference caked over the listener's face. The best I could hope for, reaction-wise, was a healthy contempt. Don Draper and Nucky Johnson may like Canadian Club, but mixologists and liquor writers do not.

That healthy disregard, however, has led to a lack of knowledge of what's going on in Canada, whisky-wise; or even that anything is going on at all. But, indeed, things are going on. Crown Royal, Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, and Canadian Club are still the stolid, corporate giants that stride the Great White North. But the corporate entities that own the brands are bringing out some newer brands. The Bourbon, rye and Scotch drinker is their open and admitted target. There is much more work to be done before Canada becomes an exciting place from which to import whisky, but these are steps in the right direction.

Here's the article:

Distillers Take a New Approach to Canadian Whiskies
By Robert Simonson
PHILIP WARD, a noted Manhattan mixologist, was blunt when asked recently whether he had any thoughts about Canadian whisky. “Sure, I have thoughts,” he said in a deadpan reply. “I think about all the other whiskeys I’d like to drink before I’d drink a Canadian whisky.”
Canadian whisky has an image problem. As Scotch and bourbon were reframed as elite, cultured drams, as American rye resurrected itself, and as Irish and Japanese spirits won new measures of respect and popularity, Canada remained the unglamorous workhorse of the whisky world, producing dependable, light-bodied, mixing whiskies derided by booze connoisseurs as “brown vodka.” To add injury to insult, Canadian distillers’ long-dominant position in the United States (thank you, Prohibition) has receded in recent years as sales have been flat.
In the last couple years, however, Canadian whisky (rendered without an “e,” as with the Scottish version) has been taking baby steps out of the shadows. In the Canadian section of the liquor store, usually a model of stolid constancy, there are new bottles that proclaim themselves “small batch,” “single barrel,” and boast higher proofs and unusual wood treatments. Canadian whisky, it seems, wants to hang with the cool kids.
“I think we’re coming into a fairly excited time,” said Davin de Kergommeaux, a Canadian whisky writer who runs the blog Canadian Whisky ( and is working on a book about his homeland’s whiskies. “Canadian distillers are getting together and trying to rebuild their image.”
A change was certainly needed. “The Canadian whisky category has been rapidly losing ground to bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey for 10 years,” said Chris Morris, the master distiller for the liquor conglomerate Brown-Forman.
One might think that Mr. Morris, a bourbon industry veteran, would jump for joy at such news. But Brown-Forman, like its peers in the industry, has a stake in Canada’s liquor fortunes. It owns Canadian Mist, just as Diageo owns Crown Royal and Beam Global Spirits owns Canadian Club.
For the Canadian whisky maverick John Hall, this sort of foreign ownership was part of the problem.
“Ownership in Canadian whisky went to international companies,” he said. “In the late ’80s, the Scotch guys were starting to bring out single malts and the bourbon guys were doing small-batch bourbon. But in Canada, it was the same old same old. I thought we needed to try to bring a heritage back to Canadian whisky.”
Mr. Hall founded an independent distillery in 1992 and began laying down whisky drawn from pot stills. A former winemaker, he took a different approach to making Forty Creek Barrel Select, his debut whisky. “I don’t use a mash bill,” he said, referring to the special recipe of fermented grains that determines the characters of many whiskies. Instead he distills and ages each grain (corn, rye, malted barley) in separate barrels and, after a 6-to-10-year wait (far longer than the three years required by Canadian law), blends them, as a Bordeaux producer might blend separately vinified grape varietals. He first released Forty Creek Barrel Select ($23), a spirit far richer and deeper than one typically associates with Canada, in late 2002.
Mr. Hall’s drive to reclaim Canadian whisky’s birthright arguably reached its ultimate expression with last year’s Confederation Oak Reserve, which is actually aged in Canadian oak barrels, not the typical American casks. A stand of 150-year-old oak nearing the end of its life provided the staves. Priced at $70, the limited-run whisky is nearly sold out.
Forty Creek’s lead has been followed by some of those American giants that stole away that birthright. Both the Sazerac Company and Brown-Forman have rolled out new premium Canadians. Sazerac, based in New Orleans, arguably had an edge in its master blender, Drew Mayville. A Canadian who worked many years for the liquor conglomerate Diageo, putting out Crown Royal and Seagram’s VO, Mr. Mayville knew what was wrong and had an idea about how to fix it.
“It was what your dad drank,” he said of his home country’s whisky. “People are getting bored with it. Bartenders aren’t looking for that bland drink. The trend is for more flavorful, vibrant whisky.” In other words, bourbon, rye and Scotch.
The result: last year’s releases of Caribou Crossing Single Barrel and Royal Canadian Small Batch, both drawn from the 220,000 barrels aging in Canada that the company has acquired over the years. The sleek packaging and nods to small-scale production suggest what they’re meant to deliver. “For Caribou I wanted older whiskies that will knock your socks off,” he said. “The Royal Crown was designed to be rich and very smooth while delivering on flavor.” Mr. Mayville said he’s working on four new Canadian products, though not all of them may see the shelves.
Mr. Morris, too, wanted to create a “full-flavored, rich expression of Canadian whisky” when tapping Brown-Forman’s 100,000-barrel-plus Canadian whisky stockpile to make Collingwood, which was introduced in February. But he also knew he had to execute a balancing act of attracting new whisky drinkers while not alienating devotees of the Canadian style. “We wanted it to be a classic Canadian, and historically, that has been primarily a blended whisky,” said Mr. Morris, a careful, courtly Kentuckian who speaks slowly and thoughtfully. “We had to walk that line.” He set the smooth, triple-distilled Collingwood apart by resting the finished whisky with toasted maplewood.
New brands are not the only changes up north. The grand old labels are also stretching. Last year, Canadian Mist introduced the rye-heavy Canadian Mist Black Diamond, and the industry leader Crown Royal has come out with a few new expressions, including Crown Royal Black. Like Black Diamond, it has a higher alcohol content than Canadian law requires, and that many American bourbon and rye drinkers prefer.
“I really believe it’s woken up the category,” Mr. Hall said of the various new bottlings. “Competition is good. It just means there’s that many more good whiskies coming out.”
And if the new brands take off in the United States, who knows? Maybe Canadian drinkers will take notice.
“Like most Canadian things — artists, actors — they get recognized in the U.S. first,” Mr. Hall joked. “Then Canada says, ‘Oh, it must be O.K. then.’ ”

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