Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.

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