Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why You Don't Like Canadian Whisky

Five years ago, I didn't know much about Canadian whisky. I thought I did, and I wrote about it like I did, and I'd been to one Canadian distillery (the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario). Mostly though, I had written Canadian whisky off, with the exception of the stuff John Hall was making at Forty Creek. I was just another smug whiskey snob: Canadian? Brown vodka.

Then I read Davin de Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. If you haven't read it, you really should click on that link, go to Amazon, and buy it. I'll wait.

Done? Great, because it's fascinating. Canadian whisky has every bit as interesting (and long) a history as American whiskey, and — remember — they made most of the whisky that was consumed in the U.S. during Prohibition...and a hell of a lot of the whisky we drank during the Civil War, too. But Canadian, like the majority of Scotch whisky, is blended, and that's led whisky snobs to ignore it.

After reading Davin's book, though, and visiting more Canadian distilleries with him and Dave Broom (you really should read his The World Atlas of Whisky, too), and talking to Canadian distillers and blenders...that's when I really got it. First, they've only recently started sending the good stuff down here. We've been getting the Canadian equivalent of Jim Beam White and Johnnie Walker Red: big-selling stuff that goes in a glass with ice and soda. Fine, for your grandfather, and your father (and likely your mom, too), but you want more, right? I know you, I am you: we want more, and the Canadian distillers are finally getting it.

The second part, and this is the key, is that Canadian whisky makers just don't think the way American whiskey makers do. Everything is blended to them and they really don't look at the whiskies they're blending in the singular, as possible soloists stepping aside from the choir; "it's a unique landscape," as one of them told me.

A moment that really brought it home to me was when Don Livermore, master blender at Hiram Walker, was having us sample various whiskies at various ages, all the way from fresh new make to Wiser's 18 year old. He'd done some experiments with red oak, and we tried some at, I believe, 4 years old. It was blastingly woody, like vodka lapped off a deck; I'm afraid I made a face. What are you  going to do with that, I asked him. "I'm going to blend it," he said, with a slight emphasis that almost sounded disappointed, like, 'I've been telling you for three hours that we blend whiskies; don't you get it?'

I didn't...but now I do. I get that blends are what they're making, that the package of flavors is what they're thinking about, and that really, they're making whiskies for drinking, not delicately tasting. Highballs, simple whisky on the rocks, cocktails; that's what Canadian's made for. If we don't get that, if we try to force it to be a sipping whisky, we may as well be putting Islay whisky in a Manhattan. I mean, you can do that, but it's hardly what it's meant for, is it?

So when I taste Canadian whiskies now, I do try sipping them...and then I try them in a highball, or I make a Manhattan (with two cherries, and a full measure of vermouth). Some of them are fully delicious as sippers, like that Wiser's 18 Year Old, and some of the latest Crown Royal variants, like the wholly excellent Monarch (75th Anniversary), and yes, the Northern Harvest Rye.

I also like the Alberta Rye Dark Batch, which is made with 1% sherry...which is allowed in Canada. The folks at the distillery followed up with me on that, and they asked: if you were going to make a cocktail with it, what would you do? I thought about it, and told them that I'd like a Manhattan balanced to Dark Batch's flavor profile, something that calls out the sherry, and isn't afraid of the whisky's lush sweetness. I usually like a more austere Manhattan, a rye Manhattan, but sometimes I like to play Dean Martin and have something sweet and fun.

And you know, they got hold of Chris Goad at Canon, in Seattle, and gave him that description to work with, and here's what I got; they call it

The Prairie Triangle
7 parts Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch
1 part cream sherry
1 part Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao (go find it; play with it; worth it)
2 dashes bitters (the recipe called for 4 dashes; that dominated the drink, IMO)

Add all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice and prepare your glass, letting the ice slowly melt in the mixing glass to reduce your stirring time. Add a large ice cube to your double rocks glass and garnish with a wide orange peel, cut and trimmed clean. (Don't hate me: I added a brandied cherry.) Finish mixing your drink and pour into glass. Cheers!

I found it wonderfully juicy, and the actual add of the sherry was, I thought, ballsy and brilliant. It's a great drink, and it needs Canadian to make it...and it needs verve to make it the right drink for Canadian. Thanks, Chris; thanks Alberta Distillery!

So think about Canadian as Canadian. And go out and pick up the latest copy of Whisky Advocate, where my latest column talks about the eureka moment I had with Canadian whisky at a tasting I did last year, and the happy results that came out of it. If this didn't show you the Canadian Way, that column will.


WhiskyScores said...

Well said Lew - Thank you.

Ken Arsenault said...

I read your article in the Whisky Advocate and I agree it makes great cocktails but we up here in the north are discovering new Canadian "sipping" whiskies every year. I am really excited about what some of the the new smaller distilleries and some of the big old ones are making as well. By the way you book, "Tasting Whisky" is pretty darn good too.

Lew Bryson said...

I agree, and you need to send more of these this way!