In the opening credits to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson stands by the Atlantic City shore-line as bottles of Canadian whisky wash up to his wing-tip shoes.
It’s a cool image to be viewing after Canadian whisky, and its history, have also been celebrated in an instructive book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and as distillers meanwhile, responding to today’s rather different market forces, release shiploads of new product.
Partly a history of the first distilleries, recalling Canada’s own temperance movements, and partly tasting notes for modern offerings, Canadian Whisky is an unpretentious appreciation of what is seen worldwide as a quality product, says the book’s author, Davin de Kergommeaux.
Recent new Canadian whiskies include Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve, Pike Creek Double Barrel 10 Year Old , and what Davin de Kergommeaux deems a standout, Alberta Premium Dark Horse, a rich, peppery rye.
“At thirty dollars, it’s just wonderful. Every time I pour that whisky, everyone just goes nuts over it.”
Much has also been written about small-batch bourbons from the United States. De Kergommeaux says the fanfare over the corn-based whiskies from the south is warranted: “I think the bourbon people have really put their nose to the grindstone and brought out really high quality whiskies.”
Distillers appear now to be marketing to a younger crowd. “People right now want big bold flavour, perfect for sipping but hugely flavourful for cocktails.” Dark Horse makes a great Manhattan, the classic cocktail which calls for two parts rye, one part vermouth and a dash of bitters.
Some of De Kergommeaux’s ample whisky history will surprise many Canadians.
For instance, the popular myth that Canadian whisky poured freely during American Prohibition has been greatly romanticized, the author maintains. “Since we have these distilleries on the border, we tend to assume that they were the ones providing the whisky.”
He and other scholars have learned that, contrary to many Internet postings, most of the whisky Americans drank during Prohibition came from Ireland and Scotland, and Canadian whisky distillers suffered during Prohibition.
Americans weren’t unfamiliar with our exports. Long before the Volstead Act became law in January, 1920, Canadian whisky was America’s favourite. Its sweet and peppery taste became popular when domestic production was suspended during the Civil War.
Prohibition decreased demand, and many Canadian distilleries went bust. “Gooderham & Worts is gone largely because of Prohibition. Corby’s production went down. Wiser’s went completely out of business,” de Kergommeaux says. The latter’s premium whisky became a Corby’s brand.
Then came the stock market crash. From 1929 to 1933, Hiram Walker’s in Windsor “just couldn’t sell their whisky. Nobody could.” Well almost nobody: In 1928, Sam Bronfman acquired the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons distillery in Waterloo and turned it into a worldwide empire. In the book, he emerges as an inadvertent hero.
“It seems like he could be a real jerk to people, but he understood the importance of quality and he would agonize over the properties of the whisky, overseeing it personally,” said De Kergommeaux.
Barry Stein, co-owner of Still Waters Distillery in Concord, agrees. “Spirits are still considered hard liquor and there are stigmas around that.”
Stein and his partner set up the first craft distillery in Ontario four years ago. The lone wolf in a not-yet burgeoning movement, Stein says the craft whisky mindset is about ten years behind that of the United States, which boasts over 350 craft whisky distillers. Their most recent product, 1+11, a corn-based whisky blended from different distillers with their young rye, has sold out in many locations.
Within the next two years, they hope to introduce their first original whisky, which calls for 80 to 95 per cent rye grain. “It’s very spicy, less sweet than traditional Canadian whiskies, which are made from corn with a little bit of rye added in.”
Canadian regulations dictate whisky must be barrelled in oak for a minimum of three years before bottling. The regulations go on and on, jokes De Kergommeaux. “There are so many… that it seems like every federal department has something to say about it.” Yet they spawn other creativity, he notes. “Canada is just more honest about how we make our whisky because we’re more worried about the flavour.”
Some distillers have added a little too much flavour, he thinks, noting the recent trend of sweetened whiskies like Spicebox or Black Velvet Toasted Caramel. De Kergommeaux is not a fan.
“I like the way they are bringing new drinkers to whisky but I can’t see myself buying them except to serve to others for Christmas celebrations.”