The white knight of Canadian whisky

In the world of whisky, the Canadian stuff is awfully popular, but doesn’t always get a lot of respect among connoisseurs. Davin de Kergommeaux is hoping to change that. The former sommelier turned whisky writer, whose palate and pen lie behind the Canadian Whisky website, recently released his book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me about his book and Canadian whisky.

Why a book on Canadian whisky? And why now?

I really get a lot of pleasure from drinking good whisky. Like most people, I started with single malt Scotch but I have an adventuresome palate and soon began to try other whiskies as well. At a high-end tasting in Las Vegas I saw some of the top single malt connoisseurs drinking Canadian whisky. That intrigued me and I began to take Canadian whisky more seriously.

I say I have been working on the book for seven years but really, the book sort of evolved from my own need for information. There just isn’t a comprehensive book about Canadian whisky on the market. The information I was collecting began to turn into chapters and next thing you know I was working on a book.

What aspects of Canadian whisky does your book cover? Is it primarily tasting notes of different Canadian whiskies, or a history of Canadian whisky, or something else entirely?

There are 25 chapters that add up to 336 pages. The book starts out with the materials – grain, water and wood, then talks about the processes – fermenting distilling, blending and so on. Then there is a section about tasting and it is written specifically in Canadian whisky terms and not an adaptation of Scotch tasting. Next I cover the history of the industry and all the major historical whisky makers before I go on to devote a chapter to each of the nine active distilleries that have whisky on the market. An epilogue talks about the future and the micro-distillers. There are 100 + tasting notes scattered throughout the book.

It seems like Canadian whisky doesn’t always get a lot of respect among whisky and spirit connoisseurs, with derisive monikers like “brown vodka.” Why is that?

Canadian whisky is hugely popular in the U.S. and to some degree in Canada as well, for use in mixed drinks. This mixing whisky is light and easy drinking. A lot of people just assume that this is what Canadian whisky is all about. In reality there are dozens and dozens of real top-shelf connoisseur whiskies made here in Canada. A lot of these never get out of the country. Canadians don’t pat themselves on the back a lot. So, world opinion of Canadian whisky is shaped by people in other countries and they, by and large, do not get the good stuff.

What is the biggest misconception or misunderstanding people have about Canadian whisky? What do people not know about Canadian whisky that they should?

The biggest misconception is that Canadian whisky is not real rye whisky. We have been making whisky that uses rye for flavouring, for a couple of centuries and calling it rye. In the mid 20th century, American producers decided that “real rye” had to be 51% rye grain and somehow people began to think that our whisky is not real rye. Sorry – we’re not going to change our definition to suit someone else’s much more recent definition. Besides, American rye is matured in new oak. You need a lot of grain to show through the powerful new oak flavours. We use a combination of new barrels and used barrels and in a used barrel, a little rye goes a long way.

If you put all the rye production in the U.S. together, from all distilleries combined, it is about 1/3 of what just one medium-sized Canadian distillery makes of high-rye (above 51%) whisky. So I am very comfortable calling our whisky ‘rye’ and asking for a rye and ginger in a bar and expecting to get Canadian whisky.

I know whisky aficionados don’t like to be asked what their “favourite” whisky is. It’s like being asked to pick your favourite child. So I’ll put it this way: What brands do you think really showcase what Canadian whisky is all about? What do you pour for someone who’s just getting to know different types of whisky to give them the “character impact” of Canadian whisky?

I’ll go with the winners of the Canadian Whisky Awards and add a couple of others: Forty Creek John’s Private Cask No. 1; Gibson’s 18; Wiser’s Small Batch; Wiser’s Legacy; Masterson’s Rye and I’d add Wiser’s 18, anything from Forty Creek, Canadian Club 20 year old, Century Reserve 21 year old, Gibson’s 12 year old, Alberta Springs 10 year old. Now if you ask me again I’ll likely come up with an entirely different list.

And what do you pour for someone who’s a confirmed Scotch, bourbon or Irish whisky drinker, who might have a slight bias against Canadian?

Talisker, Greenore, Knob Creek, Maker’s Mark 46 or Rittenhouse. I enjoy sharing whisky and don’t feel the need to convert people. However, if they want to try Canadian, Gibson’s 18, Wiser’s Legacy, any Forty Creek special release, Canadian Club sherry cask – these all appeal to single malt fans if they have an open mind.

Is there a “holy grail” of Canadian whisky for you? Something you’d love to be able to taste, but can’t because it no longer exists?

Yes. Crown Royal Fine DeLuxe in a bottle old enough to have a black or purple cap.

One of the current defining features of Canadian whisky, in Canadian law, is that it “possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.” Does this leave enough room for innovation in the Canadian whisky scene?

Yes, essentially, as long as you can taste rye and it is at 40% or above, it qualifies. This means you can have Century Reserve 21 at one end of the scale and Masterson’s Rye at the other with a huge number of unique whiskies in between. As well, the big whisky makers all seem to encourage innovation so even though a distillery like Hiram Walker’s, for example, is huge, you almost get little pockets of craft distilling going on inside it. Whisky makers can be real characters and they are not content to be technicians. They all have a creative itch to scratch.

There are a couple of unblended whiskies distilled in Canada; Glen Breton is probably the most famous of them. Is this style of whisky something you’d want to see more of?

Blended is an American term. In Canada we simply call it “Canadian whisky.” Almost all of the distilleries in Canada make all the components of their bottlings, so by and large, Canadian whisky is better called “single distillery whisky.”

I do not understand why American nomenclature allows Four Roses to blend bourbon from ten different recipes together and not call it a blend but if Canadian distillers mingle whiskies from two recipes suddenly it becomes a blend. Or why Woodford Reserve, which is a blend of pot-still whisky from their Versailles, distillery and column-distilled whisky from Louisville is not called a blend. This is all about promoting the category and has nothing to do with production practices.

I like Glen Breton’s “Battle of the Glen” a lot and I think they do a good job of emulating Scotch single malt whisky. Shelter Point also makes a good single malt spirit and Still Waters malt spirit is spectacular. However, I am not convinced that single malt is the way to go in Canada. The Scots and the Japanese do such a good job of it, why try to copy them when we have rye and corn in abundance? I have tasted Still Waters rye spirit and it is wonderfuI. I would love to see what Glenora could come up with if they ran some rye mash though their post stills, because they really do have a great set-up there.

Is there a particular mixed drink that you think really shows off Canadian whisky? When you’re not sipping it neat, how do you enjoy it?

I hate to be boring, but I prefer it neat. If I must mix, I like a Manhattan or simple rye and ginger.

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