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Note: If you're looking for info on other Canadian whiskies, read the piece, then click here.

Rugged Individualism for Mr. Smooth: a few Canadian distillers want to cash in on small-batch, single-malt fashion

Chicago Tribune; Chicago, Ill.; Apr 11, 2001; Lew Bryson Special to the Tribune; (Copyright 2001 by the Chicago Tribune)

Americans' image of Canadian whiskey, when they think about it at all, is much like their image of Canada: big, a relatively cheap destination, and nice, but not exciting. Canadian whiskey has a reputation of being a somewhat sweet, safely smooth blended whiskey that's best mixed with soda or juice. It has been called "brown vodka."

Huge brands like Crown Royal, Canadian Mist, VO, Canadian Club, Windsor and Seagram's 7 are still chugging along in a gentle decline with the rest of the big blended whiskeys as their core consumers gray and slow their drinking. But someone in Canada has evidently been watching the success of single malt Scotch and small batch Bourbon in the U.S. and Asia. A wave of specialty Canadian whiskeys is just starting to head south.

"Specialty Canadian whiskey" may sound like an oxymoron. Perhaps that's because Canadian whiskey has always emphasized the brand over the distillery. So says Preiss Imports principal Henry Preiss, who sells "single cask" Canadian whiskey as part of his Hirsch Select line of spirits. "Canadian distillers just aren't enthusiastic," he said. "They treat the whiskey like a commodity."

Preiss, who imports single malt Scotch, sees a huge difference between the two countries' distilling traditions.

"Tiny Scotch distilleries can do well because the whole industry has such a reputation, a heritage," he said. "The distilleries in Canada have never put out any information about themselves; they just send product out through big international companies. So no one is really passionate about Canadian whiskey."

John Hall wants to change that. About eight years ago, Hall, a winemaker for 31 years, took a hard look at the copper pot stills used to make eau de vie at his Kittling Ridge Winery in Ontario. He thought about how he could make whiskey more like eau de vie and brandy in image.

"I went out and bought every bottle of whiskey I could find," Hall said, "and read the labels to see what I could learn. They were just brand names; they didn't tell you anything."

After thought, he took action. "I approached whiskey distilling more like the way I did my winemaking," Hall says. "You ferment and age the various grape varieties, and that's what I did with the rye, barley and corn." Hall also played with aging. "I use five different types of barrels," he says. Rye distillate goes in lightly charred barrels, barley in medium char, and the lighter corn in heavily charred ones. "They're all pot stilled," Hall says, in contrast to the continuous column stills used by big Canadian distillers for their base whiskeys.

But Hall did stay on the Canadian path in one way: He blends. The smaller of his two pot stills contributes more flavor to the mix. This blending of two distillates is a hallmark of Canadian whiskeymaking.

Hall emulates Scotch warehousing techniques by using former Bourbon barrels and sherry casks (from Kittling Ridge's own sherry) to age his spirits.

The result is Hall's 40 Creek Barrel Select and 40 Creek Three Grain whiskeys. Three Grain emphasizes the character of the rye, corn and barley spirits that go into it. The Barrel Select is blended from only the rye and corn distillates and relies largely on Hall's barrel aging for its character.

Hall and Preiss believe that small companies are best equipped to produce individuality, but Corby's, the Canadian branch of the huge Allied Domecq concern and the country's largest distiller, has created a line of three "small batch" whiskeys they call The Canadian Whisky Guild.

"This is to show the world the excellence and craftsmanship that Canadian distilling is capable of," says Howard Kirke, Corby's vice president of international markets. Kirke also plainly sees the Whisky Guild as a way of shoring up Corby's much bigger blended brands.

"We believe we can rekindle some interest in the general category," he said. "The small batch [Bourbons] and single malts are attracting young experimenters. We want to be part of that."

Kirke calls Corby's Pike Creek the "most accessible" of the CWG line. That's probably because of the fruitiness Pike Creek takes on by being finished in barrels that once held port. Lot No. 40 is named for the lot granted to master blender Mike Booth's ancestor by the Crown. It is like the spirits of that time: single grain and unblended. Lot No. 40 is 100 percent rye and rye malt, and is bottled at 86 proof.

Gooderham & Worts, "named after Canada's original distillery," Kirke said, is the most expensive of the line. Booth takes 10 barrels out of each batch and blends them. The whiskey is bottled at 90 proof, high for Canadian whiskey.

Corby's also bottles two longer aged whiskeys, the Wiser's De Luxe 10 year old and Wiser's Very Old 18 year old. These two are surprisingly good Canadians, and give hope that maybe we'll see more older Canadians (Henry Preiss will have a 24 year old Canadian available this year). Likewise, Canadian Club has a new specialty line composed of a Reserve 10 year old at 100 proof, and a wood finished Sherry Cask bottling.

Whiskey lovers are discovering these new Canadians, and you can too. You won't need a passport or very much money, and you'll find them very friendly.

Tasting notes:

Producers promise that all of these whiskeys will be available in the Chicago area by June; those with prices are already on store shelves.

CC Reserve 10 year old: Sweet, but not cloying; peppery.

Wiser's De Luxe: Rather sweet.

Wiser's Very Old: Quintessential Canadian

40 Creek Three Grain: Corn is big; some rye spice.

40 Creek Barrel Select: Butterscotch aromas over aged corn whiskey flavor.

Gooderham & Worts: A suggestion of peat in a nicely subtle whiskey.

Lot No. 40: Smoky, sweet, feels like single malt in the mouth.

Pike Creek: Odd, thin edge to it. Vague sweetness.

Hirsch Select Single Cask 12 year old: Honey and spice, complex.

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: January 11, 2006