DINE and Destinations - - TABLE OF CONTENTS - By Davin de Ker­gom­meaux

Canada's next big thing

SIT­TING BY THE BANKS of the Moira River at high flood, watch­ing tor­rents of wa­ter surge over a low dam, I am struck by the skills of Canada’s early trades­men. That dam, built by Henry Corby in 1857 to power his dis­tillery on the out­skirts of Belleville, has with­stood the rav­ages of time, seem­ingly un­scathed.

It was here in Cor­byville that I be­came an ac­ci­den­tal whisky tourist. It was 1957 and my dad took a wrong turn on the long trek back from Wind­sor to Ot­tawa, and drove right through a dis­tillery com­plex that bus­tled with vans, trucks, horses, and wagons. They fright­ened this eight-year-old who felt he had en­tered the Old West of early black and white tele­vi­sion. An old ‘tin hat’ wa­ter tower em­bla­zoned with ‘Corby’s Lon­don Dry Gin,’ be­came our cho­sen land­mark. Dad never missed that turn again.

It was five decades be­fore I re­turned, this time car­ry­ing a bot­tle of Wiser’s 18-year-old that had been dis­tilled here some­time af­ter J.P. Wiser’s death. Sit­ting on those river­banks I sipped its golden nec­tar, re­mark­ing how much its flavours re­sem­ble the Wiser’s 18 of to­day. Dip­ping a glass into the river I added a few drops of wa­ter to my dram in a kind of ri­tual, and be­gan to re­flect on the role of whisky in build­ing this na­tion.

Early days

In 1801, John Mol­son fired up Canada’s first known whisky still at his Mon­treal brew­ery. Un­til then, Cana­di­ans drank rum, cider, or beer. It wasn’t long though be­fore whisky took the lead and, in the process, be­came an un­stop­pable force in forg­ing Canada’s fu­ture. How? Through taxes, of course. In the decades pre­ced­ing Con­fed­er­a­tion, whisky dis­til­leries contributed

more to the pub­lic purse than any other en­ter­prise in the coun­try.

What we of­ten for­get though, is how Hi­ram Walker’s dis­tillery helped sup­port Sir John A. Mac­don­ald’s po­lit­i­cal ca­reer just as J.P. Wiser’s did the same for Sir Wil­fred Lau­rier. It is not a stretch to say that Con­fed­er­a­tion and the early Do­min­ion were built on whisky. While Mac­don­ald was said to favour claret and known to sip vodka in the House of Com­mons, there is lit­tle doubt that he and Walker shared an oc­ca­sional dram. Cer­tainly, it was whisky that Lau­rier raised to thank his host when he vis­ited J.P. Wiser in his Prescott home.

Al­most from the be­gin­ning, Canada’s early dis­tillers courted the ex­port mar­ket. The dis­tri­bu­tion net­works they set up in the United States turned to gold in 1861 when the Amer­i­can Civil War dis­rupted dis­till­ing south of the bor­der. By 1865, Cana­dian whisky had be­come the num­ber one best sell­ing whisky style there, and re­mained so for 145 years, un­til bour­bon fi­nally caught up with it in 2010. Did Pro­hi­bi­tion make Canada’s rep­u­ta­tion as a whisky na­tion? No! It was the Civil War three gen­er­a­tions ear­lier.

Early brand­ing

In 19th century On­tario, hun­dreds of set­tlers had home stills, though only a few achieved com­mer­cial scale. Vi­sion­ar­ies such as Joseph Sea­gram, J.P. Wiser, Good­er­ham & Worts, Hi­ram Walker and Henry Corby saw an ever-grow­ing mar­ket for rich, flavour­ful whisky. This re­quired three com­po­nents: qual­ity grains, rye grain in the mash, and enough time for the whisky to ma­ture. “Qual­ity is some­thing you just can’t rush,” Wiser was fond of say­ing.

Af­ter a fal­ter­ing start, Walker’s flag­ship Cana­dian Club brand be­came so pop­u­lar that shady dis­tillers in the United States be­gan adding the word “Cana­dian” to their la­bels, some ac­tu­ally coun­ter­feit­ing the Cana­dian Club pack­age. The feisty Walker fought back, nam­ing the coun­ter­feit­ers on bill­boards and dar­ing them to sue him for defama­tion. None ever did.

The Big Five – Sea­gram, Walker, Wiser, Corby, and Good­er­ham & Worts – soon made ev­ery­one else mere also-rans in the whisky trade. The ex­tent of their suc­cess and in­flu­ence is ev­i­denced by Good­er­ham & Worts be­com­ing the nascent coun­try’s largest tax­payer, and the towns that were named af­ter Corby and Walker. Al­though cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion later brought most of th­ese brands to­gether un­der one roof, the seed that grew into to­day’s Cana­dian whisky style was planted in the mid-19th century by th­ese far-sighted whisky mak­ers, who thrived on com­pe­ti­tion.

Much ado about noth­ing

The tem­per­ance move­ment never gained the kind of trac­tion in Canada that it did south of the bor­der. It was cer­tainly po­lit­i­cally cor­rect to sup­port it – even J.P. Wiser voted for pro­hi­bi­tion when the is­sue was brought be­fore Prescott’s town coun­cil. But it was left to the prov­inces to pass leg­is­la­tion and, though most did, it was of­ten short-lived and so riven with loop­holes that it achieved lit­tle.

The real Cana­dian mar­ket was in the United States, where masses of whisky were shipped across the bor­der all through the pe­riod of Pro­hi­bi­tion. De­spite Hol­ly­wood im­ages to the con­trary, how­ever, th­ese sales were minis­cule com­pared with the le­gal pre-pro­hi­bi­tion trade. So minis­cule, in fact, that sev­eral Cana­dian dis­til­leries teetered into bank­ruptcy, while oth­ers were sold for a song so their Protes­tant own­ers could avoid the with­er­ing glare of fel­low parish­ioners.

Whisky by law

Gems like to­day’s Wiser’s 35-year-old, Cana­dian Club 40-year-old, and Century Re­serve 15/25 re­quire decades in the mak­ing. Age-con­scious whisky fans seek out th­ese ma­ture beau­ties.

If there are age state­ments on the best Scotch, they rea­son, why shouldn’t the best Cana­dian whiskies have them too?

Ross Hendry left a job at Glen­rothes dis­tillery in his na­tive Scot­land to be­come mar­ket­ing direc­tor for Canada’s Corby Dis­tillers. “It is star­tling that even the most eru­dite whisky afi­cionado still views Canada’s na­tional spirit as a great mys­tery,” he ob­serves. “When you tell them that it was Canada (not my fel­low Scots) that first man­dated age state­ments on whisky, their eyes widen and you can see per­cep­tions start­ing to change in front of you.”

Twenty-seven years af­ter Canada passed laws re­quir­ing whisky be aged, Scot­land fol­lowed suit. Canada’s top dis­tillers had long re­al­ized that mak­ing good whisky takes time, whether gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions re­quire it or not. Abid­ing such laws was no hard­ship for them as they were do­ing it al­ready. With gov­ern­ment cer­ti­fy­ing its age, how­ever, Cana­dian whisky gained a ca­chet that no other coun­try en­joyed. De­mand sky­rock­eted; the Scots took no­tice.

Growth of brands

Al­though Pro­hi­bi­tion dev­as­tated sales of Cana­dian whisky, it also cre­ated huge op­por­tu­ni­ties. One of those ready to seize the chal­lenge was Sam Bronf­man, known af­fec­tion­ately as “Mr. Sam.” Bronf­man was ob­sessed with qual­ity, un­like the quick-buck artists he dis­dained from the Pro­hi­bi­tion era. Af­ter he turned Sea­gram’s fail­ing dis­tillery into a bil­lion-dol­lar en­ter­prise, he es­tab­lished di­vi­sions with their own brands to com­pete against each other. Then, in 1939, he cre­ated Crown Royal to com­mem­o­rate a royal visit to Canada. The whisky be­came a phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess and kicked off brand wars that con­tinue to this day, much to the whisky lover’s ben­e­fit.

As the rep­u­ta­tion of Cana­dian whisky grew, brands fought tooth and nail for mar­ket share. Cana­dian Club was sell­ing well so why not cre­ate new ver­sions of it? Soon, CC drinkers had Cana­dian Club 12-yearold and half a dozen other ver­sions to choose from. Other brands did the same.

Qual­ity, qual­ity, qual­ity

Mr. Sam’s ob­ses­sion with qual­ity be­came the key­stone in Canada’s whisky rep­u­ta­tion. Qual­ity check­points at ev­ery step in the pro­duc­tion process en­sured that Cana­dian whisky was con­sis­tently good. And with mil­lions of bar­rels of whisky ma­tur­ing in ware­houses, Cana­dian whisky mak­ers could cre­ate a range of whiskies to please ev­ery palate. This fo­cus on qual­ity and va­ri­ety served Canada well when the 1980s rolled

around and vodka came into fash­ion. Cana­dian whisky mak­ers light­ened their blends to keep pace. Lower de­mand and ris­ing taxes made a fatal cock­tail though, and some dis­til­leries shut down. Those that sur­vived are back in style to­day as never be­fore, and are joined by a grow­ing cadre of new ones.

“Cana­dian whisky is en­joy­ing a vir­tual re­birth,” says Dave Sweet. He has been pre­sent­ing Whisky Live tast­ing events across North Amer­ica for the past decade. “When Crown Royal North­ern Har­vest Rye was named best world whisky, that was the kick-off. Cana­dian whisky is go­ing to be the next cool trend for the in-the-know whisky en­thu­si­ast.”

Cana­dian Club brand am­bas­sador, Tish Har­cus, agrees en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. “Cana­dian whisky is hot now,” she ex­claims. “It’s trendy again and I love it at whisky shows when peo­ple tell me ‘I haven’t had this stuff in years and I’d for­got­ten how good it is.’”

So much choice – Help!

If Cana­dian whisky is the next big thing, where, then, do you be­gin? My ad­vice? Since Cana­dian whisky is a bar­gain com­pared to other whiskies, spend a few dol­lars more. You’ll be am­ply re­warded. Which ones? Here are a few of my favourites:

Crown Royal North­ern Har­vest Rye has been win­ning friends ever since it was named the best whisky in the world. I love its clean, crisp, spicy flavours. I am also par­tial to Crown Royal Lim­ited Edi­tion, an ethe­real, el­e­gant dram that is avail­able only in Canada. Cana­dian Club is an­other long-time favourite. Head straight for Cana­dian Club Clas­sic 12, Cana­dian Club 100% Rye, or splurge a lit­tle for Cana­dian Club 40-year-old, one more Canada-only re­lease. Collingwood is an­other rich blend with glo­ri­ous aro­mas of Cherry Blos­som choco­late bars and has a per­ma­nent place on my top whisky shelf.

The lore of John K. Hall and his Forty Creek dis­tillery will some­day be leg­end in the vein of “The lit­tle en­gine that could.” In 1992, Hall bought a founder­ing mi­cro-dis­tillery in Grimsby, On­tario. For 20 years he poured his whisky for any­one who would lis­ten, turn­ing his tiny dis­tillery into a be­he­moth that he even­tu­ally sold to Italy’s Gruppo Cam­pari in 2014, for a cool $180 mil­lion. Forty Creek Bar­rel Se­lect is a good start­ing point, but why not go straight to the but­tery smooth Forty Creek Dou­ble Bar­rel or the crisp com­plex Forty Creek Con­fed­er­a­tion Oak ma­tured in oak har­vested 40 kilo­me­ters from the dis­tillery?

Visitors to Canada who know their whisky of­ten take home a bot­tle of Gib­son’s 12-yearold. It’s not avail­able out­side the coun­try. Even more de­li­cious is Gib­son’s Ven­er­a­ble 18-yearold. Rich but del­i­cate, assertive but el­e­gant, this is Cana­dian whisky at its very best.

Al­berta Pre­mium Dark Horse has be­come a cock­tail sen­sa­tion, but I pre­fer to sip it neat. For this fruity spice bomb, the blenders took 100% rye whisky and added an 8% dol­lop of Amer­i­can bour­bon and 1% real sherry, mak­ing it both mix­able and quaf­fa­ble.

If you can buy just one whisky, then I’d rec­om­mend Wiser’s 35-year-old. Scotch, bour­bon, Ir­ish, Ja­panese, this may be the best whisky I have ever tasted, pe­riod. Hockey fans, on the other hand, may pre­fer the fruitier Wayne Gret­zky No. 99 Wine Cask, Ice Cask, or 99 Proof. Yes, Canada’s legendary Great One has opened a dis­tillery in Ni­a­gara where he hired top pro­fes­sion­als to make sure the whisky is as sen­sa­tional on the palate as he was on the ice.

Then there’s the North­ern Bor­der Col­lec­tion: Good­er­ham & Worts 17-year-old, 12-yearold Lot No. 40 Cask Strength, and Pike Creek 21-year-old. Th­ese join the daz­zling Corby col­lec­tion of Pike Creek – lush and fruity, Good­er­ham & Worts – a com­plex echo of grains, and the spicy, flo­ral Lot No. 40. Each is spec­tac­u­lar but why not start with Good­er­ham & Worts?

If I sound en­thu­si­as­tic, I am be­cause I see re­spected con­nois­seurs val­i­dat­ing my love of Cana­dian whisky, day af­ter day. As Dave Sweet puts it, “Cana­dian whisky is the next big thing for whisky lovers.”

Now you know why and where to start.

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