It’s time to switch to whisky, we’ve been drinking beer all night. – Corb Lund
by Peter Bailey
Corb’s right—there are times when a dram of whisky is called for over a pint of ale. On cold winter nights in Edmonton, for example. Don’t feel badly for beer, though; whisky and beer are family, brothers born of barley. By whisky I mean malt whisky, or Scotch. That pricey peaty Lagavulin whisky you’re carefully sipping by the fireplace began life just like beer, in a metal tank filled with water, malted barley and yeast. Beer has hops added and is fermented slowly and eventually kegged or bottled. Whisky is distilled into spirit, aged in barrels and bottled.
Once one understands the kinship between beer and whisky, it seems natural that brewers would also be distillers. Beer geeks are often whisky geeks too (sorry— whisky enthusiasts).
But this link isn’t a common one, or at least not until recently with the rise of craft distillers. The craft spirits movement is booming, especially in B.C. where there are over 50 distilleries operating today. Included are a few breweries that have switched gears into distilling such as Surrey’s Central City Brewing + Distilling, brewers of the Red Racer beers who released their first single malt whisky late in 2016.
In Calgary, Last Best Brewing and Distilling began work on a whisky in 2015. In the meantime, Two Brewers Yukon Single Malt Whisky was released in 2016, from Whitehorse’s Yukon Brewing and their distilling arm, Two Brewers.
Yukon’s Bob Baxter told me that his fellow co-owner and co-founder Alan Hansen wanted to buy a still as soon as they launched their brewery in 1997. Bob and Alan are both engineers: Bob mechanical, Alan chemical.
Distilling seems a rite of passage for chemical engineers—my father is a retired chemical engineer who fondly remembers the still he created during university to make home-made hooch. I asked Bob if making whisky is more science or art, and he said, “the basics of distilling is very much a science, but the creation of the spirit is mostly art. That includes grain selection, fermentation, cuts, barreling and barrel choices, and blending. All art.”
Yes, blending. It’s a widespread misnomer in the whisky world that single malt means from a single barrel or batch. Single simply means from a single distillery. Two Brewers is a single malt whisky made from malted grains, including barley from Saskatchewan and peated malt from the U.K. Alan, the distiller, must use his talents to take whisky from different barrels and blend them together to get the flavour profile he wants. Here the skills of brewmaster and distiller come together.
As Bob told the Yukon News earlier this year, his and Alan’s goal in making beer is similar to making whisky, “to be unique and complex.” In brewing, he says, “what we do well is lots of flavours and different flavours and different ingredients and so on.” The same can be said for their world class whisky. Alan and Bob have brought their years of experience and expertise with brewing and malt to the exacting and challenging process of whisky making. Bob notes that their goal was to make something they would want to drink, something with depth and complexity. Having tasted all the varieties Yukon has released I believe Bob and Alan have reached their goal.
So this Robbie Burns Day, you have a choice of traditions. Malted barley fermented into beer or malted barley distilled into spirits. Either way, there is plenty to celebrate. Slàinte!
Beer and whisky six-pack
January 25 is Robert Burns Day, an opportunity to toast the immortal bard of Scotland with whisky, certainly, but also some Scottish or Scottish-style beers.
Alley Kat Tartan Party, Edmonton
The label of this winter seasonal claims this beer will keep you dancing all night long. You’ve been warned. The caramel sweetness and touch of peat smoke in this rich and mega-malty Scottish export ale makes it an ideal companion to a smoky whisky like Two Brewers’ Peated release.
Parallel 49 Salty Scot, Vancouver
The label of this winter seasonal claims this beer will keep you dancing all night long. You’ve been warned. The This Pacific coast take on the Scotch ale (wee heavy) is big (7.5 per cent), malty and caramel-sweet, as the style requires, but the unique addition of sea salt gives this version a bit of a bite. It tastes richly of malt and sweet toffee, balanced by subtle brininess
Brewdog Dogma Ellon, Scotland
Never mind the bollocks, here’s Brewdog the self-proclaimed punks of Scottish brewing. Founded to wake the U.K. beer industry from complacency, Brewdog hasn’t forgotten to brew good beers along the way. Dogma is Brewdog’s revisionist version of the wee heavy, with added honey to amp up the sweetness.
Traquair House Ale, Peeblesshire, Scotland
Traquair House dates back to 1107. Mary Queen of Scots visited in 1566 and was served a strong ale. In 1965 the brewery was revived and the original recipe and brewing equipment were used to brew a serious winter ale, the classic Scotch ale that all others are measured against.
Harviestoun Ola Dubh 18, Alva, Scotland
With Ola Dubh you can have your whisky and drink your beer too, as Harviestoun ages their Old Engine Oil porter in casks used to mature Highland Park malt whisky (18 year old whisky for the Ola Dubh 18). The barrel-aging imparts a fruity, smoky, whisky character into the beer..
Orkney Dark Island Quoyloo, Scotland
Like Yukon Brewing, Orkney Brewing is located way up north, Yukon in Whitehorse, just north of 60 degrees latitude, Orkney in the Orkney Islands, just south of 60. Dark Island is Orkney’s flagship beer, the authentic Orcadian ale, a traditional Scottish ale with flavours of roast malt, dried fruit and chocolate.