Drink: Canadian whisky round-up

The news came late in 2015: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye had been named the best whisky in the world.

by Davin de Kergommeaux

While Scotch drinkers sneered and bloggers launched emotional tirades, whisky lovers around the world quietly lined up to buy a bottle—or two. The result? In no time the Manitoba-made whisky was sold out, (though available on the grey market for six times its original price.) Suddenly, Canadian whisky was on everyone’s want list. Better than that, once they had tasted it, people came back in droves in search of more.

After decades of slow decline, Canadian whisky has seen a turn-around in the past three or four years. It is no surprise then that in 2016 sales of Canadian whisky rose five per cent. Had Northern Harvest Rye pushed it past the tipping point? It has certainly helped, but Crown Royal is not the only Canadian distillery bottling world-class whiskies.

Each of Canada’s traditional Big Seven distillers is expanding the breadth and depth of options available to discerning imbibers. The range of whiskies sitting in distillery warehouses across the country ensures that Canadian whisky makers are uniquely well placed to do that—quickly.

Validation from abroad
Make no mistake; when the American rye craze took off about five years ago, US-based whisky companies looked to Alberta warehouses for whisky. Take WhistlePig for example. This is one of America’s best selling brands of rye whisky.

“We pretty much own the market now,” is how WhistlePig’s Dave Pickerell explains it. And where is WhistlePig made? In Calgary, using rye grain purchased from nearby farms.

In 2017 Canadians celebrate 150 years as a nation and there are plenty of reasons to enthuse about the resurging interest in our homegrown whiskies.

Today, robust, flavoursome whiskies are in high demand right across North America and beyond. Connoisseurs who first experienced Canada’s best via Forty Creek, Collingwood, and Crown Royal, are now embracing Lot No. 40, Pike Creek and the four-grain beauty, Gooderham and Worts from the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

And here in Alberta? A 20-year-old release called Ninety, from Highwood Distillers in High River has aficionados’ tongues wagging—in a good way. Alberta Distillers in Calgary has introduced Alberta Premium Dark Horse and the head-turning Canadian Club 100% Rye. Together, these two whiskies have seized the attention of bartenders who are excited to put a whole new twist on high-end cocktails by using Canadian whiskies as their base.

Perhaps the greatest endorsement of the high quality of Canada’s native spirit came in 2014, when John K. Hall sold his family-owned Forty Creek Distillery to Italy’s Gruppo Campari for a cool $180 million. Hall stayed on as chairman of the Forty Creek board and continues to craft Forty Creek’s much-sought-after annual releases.

A Renaissance in micro-distilling
It is easy to forget that like Forty Creek, many of today’s powerhouse distilleries began as small artisan operations, often barely making ends meet. So it is heartening to see history repeating itself as micro-distilling takes off again in every region of the country. Distillerie Fils du Roy, for example, on New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula provides a remarkable array of spirits, each with an Acadian connection. And they are, as they say in l’Acadie: “spectaculaire!”

Clear on the other side of the country, Vancouver has emerged as a hotbed for Canadian whisky distilleries with nearly a dozen gearing up for production. And from north of 60, in 2016, Yukon Brewers in Whitehorse burst onto the whisky scene with a wonderful single malt that had been quietly aging in their sub-Arctic warehouse for over seven years. Three subsequent releases have been equally appealing.

On the Prairies, exciting whisky things are happening too. The old stalwarts, Black Velvet, Alberta Distillers and Highwood, are steadily bottling the outstanding whiskies that have made the province of Alberta famous. Black Velvet in particular has new 21-year-old and seven-year-old, export-only versions that are making big waves in Europe.

Turner Valley’s Eau Claire Distillery is turning out whisky—single malt and bourbon-style—and tastings of their maturing spirit predict great things to come.

Meanwhile, residents and visitors to Calgary are discovering nascent whisky right in their midst at Last Best Brewing and Distilling. Remember, in Canada it is not legally whisky until it has matured for at least three years in oak barrels. Distillery visitors will have to settle for beer while Last Best’s whisky matures. Sneak tastes of the spirit however, tell us we are certainly in for a treat.

In 2016, the Great One entered the whisky game and his first release is a doozie. Wayne Gretzky No. 99 from Wayne Gretzky Distillery is much more than a celebrity endorsement. Canada’s hockey icon has skin in the game, having joined Peller Estates Winery in building a new distillery in Niagara, Ontario. Recently, at a Scotch tasting in Calgary, whisky enthusiasts were delighted by the beautifully integrated fruity flavours that come from the Peller red wine barrels that Gretzky used to mature his first release. And of course, it’s Canadian whisky, not Scotch!

No, Gretzky did not distil it himself.

“I have always enjoyed a good whisky and was thrilled to work with master distiller Joshua Beach to create a new fabulous Canadian whisky.

“What’s truly exciting is we are using oak barrels from our red wines to finish the whisky for a really smooth and refined taste,” said the Great One.

Yes, Canadian whisky is finally scoring goals again. After decades on the bench it is back with renewed vigour.

And best of all, some of the most flavourful whiskies are made right here in Alberta.

Davin de Kergommeaux’ new book Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert will be published in the fall of 2017.