When I say the words “Canadian whisky” what immediately comes to mind?
Be honest now…
First off, I should say – this isn’t a test. It’s more just a curiosity thing.
And secondly, I bet it wasn’t “AMAZING WHISKY”. Or, if it was, well, you surprise me.
You see, Canadian whisky carries a bit of a reputation. And not a good one. Every time I mention it at tastings or in the company of whisky lovers, the general response is: “Oh, it’s not like that Canadian whisky is any good.”
And the problem for me? Despite having spent my first 22 years in Canada, I didn’t drink whisky when I lived there. That love only came after I moved to the UK. And, as I very rarely see any Canadian whisky available over here, I often have almost no counter-argument to theirs, no ability to say: “Stop deriding my country’s products you heathen swine! It’s fabulous stuff, I say, fabulous!”
In reality, if I pause to think about it, the idea that all Canadian whisky would be terrible is a bizarre one. After all, the country has more of the two main natural resources one needs for whisky making (grain and water) than pretty much any country on earth, so we’ve got a good starting point there. Add in the fact that more than 20 millions cases of Canadian whisky hit shelves annually, and you can start to realise that there’s got to be something good about it.
Which is why when I heard last year that a book all about Canadian whisky had hit the shelves, I was more than curious to learn more.
Written by Davin de Kergommeaux, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, takes a look not just at production and history of Canadian whisky, but also details each distillery’s past and current products in detail.
I met Davin recently at the Victoria Whisky Festival, and an interview with him will be out on Friday detailing more of his background in the Canadian whisky market but, know this: Davin is by far the premier expert when it comes to Canadian whisky. And, the fact he is so passionate about the products shines through in his book.
Styled in sepia colours, the book – with its orange and grey images and diagrams – reminded me a bit of a 1960s textbook, except smaller. It is certainly portable but within its pages are the most in-depth look at Canadian whisky out there.
It begins by looking at how Canadian whisky is actually made. And while many of the steps are similar to that of general whisky production, it is not to be sniffed at by those who already know lots about whisky. These initial chapters lay the foundation for what sets Canadian whisky apart. Interestingly, I had always presumed that most Canadian whisky was made from rye, since everyone in Canada refers to the drink simply as ‘rye’ instead of whisky. As such, I was surprised to learn that the most common grain is, in fact, corn, while rye is used almost solely as a flavouring agent to give Canadian whisky its signature spicy kick. Many myths are also dispelled in these chapters, such as the fact that no Canadian whisky is made with GNS, or grain neutral spirit. All of the whisky must be matured and – in fact – a most memorable fact is that Canadian whisky makers have had a legal requirement to age whisky since 1887, making it the first nation globally to have this put in place.
The book continues on, looking at the flavours, tastes, aromas and textures of Canadian whisky, before exploring how to actually go about tasting it. Included in this section is a fascinating breakdown of something called the 8-2-3 system, something I’d never heard of before. This method is used by Canadian whisky makers to categorise the eight key aromas, two base flavours and three aftertastes found in Canadian whisky and provides a useful tool to use if you want to more systematically analyse – or map – your whiskies.
The latter two-thirds of the book are then dedicated to the stories and histories of the people who helped to found the Canadian whisky industry. While it is not known who, exactly, was the first to make whisky on Canadian shores, it can be assumed that it was likely the English who got the ball rolling, rather than any Scottish or Irish immigrants. Each of the individual stories – from that of Thomas Molson to Hiram Walker & Sons – shows not only their influence on the Canadian whisky market, but their influence on Canadian history, and it makes for indulgent reading.
Scattered throughout the book are also tasting notes on individual whiskies as well, which helps to pack in extra helpful tips if you’re going to go out and choose a Canadian whisky to try.
In 2013, this book was named one of the top three spirits books in the world at the Gourmand Awards in Paris, and won the IACP Award in the wine, beer and spirits category. It’s no wonder why it did – Davin takes a hardly well publicised topic and debunks myths about Canadian whisky and instills pride in those of us who doubted one of Canada’s national products. It is a veritable encyclopaedia on the subject, but is presented in a way that is accessible and intriguing. You learn – as it were – without feeling you’re studying. And any whisky lover should put it on their shelf so that a giant hole can be filled in their knowledge about this fine spirit. You’ll be a lot wiser for it.
On Friday, I’ll speak to Davin about how he fell for Canadian whisky, why he decided to write his book and how you can go about getting the most from Canadian whisky.
For more information about Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, head to Davin’s site here.