Earlier this week, I took a look at a fantastic award-winning book on Canadian whisky. Written by Davin de Kergommeaux, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert has been gaining praise the past year for its in-depth and fascinating look into the subject matter.
Davin is also founder of the Canadian Whisky Awards, which took place in Victoria at the festival.
Curious to know more about how Davin came to love whisky and became an expert in Canadian whisky, I spoke to him recently and here is what he had to say…
How did you first get into whisky?
My enjoyment of whisky began as a simple and occasional indulgence in Johnny Walker Red. In 1998 I discovered Johannes van den Heuval’s Malt Madness website and in 1999 he asked me to join him writing for an offshoot called Malt Maniacs. The whisky web was almost nonexistent then and we became the voice of that generation of whisky lovers. It was heady stuff and my passion for whisky really blossomed, but it was always single malt Scotch.
So why Canadian whisky?
Canadian whisky came later. When some phenomenal Japanese and Indian single malts won top accolades in our Malt Maniacs Awards we finally realised there was more out there than just Scotch.
As a proud Canadian, I wanted to get to know our whiskies better but as a bit of a cheapskate I bought bottom shelf and was disappointed. Then I attended Ardbeggeddon in Las Vegas where some of the best single malts of the day were on free pour. It confused me that some top American connoisseurs were choosing to drink Canadian whisky instead. These were brands that I was not familiar with and I was blown away.
How did the book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, come about?
[In researching about Canadian whisky] I discovered almost everything on the web and in whisky books was not true. So, I set out to visit primary sources – libraries, archives and whisky makers. Canada is huge and it was not easy [but] as I assembled my notes in binders, my daughter commented that I was writing a book. No substantive or authoritative book existed on the subject and so the idea of writing one took root.
When I started visiting distilleries and spending a little bit more money on whisky I discovered that there was a real hidden wealth of wonderful Canadian whiskies out there, and no one knew about them. Worse than that, every Canadian single malt lover I knew simply dismissed them without even trying them.
In 2010 I helped judge the World Whisky Awards in London [and] the one whisky everyone was talking about turned out to be Canadian [when the identities] were revealed. My growing love for Canadian whisky was validated – by experts.
I still love my malts, my bourbons and my blends, and now I have my Canadian whiskies too. It totally amazes me that no one else had ever really taken them seriously so my passion is driven by a keen desire to bring Canadian whisky to the world’s connoisseurs.
What do you think Canadian distillers need to do to get the word out better about their whiskies?
Canadian whisky is phenomenally successful already. Twenty-two million cases a year and growing is nothing to be ashamed of. The connoisseurs may just be learning about it, but connoisseurs make up a microscopically tiny fraction of the people who buy whisky. Canadian whisky makers tell me that their distilleries have never been so busy; exports, for example, were up 25% in 2013.
The biggest challenge is a punitive Canadian tax system that strongly favours beer and wine production in Canada while creating financial barriers to making spirits and like it or not, this is a business. The distilleries are booming but finding the money to keep up with demand, or even for simple maintenance is not easy. If the law did not require that Canadian whisky be made in Canada I think every Canadian distillery would move to the US and take all the rum and vodka production with it.
Distillers need to make the government more receptive to the facts about how much Canadian whisky contributes to our economy. [Shockingly] Andrew Scheer, the Speaker of the House of Commons has an official Scotch, but not an official Canadian whisky – maybe distillers need to get the word to him.
If I were coming to Canada, what three Canadian whiskies must I try?
This is a very difficult question because there are so many good ones. I’ll try but if you ask me again I will almost certainly name three others.
• Gibson’s 18 year old – the absolute epitome of old-style, crisp, cedary, spicy, pithy whisky flavours blended to absolute perfection. Gibson’s 18 and Wiser’s 18 are almost always in my top 3.
• Forty Creek Confederation Oak – A lush richness with huge complexity and a breadth of palate that showcases the corn-derived mouthfeel. And if you can’t find it, then Forty Creek Double Barrel. The same except more so. Forty Creek Heart of Gold was my favourite this year, but it is in very short supply.
• Wiser’s Legacy – A very rye-rich blend that shows great complexity and is on the leading edge of the new wave of Canadian whisky.
Where do you see the biggest developments happening in the world of Canadian whisky?
I think big flavour is the next thing. We already see this happening. As a new generation of drinkers takes to Canadian whisky we see greater demand for premium and deluxe brands. As well, celebrity bartenders are taking to strongly flavoured Canadian whisky for classic cocktails. Whisky makers always try to be ten years ahead of the curve and for years they have been quietly tucking away more big-flavoured whisky. We see the results today and this trend is only going to continue.
You’ve developed the Canadian Whisky Awards – how important do you think awards are in helping to increase Canadian whisky’s stature?
The awards have enjoyed good support from industry and get broad coverage in the press, particularly in the US. So yes, they are helping a lot.
However, like all competitions, people enter to win so the companies tend to send only their best whiskies and we end up with a disproportionately large number of medal winners. This is why we also give out award certificates. I’d like to find a way to have more entries from the mid and bottom shelves so we can have a real duke-up.
I see the success of the awards in other ways too. For example, I have been approached to sell the awards and have had commercial enterprises enquire about sponsoring the awards but they are strictly a not-for-profit affair. I’ve had complaints the awards ceremony is held in Victoria. Some have suggested it be moved to Toronto, but the Victoria Festival is a charity event that ‘gets it’ about keeping the awards centered on the love of whisky. I don’t want them to become just another profit centre in someone’s larger whisky enterprise. Canadian whisky does benefit from the awards, and the awards benefit significantly from being associated with the Victoria Whisky Festival.
One of the biggest issues with getting to try Canadian whisky is simply availability outside of domestic markets – do you see this changing any time soon?
Probably not. It is a different business model in Canada and it is working well so why would they change it?
However, this situation is not unique to Canadian whisky. The second largest purchaser of beverage alcohol in the world is the Ontario government through the LCBO yet it is simply astonishing how few good Scotch whiskies are available here in Canada.
That said, Canadian whisky is available in over 150 countries around the world. You just have to look for it.
Getting Canadian whisky into foreign markets is not a simple matter of shipping out whisky. It involves local distributors because distilleries do not sell whisky directly to retailers.
They also need to see good volumes. If a distributor is talking about buying a container load per quarter that is one thing, if they want just a few barrels or cases, often they are out of luck. The cost of a sales transaction is high and low volume purchases just won’t cover it. Some enterprising overseas whisky specialists get around this by filling their own containers with whisky they purchase from distributors, primarily in the US.
You were, of course, out in Victoria for the recent festival – what were a couple of highlights from the show for you?
The Canadian Whisky Awards were a huge success and they could not reach that level without the strong support of the Victoria Whisky Festival and the Hotel Grand Pacific. Victoria Whisky Festival is the only Canadian whisky festival with real international stature and there is a halo effect for the awards just being associated with Victoria. I did a presentation at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans last summer and I was thrilled to hear a bunch of Scottish whisky ambassadors talking about Victoria – saying “If you only get to Canada once go to Victoria.” That kind of buzz helps us a lot getting international profile for the awards.
And then Kavalan – holy crow! I tried 14 versions and they were all just wonderful. That is a real up-and-coming distillery.
The main highlight, however, was meeting whisky people and sharing a dram of whatever was handy. People beat whisky any day.
For more information about Davin and his work, head to his site, Canadianwhisky.org.