A different beast
Canada’s whisky industry is a pale imitation of what it once was. But if you’re thinking of visiting its distilleries be prepared for a lot of travel – its few remaining distilleries are spread right across this huge nation.
Canada has probably produced whisky since the 1760s, with early distillation based around an area in the South of Ontario on Canada’s East Coast. By the mid 1800s about 200 distilleries had been established, and the country’s reputation grew in to the 20th century.
From then Canadian whisky entered its golden period as whisky continued to flow across the American borders and whisky makers such as Hiram Walker and Sam Bronfman created vast empires and companies such as Seagram dominated not just the American market but the whole of the world.
That there was such a strong market for whisky in Canada is of no great surprise when you consider the links between Canada and Scotland, and the large number of early settlers who made the journey to North America from Scotland after they were forced from their homeland.
But while there are many similarities between the climate and terrain of each country, the whisky bond is far more tenuous. It is true that a small amount of pot still-produced malt is made in Canada today, but the greater part of Canada’s whisky output is altogether a different beast. What is widely accepted as the country’s trademark style of whisky is defined not by its malted barley content, but by rye. Even in this regard it’s in a category of its own because unlike American straight rye, the style most closely associated with Canadian whisky in its simplest form is a mix of a light base grain whisky produced in a continuous still mixed with a small proportion of rye whisky.
In practice Canadian whiskies are complex and sophisticated blending several different styles of rye with the base spirit. And to differentiate Canadian whisky still further, Canadian law permits a fraction over nine per cent of the final whisky to be made up of other flavourings, such as sherry or fruit, or with foreign whisky.A handful of Canadian whiskies contain Kentucky bourbon, for instance.
While the world image of Canadian whisky is of smooth and rounded rye blends which mix well, a visit to Canada itself will pay handsome rewards because many of the country’s whiskies are not exported. There are smaller producers creating styles of spirit not associated with Canada, and it’s here that the whisky enthusiast will find the most interest. Here then are the distilleries that may be visited.
Alberta Distillery was founded in 1946 and for the last 20 years has been owned by American giant Jim Beam Global. It has the capability to produce about 20 million litres of alcohol a year.
The distillery has the capability to produce in batches or continuously. It has a pot still which is used for speciality whiskies. There are two main whisky types produced in the main production process and the two spirits are blended and maturation takes place in first fill bourbon casks or unused new oak casks.
The longer rye of this nature is in the cask the mellower it gets, so the younger expressions of Alberta’s output are the most aggressive, uncompromising and impressive.
Highwood Distillery,High River,Alberta
Highwood is a remote independent operation nestling in the middle of some of Canada’s most fertile grain-producing land and it seems to be a distillery on the up, albeit from a fairly low base.
Highwood was first established as Sunnyvale Distillery in 1974, another distillery created to take advantage of the booming Canadian whisky market. It changed its name in 1984 in recognition of the region it is producing in, and now boasts a portfolio of some 50 different products.
It has several little-known whisky brands that sell mainly in the West of Canada only, although there has been some expansion to the East and to America.
The visitor centre was due to reopen in September 2007 after renovation work.
Winchester Cellars,Vancouver Island
Winchester Cellars is a highly respected wine producer on Vancouver Island, the biggest growing area for wine in Canada.
Established by Ken Winchester 25 years ago, it has expanded gradually and is now turning its attention to single malt whisky, though it has some way to go before it produces its first bottle for consumption.
Ken Winchester has a long history in distilling, but mainly of brandy and grappa.
Now he wants to produce premium single malt on a commercial basis.
A new distillery is always a cause for celebration. One which is adding greater variety in to the market place is even greater reason to cheer. And for Canada, it’s further proof that the embers are still burning.
Gimli sits close to the edge of Lake Winnipeg about 160 kilometres north of the town of Winnipeg. It is now owned by drinks giant Diageo Gimli is home to one of Canada’s most iconic brands, Crown Royal, and is a monster of a distillery.
The base whisky is made in three primary beer stills and a four column rectifier, while bourbon and rye flavouring whiskies pass through a two column continuous still.
The resulting whisky is almost typically Canadian, its rich fruitiness and a touch of spice blended to perfection. The special and limited editions contain older and rare whisky, and may contain up to 50 whiskies in the mix.
Glenora Distillery,Glenville,Cape Breton,Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia means New Scotland and when people draw comparisons between Scotland and Canada, it’s here that they’re thinking of. So it should come as no surprise to find Canada’s only single malt distillery, complete with imported copper pot stills.
The distillery has been making whisky for just under 20 years but from a tentative start the distillery started to get its act together. Poor early spirit was redistilled, giving them a triple-distilled spirit, and in the last three years it has started to bear fruit as the whisky has been bottled as a nine or an eight year old.
The distillery itself is built on a 300 acre site comprising of seven buildings. It has a wash and a spirit still imported from Scotland and capable of producing a modest 250,000 litres of spirit a year..
Canadian Mist,Georgia Bay, Collingwood,Ontario
Canadian Mist is testament to the boom times for Canadian whisky, built with almost indecent haste to catch the wave of demand before it passed by. It was built 40 years ago, and from the foundation stone to production took just five months.
It sits in the heart of Ontario by the small town of Collingwood and close to the vast freshwater beach of Georgia Bay. And it is one of the few Canadian distilleries that produces whisky and nothing else.
Canadian Mist is a continuous still plant and it’s neither particularly pretty or on the face of it, particularly interesting. That’s until you look at it purely from a whisky enthusiast’s point of view. For in actual fact it has three peculiarities that turn conventional whisky law on its head.
Firstly, Canadian Mist is made without any exposure to copper. The production equipment is stainless steel.
Secondly, it is the only Canadian whisky made with a mash of corn and malted barley. Malted barley is often used as the catalyst to help other grains begin fermentation and in this plant the process just wouldn’t happen without it.
And thirdly, the distillery does not produce any rye for flavouring. Instead it brings rye from one of Brown Forman’s Kentucky distilleries as well as an amount of Kentucky bourbon. Canadian Mist is sold as a slightly different product domestically to the American version and it’s not to everyone’s taste. But it’s quite literally going against the grain.
If it’s dramatic locations you want for your distillery, then Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits fits the bill perfectly. It sits close to the beaches of Lake Erie and about 65 kilometres from Niagara Falls.
It’s a small independent company founded in 1971 to make European-style fruit brandies and expanded in to other spirits soon after. Despite the vineyardsounding name wine was a relative late addition to the company’s offering.
And it’s best product is one of Canada’s most intriguing whiskies.
Forty Creek is made using three grains but there is no mash bill for them. They are fermented in batches and then individually distilled in copper stills.
Each of them is then matured separately in white oak casks that have been picked specially for them, each with a different level of charring.
The whiskies are aged between six and 10 years before being blended and finished for a further six months in sherry oak casks that have previously contained sherry made on site.
The resulting whisky puts to rest once and for all the lazy theory that Canadian whiskies are bland and uninteresting. It has a varied and impressive taste profile that makes it not just unique to Canada but unique in the world. The distillery can be visited from March to October or by appointment.
There are few bigger names in whisky than Hiram Walker. While it might be stretching it to credit him for inventing the category of Canadian whisky as we know it today, his influence on its development is immense, and his of producing whisky has been emulated across Canada ever since.
The distillery was expanded in 1894, with great fanfare, and a town grew up around it to accommodate distillery employees. Known as Walkerville, the area is still home to the original distillery and much of it is a throwback to Hiram Walker’s time. The production methods haven’t changed massively either, and much of the old equipment remains in place though not necessarily in use.
Canadian Club remained a world famous brand. Walkerville is now also home to the products that were produced by the old Corby distillery, including the highly respected and older whiskies appearing under the Wiser’s label and Walker’s Special Old.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
Canada is of course blessed with some of the most beautiful and challenging outdoor environment on the
planet so if walking, trekking, climbing, ski-ing, sightseeing or riding are your thing, it’s an ideal playground. It
also boasts wonderful hunting and fishing, some excellent golf and a range of water sports on its lakes and coastlines. In fact, for the energetic there isn’t much it doesn’t offer. On the flipside of the same coin Canada has some vibrant and dynamic cities and some of the best art galleries and
theatres anywhere. Accommodation-wise there is something to suit all budgets, from basic camping fees to
five star hotels. Below is a very broad and rough guide to what’s on offer in the principle resorts along with websites.
There are more than 150 galleries, museums and theatres in the Greater Vancouver area, parks ranging from the
forested Stanley Park to the stunning views from Grouse mountain. Ski hills are within easy reach of Vancouver itself.
Vancouver Island is a 90 minute ferry ride away and offers sea and freshwater fishing, whale and wildlife watching
and some excellent scuba diving.
Toronto is one of Canada’s most dynamic cities. Visit Ontario Place, an excellent cultural, entertainment and
leisure facility based around three islands and offering fun around the water. Canada’sWonderland at Vaughan is a
large theme park with more than 200 attractions and more than 65 thrilling rides. For something completely different
you might visit Santa’s Village, where Santa and his helpers spend their summers. More information from
www.santasvillage.ca Forty five minutes from Toronto is Jungle Cat World (www.junglecatworld.ca) which in addition to rare wild cats includes all sorts of endangered species. Niagara Falls lies within the state of Ontario and has its own attractions and a comprehensive range of different accommodation packages.
Montreal and Quebec are the state’s main centres and both offer very different experiences. The Montreal
Botanical Garden (www.museumsnature.ca) has more than 22,000 species of plants set over 180 acres and
includes 10 exhibition greenhouses. The Montreal Biodome recreates four separate American eco-systems and is a fascinating and educational experience. The city runs a rental system to provide you with a range of transport including bikes, electric scooters and roller blades so that you can explore for yourself. There are several military-linked museums and tourist attractions and you can visit the garrisons that were used in the wars between the English and French (www.pc.qc.ca) and the original Parliament buildings (www.assnat.qc.ca).