A year ago, Canadian whisky experienced its own bear attack. A man and his bible declared Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye World Whisky of the Year. What should have been a celebration of Canadian whisky turned ugly when lovers of other whiskies bared their claws and snarled, "Canadian whisky can be up to 9.09 per cent fruit juice - prune juice!" When I mentioned this to Crown Royal Blender Joanna Scandella she was horrified. To be clear, Canadian whisky may include up to 9.09 per cent of two years old non-whisky spirit, but never prune juice or any other non-fermented liquid. And truth is, this 9.09 per cent rule is not as prevalent as some cynics suggest. Besides, I know for a fact that there is no prune juice in Crown Royal because I drink plenty and I'm still constipated.
American tax law provides significant financial incentives to foreign spirits that include some American-made spirits. The tax break is huge for high-volume bottom shelf whiskies, but for lower volume connoisseur whiskies, it's often not worth the effort.
In any case, the raucous bleating of a handful of perpetually angry, self-styled whisky experts has done nothing to slow Canadian Whisky's steady awakening from hibernation. "I have much to say about the state of Canadian whisky!" exclaims Beam Suntory's Whisky Chef, Matt Jones. "These are exciting times! We have always made great whisky in Canada, however the popularity of bolder Bourbons and complex single malts has reached a tipping point of popularity, and this has paved the way for Canadian whisky distillers to confidently innovate bolder styles of whisky, not typical of Canadian Whisky over the last 60 years. There has been a shift in the main stream to a more full-bodied style from cask strength to barrel finishing to more 100 per cent rye then has ever been produced before. Perceptions are changing with how well these innovations are being received in US and abroad."
J. P. Wiser's Dr. Don Livermore has taken the full-bodied bear by the ears, introducing a knock out whisky exclusive to Ontario: Wiser's Last Barrels. The grain mix used for this 14 years old whisky mirrors the first recorded grain mix in J. P. Wiser's 1869 archives. It's the last of its kind; the equipment used to make the sour mash was retired in 2001. Livermore cut his teeth as a junior blender under whisky legends, Mike Booth and David Doyle. A series of bolder whiskies they released in the late 1990s, called the Canadian Whisky Guild included early iterations of Lot 40, Pike Creek and Gooderham and Worts. But the time was not right and they faded into cult status. Then, in 2010, Doyle released Wiser's Legacy, the first high-rye whisky since the Whisky Guild disappeared to the side of milk cartons. "I was the junior guy with that brand. That's where I learned to blend," reminisces Livermore. When Legacy thrived it paved the way for the second coming of a tweaked Whisky Guild with Don Livermore at the helm. Lot 40 and Pike Creek came back with a bang in 2012 and a robust new version of Gooderham and Worts followed in 2015.
"Canadian Whisky is a style that can play to what's happening quite well. We have versatility in what we can do. I'm not restricted on the strength I distil at. Or restricted on how to distil. I'm not restricted by a mash bill," Livermore continues with enthusiasm. "To be a blender in the Canadian Whisky Category? Yeah, I want to be there. This allows for a different complexity of nuances that's going on in Canadian whisky. It's in a great place to offer those nuances. The next five years are going to be exciting."
All this activity coming out of Canada's largest distillery doesn't mean the smaller producers have been sleeping. "I think the smaller distilleries are great for the Canadian Whisky," says Livermore. "You're going to see some really unique whiskies coming out of the provinces. It's getting people to talk about Canadian Whisky. We're in a great position in Canada to start showing off what we can do."
"The Crown Royal publicity has been great!" exclaims Barry Bernstein of Still Waters Distillery. "It helped to raise the profile of Canadian Whisky worldwide, domestically, it has made consumers more aware of rye grain, specifically.
Now, an abundance of Canadian whiskies standing with Northern Harvest Rye send a common message. "Retract your claws, Smokey, and pick up a glass." The scars from last year's bear attack have faded, the underdog now wears a crown and a New Testament of Canadian whisky has begun. And all without using bear spray or prune juice.
Last Barrels 45% ABV
Aromatic spices, timber and caramel set up a farmer's market of fresh fruit flavour. Cherry and rye spices from beginning to end.
Shelter Point Distillery
Single Malt Whisky 45% ABV
A medley of floral lilacs, chocolate, fresh grass, cereals and vanilla. A sea spray pinch and a squeeze of citrus land to a gentle finish.
Blue Blend 40% ABV
A balancing act of mild spiced rye and sweet fruitiness wrapped up into a round package. The subtle characters of Still Waters' rye shine through.
35 Years Old Cask Strength 79.3% ABV
An assertive whisky that dispenses big caramel, herbal dill, toffee, cornhusk and truck loads of old oak. This stunning whisky literally melts in your mouth.
Yukon Single Malt Release 02 46% ABV
Dried cherries and raisins then mature fruits. An interesting mingling of baking spices and honey blend like a dream into a sustained Jimi Hendrix finish.