Jim Murray: The High (no pun intended) Priest of Whisky
Eschewing the “pretentious twaddle that’s crept into the industry” (the result, he claims, of one too many free PR trips to distilleries), British whisky expert Jim Murray is a refreshingly candid man, who calls a spade a spade and refuses to suck up to the industry he not only writes about, but to which he also acts as a consultant.
No such thing as bad whisky? “If anyone tells you there is no such thing as bad whisky, either they are an alcoholic or working in the industry. Or both.” How about combining whisky with food? “No. I think more pretentious rubbish is written and spoken about this than any other factor concerning whisky … It’s a load of crap.” Does chill-filtering really strip out a whisky’s flavour? “Yes.” What about “cask-strength” whiskies? “Whisky the way God intended.” How about ice in your whisky? “Never — unless you are in Kentucky, humidity is at 400 per cent and the bone and muscle in your legs turn to jelly the moment you step outside of the door.”
Murray was in Canada not too long ago for a special ceremony at Alberta Distilleries to honour the company’s contribution to Canadian whisky in 2006 (and to further promote Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2006). He sees great potential in this country’s national spirit. However, he feels that Canada’s distilling legacy is being eroded and that a serious “return to form” is required if Canada is to regain its rightful place in the whisky world.
Pretty much all Canadian whisky is labeled as rye, even though only one product, Alberta Distilleries’ Alberta Premium brand, is distilled from a mash containing 100 per cent rye grain. Murray notes that rye “is by far the biggest-flavoured grain, malted rye in particular,” and has nothing but praise for Alberta Premium. In fact, Murray awarded it a Canadian Whisky of the Year label in his Whisky Bible 2006, stating that it is “one of the great, most wonderfully consistent whiskies of the world that is genuinely a Canadian rye and a must-have for those searching for the real thing.”
“One of the reasons Alberta Premium won,” Murray reports, “was because not only had it maintained its grainy style, it had seemingly upped the rye flavouring slightly. In other words, it was entirely true to Canadian whisky.”
Yet even with Canada’s substantial distilling history, the Canadian whisky industry isn’t exactly capturing headlines for innovation and growth. When asked what he would do to shake things up his reply was, “Tough one. I mean: Where do you start?” Murray’s sense is that the expanse of the country isn’t conducive to the “brotherly feel” experienced by distillers in places like Kentucky and Scotland. “For that reason,” Murray contends, “some whiskies have been allowed to drift, with fruit juice and such being added not just to add flavour, but to decrease the amount of tax payable. That just can’t be right.”
Murray also points to a loss of heritage brought about “because just about every distillery that closed down got bulldozed within seconds of someone switching off the still. Only Gooderham & Worts in Toronto survived; but that is hardly being used as the Mecca for Canadian-whisky lovers as I suggested it might a decade ago.” His remedy for correcting the situation should be heeded by stillmasters and marketers alike.
“I think it’s up to the marketing guys to be a fraction more bold and go backwards to go forwards. In other words, work out why Canadian whisky became so popular all those years ago, revert back to type and then take some pride in just how bloody good that can be. And believe me, when it’s good it’s quite marvellous, because Canada has some world-great whisky in its midst. It’s just that few people in the industry have worked that out yet!”
Alberta Premium Canadian Rye Whisky (40%), $21.25
Nose: mild fruitiness (orange marmalade, candied orange peel), toffee; classic rye “brittleness” with a hint of spice;
Palate: snappy, lean, spicy, hint of caramel and oak, some fruitiness;
Finish: sharp, edgy, crisp, assertive … the real deal.