A Liquid Career
“It’s a sad fact that Canadian whisky doesn’t get its due. I am committed to changing that, using a ‘kill-rumours-with-facts’ approach, and believe me, there are plenty of myths and misunderstandings about Canadian whisky out there.”
Davin de Kergommeaux from www.canadianwhisky.org/about
Thanks in large part to the accessibility of the Internet, the world is now awash with wine writers (which, apparently, are not to be confused with “wine journalists,” but that’s a whole other story). Where we once had a “wine lake,” we now have a “wine writer lake.” Those writing about spirits (and here I’m referring to those who really know the stuff as opposed to those who simply drink it and post their opinions) are somewhat rarer. Even more elusive are writers whose focus is on one specific type of spirit. Which makes a fellow like Davin de Kergommeaux pretty much a “one and only.”
Author, critic, educator, competition judge and trained sommelier, de Kergommeaux is clearly an expert when it comes to the world of whisky. However, rather than taking on the entire whisky category, Ottawa-based de Kergommeaux
focuses his attention exclusively (OK, pretty much exclusively) on Canadian whisky, which is akin to a cardiologist focusing strictly on the left ventricle or an engine specialist that only works on oil pumps.
His level of expertise on the subject of Canadian whisky becomes immediately clear early on in his book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, which was published in the spring of 2012. Not only is de Kergommeaux possessed of a keen palate, he also has a black belt in the history, production and pedigree of Canadian whisky and the distilleries that produce it. Tidings talked to de Kergommeaux about the finer points of Canadian whisky.
Tidings: You began your “liquid career” as a sommelier but ultimately followed the whisky trail. How’d that happen? What was it about whisky that made you all but abandon wine?
de Kergommeaux: I have never worked as a sommelier. However, my real liquid interest began with whisky — scotch whisky. I was always a taster more than a drinker so I sought variety and I sought nuance. That, I think, is one of the reasons I am so interested in Canadian whisky. There is a huge variety of whiskies and whisky flavours that are still undiscovered. I was not able to learn as much as I wanted on my own, so when I heard there was a wine tasting course at Algonquin College, I signed up. The teacher was just brilliant and I was hooked, so I signed up for the whole sommelier program. It took two years — eight courses if I remember — and I learned so much about tasting and how to taste and why we all taste different things. Nevertheless, there was a group of us who would take turns bringing whisky to class and afterwards we would share a few drams. The sommelier training was just an amazing way to quickly come to understand taste and nuance and I do love wine. However, it has always been whisky first, and I can barely remember half the wines we studied. That’s why I generally let someone else choose the dinner wine.
T: Historically, Canada is a distilling nation — a whisky distilling nation to be precise — but it seems, at least to me, that we don’t hear all that much about Canadian whisky these days, but a fair amount about scotch and bourbon. Recently things seem to be changing — is this because there’s always been a lot going on and we’re now just starting to hear about it, or has there been a real push in the industry to get some new stuff to market?
dK: Canadian whisky has been the largest-selling whisky in North America since 60 years before Prohibition, and much of that whisky is so-called mixing whisky. It is not intended to be sipped, but to be used in cocktails and mixed drinks. Mixing whisky does not generate a fanatical following. Meanwhile there have always been wonderful high-end Canadian whiskies that flew under the connoisseur’s radar. Whiskies such as Wiser’s 18 and Gibson’s 18. We need to remember that the scotch most people know and talk about consists mainly of single malts – the top 10 per cent of the scotch made. We don’t hear people waxing poetic about the 90 per cent of scotch that is blended. In Canada we have a similar top 10 per cent but we have not promoted it. We have been content with the rather huge market for our mixing whiskies. Meanwhile the scotch makers have undertaken a really concerted promotion campaign to keep scotch on everyone’s mind and since single malts came along they have used these to promote the category. At the same time they have backed up the promo with really top-end product. Bourbon makers began to do the same thing about a decade ago, and they have succeeded just as scotch did. In the U.S. bourbon now outsells Canadian whisky for the first time since 1865.
As connoisseurs got to know scotch and bourbon they began to look elsewhere for new experiences. Japan was first off the mark with really great whiskies and now India, Taiwan and others have followed. As connoisseurs began to discover Canadian whisky the Canadian distillers leaped in with both feet, turning out one new high-end whisky after another. This year there were at least a dozen top-notch new releases. Add these to the already available high-end whiskies here and it is a new treasure trove for the refined palate.
We also have to acknowledge the “Forty Creek factor.” John K. Hall and his Forty Creek whiskies have become known around the world for their consistently high quality. In just a decade Hall has become the face of Canadian whisky worldwide and connoisseurs globally now devise the most ingenious means to get bottles of his whisky. They also begin to wonder, “If Forty Creek is so great, is there more where this came from?” and I can only respond “Yes, most certainly.”
T: What, in your opinion, are the most
significant developments in the industry as of late, both positive and negative?
dK: The upsurge in connoisseur interest in Canadian whisky is very positive. Couple that with the release of so many top quality new whiskies and we have the beginning of a real movement. Speaking frankly, foreign ownership can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how well the foreign owners respect the Canadian way of making whisky. Beam did the right thing leaving Alberta Distillers to make whisky their own way just as Pernod-Ricard has done with Wiser’s. Some others have been kind of Americanized.
T: Many people are a bit bothered by the “91 per cent” rule* pertaining to Canadian whisky manufacture. What’s the rationale behind this law and, in your opinion, does it help or hinder the end product? Does the fact that a whisky might not be “100 per cent Canadian” bother you in any way?
dK: The most important thing to me is how the whisky behaves in my mouth. Perhaps it’s the sommelier training but I want flavour, elegance and style all in balance, not some rigid adherence to hypothetical production practices. I think a lot of the objection is really quite naïve. The Scots have promoted their “three ingredients” malarkey and people have bought it hook, line and sinker. Then, when Canadians admit there is a bit of foreign wine or spirit in some of their whisky these folks tell us that in that case it’s not real whisky. Sorry, this is Canadian whisky and we are not bound by Scottish rules – rules incidentally that the Scots themselves do not follow, if only we knew. First there is the soap they add to keep the stills from boiling over. That is not water, barley malt, or yeast. But more importantly there is all the wine and bourbon they add to their whisky. An average empty wine barrel contains about seven litres of in-drink wine. All of this ends up in the scotch, but no one mentions that. The same with bourbon in bourbon barrels. When you consider that many of these scotches spend time in several different barrels that’s a lot of wine and bourbon added.
In Canada we do sometimes add wine or spirit after blending. This began as a way to take advantage of huge tax benefits offered by American governments who wanted to stimulate failing fruit, wine, and spirits industries down there. This only worked though for inexpensive, very high volume mixing whiskies so a lot of the Canadian whiskies were made without taking advantage of this loophole. Nowadays some distillers do use wine or spirit to bring out certain flavours but this is no different from what the Scots do. We are just more honest about it and we don’t put much effort into defending the practice, as this is one of the legitimate ways that Canadian whisky is made. Why do I hate oak chips in Chardonnay? Because they taste awful, not because it is not the traditional way of oaking wine.
In distilled rye grain there are a lot of fruity notes that are often just below the threshold of taste. Similarly, in some Canadian whisky there are lovely woody notes that are just too faint for us to appreciate. But add a drop of blending sherry or maple syrup and suddenly these come to life, tremendously broadening the palate and the nose. I have heard people say, “If the whisky was any good they wouldn’t need to add sherry,” but this is just like saying if the steak was any good they wouldn’t need to add salt. The other thing, and this is really neat, is that in Canada whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years. But some young spirit, especially younger rye spirit is very flavourful and frisky. Some distillers take advantage of the 9.09 to add a bit of this young Canadian rye spirit as top-dressing to recover those youthful rye notes. Here is my bottom line: If I enjoy the whisky I am not going to un-enjoy it just because it was not made the Scottish way.
T: The wine industry is firmly established in Canada. Craft beers have taken off. Why have we not seen a similar profusion of micro-distilleries? Or is it a case (again) of their being out there and my just not knowing about them? (Which leads to the question: if I haven’t heard about them, why not?)
dK: It is very expensive to start a micro-distillery and there is an inordinate amount of red tape involved. As well, liquor profits to distillers are very low in Canada due to high liquor taxes. I understand there are 23 micro-distillers in Canada now, but from a business perspective, if you want to be a micro-distiller it makes much more sense to set up your business in the more business-friendly government regime south of the border.
T: Corn, barley, rye: ranked by degree of difficulty, which grain is the hardest to turn into whisky and why?
dK: Each has its quirks. Corn produces a lot of alcohol, as it is rich in starch. As well its oiliness tends to carry over into the spirit giving a very creamy mouthfeel. Corn needs to be cooked at a higher temperature than other grains so it is a bit more expensive to mash. Barley is not used a whole lot in Canada except as malt.
Rye is poor in starch and rich in proteins so it has a real tendency to foam and mess up the distillery. Some distillers will only distil rye grain for a few weeks a year, as it is so sticky and messy and requires so much cleanup. They tend to distil rye at the end of a cycle just before they are going to do a massive cleaning anyway. Because it is poor in starch it does not give a good alcohol yield but the flavour it contributes to the whisky is still worth the aggravation.
T: It would be really nice to see Canadian distillers following the lead of the Scots and bottling uncoloured, un-chill filtered and at cask strength. Is there any reason Canadian distillers are reluctant to do this (assuming they are)?
dK: I think the uncoloured business is a total myth. I have tasted identical whiskies in coloured and uncoloured versions and there was no difference. More than that, a group of very experienced tasters did the same thing with a large range of blind samples and they, too, were unable to detect differences. This is just a story created by someone looking to convince people he was an expert. As well, there is so much oak caramel in whisky you could never detect a few added drops in a barrel. It’s just not true. If you can taste caramel, and most of us can, it comes from the barrel.
Chill filtering is another thing altogether. Most people who have tasted whisky both ways agree that chill filtering may reduce the flavour and does affect the mouthfeel negatively. It is minor, but noticeable. This includes distillers and quality assessors. However, the distiller’s worst enemy is the customer who returns whisky to the store. If a store gets too many returns they simply stop stocking that whisky. This is particularly difficult when the large stores decide not to stock a whisky. Many customers understand that non-chill filtered whisky sometimes gets hazy. However, enough customers think there is something wrong with hazy whisky and return it that it becomes a huge nuisance for stores and a nightmare for distillers. If you are selling expensive single cask bottlings to connoisseurs through specialty stores, that is one thing, but if you have high-volume whisky coming back as returns you just have to chill filter before you lose a big account.
T: Some distillers are starting to wade into the waters of “finishing” in ex-sherry casks, etc. In your opinion, has this been a successful (or even recommended) practice or is the risk of interfering with the true character of the spirit not worth the chance?
dK: I think the idea of true nature of the spirit has been highly overrated. That said, I think there have been a lot of failures among the finishes. Some wines work with whisky, some simply do not. As well, some Scottish distillers have been using wine to make unpalatable whisky saleable. We have had a bit more luck here in Canada. Think of Canadian Club Sherry Cask, Pike Creek, Forty Creek Port Wood and the like.
T: This is just a personal beef, but I find it a bit misleading (read: annoying) that some distillers are using the term “triple aged” to denote a whisky being aged nine years instead of the requisite three. I mean, why bother? Is this just a marketing gimmick or is there some validity behind the term?
T: At the risk of stirring up a hornet’s nest; whisky and food. As much as I’d love this to work (and I do thank all those who have tried to convince me it does), I, personally, think it’s a lost cause. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but whisky through the course of a meal just doesn’t do it for me. Comments?
dK: Whisky works well with very rich snack foods such as cheese or greasy meat in a standing, sipping, and talking atmosphere. It is lovely to add a few drops to raw oysters. With dessert it can be wonderful and with any kind of chocolate it is amazingly good. With a meal? Not at all. It is a forced fit at best and when you drink it like wine you kill your palate. For mealtime stick with wine, beer, or water.
T: Flavoured/spiced Canadian “whiskies”: Good thing? Bad thing? Not really whisky so who cares?
dK: I don’t generally drink flavoured whiskies but I think they are a good thing. Why? They are introducing a whole new demographic to whisky flavours. Sales are brisk and people are coming back for more.
T: Are the demographics for people enjoying
Canadian whisky changing (i.e., younger, less
dK: I am not certain but I see more women and more younger people at my tastings lately.
T: What do you think lies ahead for the Canadian whisky industry? What lies ahead for you in terms of books, projects, etc.?
dK: I hope that the current surge in innovation will continue and that connoisseurs will continue to discover great Canadian whiskies. Yes, I have another book in the works but am not yet ready to talk about it. It’s good though and completely different from anything out there.
T: Have there been any Canadian whiskies
you’ve come across recently that really made you go, wow?
dK: Lot No. 40; Alberta Premium Dark Horse; Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve; Highwood 25 year old; Calgary Stampede whisky; Canadian Rockies 21 year old; Pike Creek; probably others …