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Whisky Business : Canada’s Storied Whisky History

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“Canadian whisky is the most innovative, most creative, most adaptable style of whisky today.” – Don Livermore, J.P. Wiser’s

On the southern shores of the Detroit River sits a 150-year-old red-brick building with a chimney adjacent emitting occasional billows of smoke. But the production happening here isn’t typical of what you’d expect in Windsor, Ontario—a city otherwise known for its automotive industry. Inside, master blender Don Livermore is making Canadian whisky— specifically J.P. Wiser’s—Canada’s oldest continually-produced whisky. He’s tending to tall column stills and squat pot stills, both made of copper, distilling then blending the spirits according to whisky-making traditions that date back centuries.

While our status in whisky exports is fourth in the world behind Scotland, Ireland and the United States, Canadian whisky is still the bestselling whisky in North America according to Davin de Kergommeaux, one of Canada’s leading authorities on the subject of Canadian whisky. And thanks to the broader production, distillation and aging practices, our whisky makers have the flexibility to adapt to ever-changing palates and needs. Canada’s Food and Drug Act only requires that whisky be a minimum 40% alcohol and aged in wood for at least three years. Compared to bourbon, Scottish and Irish whiskeys which stipulate a certain breakdown of specific grains, distillation and aging techniques, our whisky makers have many more options in production to develop diverse flavours. “Canadian whisky is the most innovative, most creative, most adaptable style of whisky today compared to Scottish whisky, Irish whiskey and bourbon,” says Livermore. “It gives latitude to the blender.”

While the grains used in bourbon must be fermented, distilled and aged together, Canadian whiskies are most often made by separating the essential grains—corn, rye, wheat and barley—then fermenting, distilling and aging each separately. Corn is typically used for the base spirit, although 100% rye whiskies like Canadian Club are also made within our borders. Double distillation in copper column stills—another common practice, removes unwanted sulphur notes and flavours resulting in a lighter and smoother profile compared to single-distilled whiskies.
Where master blenders like Don Livermore get to flex their creative muscle comes in the blending process, adding in spirits made with other grains to the base in order to achieve the desired end result. “If I want a nice spicy note, I’ll up the rye. If I want a nutty character, I’ll up the barley.” Blenders can impart vanilla notes when aging the spirit in brand-new virgin oak barrels while used barrels offer a more grain-forward flavour. And the longer the spirit is aged, the more that green apple flavours are brought out. Pot distillation, which uses round squat stills as opposed to the long and slender column stills, also produces a pronounced fruity and floral flavour.

Thanks to its versatility, it’s easy to incorporate Canadian whiskies into beverage menus. Livermore recommends bartenders pay attention to the distillation technique, grains used and length of aging to select the right whisky for the cocktails they’re making. “A brand like Lot No. 40 is both column and pot-distilled which concentrates up the flavour of rye,” he says. “Bartenders love that brand. It’s the spice in the recipe. It’s big and bold—great for old fashioneds, manhattans and whisky sours.” Highly-aged varieties like J.P. Wiser’s 18 Year offer an elusive green apple flavour that’s best experienced neat. “Age will affect the cost of the whisky because you’re storing something for longer,” says Livermore. “We will lose three percent of volume a year in a cask due to evaporation, which is called the ‘angel’s share.’ Imagine, after 18 years, a cask of whisky is going to be half full.”

Canadian distillers produce premium, high-quality whiskies that have garnered accolades around the globe. Of note is Crown Royal’s Harvest Rye, made in Gimli, Manitoba, which was named World Whisky of the Year in 2016. And at this year’s World Whisky Awards, J.P. Wiser’s took home awards in the flavoured and limited release blended categories for its Hopped Whisky and Dissertation. “We are a great whisky producing nation. We have a great history of it and we continue that practice today.”

 

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