The Bukowski Agency - Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert - Excerpt
Canadian Whisky
The Portable Expert

by Davin de Kergommeaux


This is a story of Canada. It is a story of a colony becoming a nation, however regionally divided. It is a story of early Canadians finding creative ways to adapt largely European practices to a new and often hostile environment. It is a story of craftsmanship, ingenuity, family feuds, fortunes made, and legacies lost. The story begins with farmers protecting grain from pests, and millers turning waste into something they could sell and use to feed cattle. It begins with Canadian grain, with Canadian water, and with that other abundant ingredient: wood from Canada’s extensive forests.

The story of Canadian whisky tells of Canadians processing raw materials to sell locally and for export. Yes, it is popular in Canada, but almost from the beginning Canadian whisky enjoyed global repute. Today it is sold in more than 160 countries around the world. Nonetheless, despite its international reach, little attention has been paid to Canadian whisky as a distinct whisky category. Like Canadians themselves, it tends to fly under the radar. And often the best whisky does not make it out of the country. Neither, unfortunately does its story. Abroad and, discouragingly, at home too, much of the received wisdom about Canadian whisky is simply fantasy. Pity.

Many of today’s dearly held whisky truths derive from myths that have been passed on most often innocently, but at other times co-opted and embellished to help promote particular brands or styles of whisky. Sometimes people filled in the blanks to complete a familiar rags-to-riches story. Other times they left out inconvenient facts in order to lead readers or listeners to a more desirable conclusion. Still other times they simply made things up. After all, distillers, their publicists, and jingoistic whisky lovers are hardly the first so subscribe to the principle of never letting the truth get in the way of a good story. Sometimes their conjectures have become truths by simple repetition.

Every now and then, when someone decides to publish something about Canadian whisky, they revive the same few (and limited) sources, essentially regurgitate them on discussion boards, in articles, and sometimes even in books and on company websites. Fresh historical sources, though, are very difficult to find because the industry is very secretive and rarely allows prying eyes within its walls. So, for example, an erroneous interpretation of J.P. Wiser’s German nationality – misreading Deutsch for “Dutch”– has been broadly promulgated. Two hundred distilling licences sold in Upper and Lower Canada in 1840 have become an astounding 200 distilleries. A map of Canada’s early distilleries interprets as a “whisky region” what turns out to be all parts of the country that were settled at the time but did not have ready access to the more easily distilled molasses. Attempts to discredit the nearly 200-year-old legacy of Canadian rye, based on foreign post-Prohibition definitions of so-called “real” rye, have led some people to think that Canada should adjust its own long-standing definition. This, despite the reality that Canadian-style rye represents overwhelmingly the majority of world rye whisky production.

Foreign journalists who have tried to understand Canadian whisky have found the story difficult to tease out. Not only is the country huge and travel within its borders expensive, but the Canadian production processes are unfamiliar and often interpreted in light of whisky knowledge from elsewhere. Misconceptions have been dutifully reported and reinforced. Yes, there is copper in the stills at Canadian Mist. No, American bourbon is not used to make Canadian whisky taste like rye. And no, there is no grain neutral spirit in Canadian whisky.

Canadian whisky is not Scotch and it is not bourbon. It is rye, and has been for nearly two centuries. Neither does Canadian whisky descend directly from Irish or Scotch whisky, nor did it evolve in parallel with whisky in America. Rather these two now different North American styles developed along distinct but intertwined paths as part of a single evolution. The historical record tells us that in North America making whisky did indeed begin first in the United States, but over time ideas, recipes, equipment, practices and distillers moved freely back and forth across the border, as did whisky itself. However, two distinct periods of American history offered Canadian whisky makers opportunities to take the lead, as it were, and also led drinkers in the U.S. to associate whisky with their northern neighbour, Canada.

The first of these moments in time was the American Civil War (1861-65), which disrupted alcohol production throughout the Union and Confederate states. Canadian distillers were ready and able to fill the void south of their border. The second disruption came in the form of a piece of legislation called the Volstead Act. In 1920 Volstead ushered in nearly fourteen years of Prohibition in the United States. In his definitive history of Prohibition, Last Call, Daniel Okrent rightly identified this period as “a sequence of curves and switchbacks that would force the rewriting of the fundamental contract between citizen and government.” It was socially convulsive and created deep divides between groups who might otherwise have gotten along. Progressives, feminists, libertarians, secularists, and fundamentalists who maybe liked the occasional shot suddenly found no comfort in the legislation or the increasingly theatrical antics of those for or against it. When Prohibition ended, American distillers had to start over, and that they did, often using new processes, new recipes, and the latest equipment. It was a radical, industry-wide shift, not a gradual transition.

Despite its stated purpose, Prohibition did not remove alcohol from the United States. It simply encouraged the marketplace to find more and more creative ways to flout or bypass an essentially unenforceable law. Although Canadian whisky may have made up 10 percent of the alcoholic beverages consumed during Prohibition, the ensuing folklore, aided and abetted by screenwriters and novelists, has created the false but nearly universal belief that Canadian whisky was the drink of choice during Prohibition. For obvious reasons very little was documented – written records could incriminate the players on both sides of the border – and what little was written down was often deliberately destroyed.

This book tells the story of Canadian whisky by taking the reader inside the bottle, the distillery, the warehouse, and the marketplace. It tells the story as it is revealed in early documents and as it is recalled in the memories of people who have lived many decades of Canadian whisky history. It presents insights gleaned through discussions and visits with people who make Canadian whisky at each of Canada’s nine established whisky distilleries. It is not intended to set the “official record” straight; however, it does challenge many dearly held beliefs.

One thing is certain though: in the marketplace the most important ingredient in whisky is not the water, neither is it the grain. No – the most important ingredient is the story.



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