When it comes to innovation you don't tend to put Canada at the top of the list. But during the editing of 1001 Whiskies To Try Before You die I was surprised by some of the Canadian whiskies Davin de Kergommeaux found. Here he picks some of his favourite odd-balls
The popularity of Canadian whisky continues to grow as more and more distillers bring ultra-premium bottlings to market. At the same time there are some real odd balls out there as well. Take for example White Owl Whisky, a fully aged rye whisky that has been filtered through charcoal until it is as clear as water. Highwood Distillers in High River Alberta came up with the idea for White Owl while watching American-made white whiskeys make inroads with the cocktail crowd. Canadian distillers who must age their whisky for a minimum of three years can’t compete with unaged white whisky so Highwood took another approach.
more and more distillers bring ultra-premium bottlings to market
By maintaining the flavour of rye in a clear whisky the Highwood team was able to produce a new spirit that delivers real whisky flavour to cocktails that would ordinarily be made using vodka. And in the cocktail scene, where looks matter, this new form of white whisky does so without spoiling the colour. White Owl is expensive to make but packaged in an upscale frosted bottle it competes well for shelf space with high-end vodkas.
The base for White Owl is aged whisky made from rye grain blended with wheat whisky that has been aged up to ten years. The whisky makers at Highwood tried filtering corn whisky first, but couldn’t maintain the whisky profile they were looking for so switched to rye.
White Owl Whisky (40% ABV) has flavours of anise, rye spices, butterscotch, hot pepper and hints of oakwood. It is probably the most flavourful white whisky made today and the only one that actually qualifies as whisky in Canada. But Highwood is not the only Canadian distiller to join the white whisky craze. The reality is that so-called white whisky only came into prominence with the American micro-distilling boom. U.S. law does not state how long whisky must be aged (straight rye and bourbon excepted) and start-up distillers take full advantage of this loophole to generate much needed cash flow in the early years. This they do by selling what is essentially new make. Most plan to make fully aged whisky, but “white dog” as it is called in America, has become so popular that a betting man would say that some will continue to sell it long after they have aged whisky ready to bottle.
Since Canadian distillers may not call their output “whisky” until it has aged at least three years, Still Waters distillery, in Vaughan, Ontario, just north of Toronto has taken a different tack. Still Waters has been producing single malt vodka. Yes, it qualifies as vodka but it is made from the same malt spirit that the distillers are putting away in barrels for their single malt whisky. Still Waters vodka has seen strong sales in the official government liquor store, LCBO, and has gone a long way to help keep the whisky operation going.
Still Waters Single Malt Vodka (40% ABV) is creamy and malty with a voluptuous mouth feel, and showcases the great potential of the nascent malt whisky.
There is also growing interest among the cocktail crowd in spiced whiskies. Spiced rum makes up about 30 per cent of rum sales in Canada and some whisky makers are cashing in on its popularity by adding spices to their whiskies. The original spiced whisky, and certainly one of the most flavourful, is a U.S. bottling called Revel Stoke. Phillips Distilling Company of Minneapolis, Minnesota, launched the brand about a decade ago with an amusing promo campaign that featured the Revel Stoke logo on urinal mats. The campaign ended some 20,000 mats later when the company finally tired of replacing those that had been stolen from public washrooms. Revel Stoke is named for one of Canada’s premier Rocky Mountain ski resorts, a 7,500-person town with at least ten liquor stores but sadly, no distillery. The whisky, however, is distilled, matured, and blended in Canada.
Revel Stoke (45% ABV) is rich and creamy and oh so smooth with strong vanilla elements, camphor oil, cherry cough drops, hot pepper, and citrus pith. The vanilla and spices dominate but are surprisingly well integrated.
Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of the book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert to be released by McClelland & Stewart in May 2012.