Not long ago Canadian whisky's reputation was knocking on death's door. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, just passed relatives waiting on the other side. Yes, the whisky sold by the truckload but no one was paying attention except for shareholders getting fat on profits. Thankfully, Canadian whisky didn't walk into that black night but back into the darkness of the barrel where distillers rejuvenated the reputation of Canada's national spirit with premium expressions. Canadian whisky got with the program and for whisky lovers, the payoffs are huge. Sales of premium and deluxe Canadian whiskies are booming; the Hiram Walker distillery is expanding; the Canadian Club brand centre draws record crowds; and John Hall is bringing his celebrated whiskies to the international stage with the sale of Forty Creek to Campari.
The other day someone asked, if I were on a deserted island and could only bring one book, what would it be? I said, how about one called How to Build a Boat? However, this got me thinking. What if I were stranded what five Canadian whiskies would make me want to extinguish the signal fires, hide from passing ships, bury the beach pebble S. O. S. and smash the Gilligan's Island radio I built using coconut shells. Extra efforts taken just so I could spend quality time, toes in the sand enjoying the sunset and these five drams.
Best age stated
Pike Creek 10 Years Old
Originally released in the late 1990s as part of the Canadian Whisky Guild, Pike Creek shared centre stage with Lot 40 and Gooderham and Worts. But it was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few years later, like The Usual Suspects' Keyser Söze - Poof! - they were gone. That is until a whisky man named Dr. Don Livermore resurrected both Pike Creek and Lot 40 in 2012 to the applause of whisky lovers everywhere.
Pike Creek is named for a quiet Windsor, Ontario suburb that houses the Hiram Walker warehouses. Unheated, the buildings benefit from all four Canadian seasons. First-use bourbon barrels contract during the dry cold winters drawing whisky into the wood. The barrels expand during the hot humid summers pushing the whisky out of the wood. These interactions turn white oak barrels into Zen masters, taking in calm deep breaths then slowly releasing them. Further finishing in port barrels offers a balanced tinge of fruity seasoning.
If someone on my island said they didn't like Canadian whisky, this is what I would serve to change their mind - before telling them to start swimming.
Best hard to find
Collingwood 21 Years Old Canadian Rye
Collingwood is hard to find and for good reason. Back in the summer of 1991, Canadian Mist distiller, Harold Ferguson put away 50 barrels of 100 per cent malted rye with no specific plans for the spirit. David Dobbin inherited those barrels when he succeeded Ferguson and just last year he dumped these 21 Years Old barrels into a marrying vat containing toasted maple wood staves.
This one-time high-rye whisky is polished to a point where silk feels like sand paper in comparison. Word that a store has this velvety rye in stock can start a stampede, so if you want one, stay on your toes. A month ago I would have given my right arm to get my stump on a coveted rare bottle so when I found some, I bought two. And I didn't have to resort to Indiana Jones' tactic of carefully placing down a bag of sand just as I snatched the last golden idol from the shelf. Canadian liquor stores are pricey, but they aren't booby trapped.
Best available only in Canada
Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Majestic Prince was a famous racehorse owned by one of Alberta Distiller's founders, Frank McMahon. Prince was favoured to win the 1969 Kentucky Derby and didn't disappoint. He then took the Preakness Stakes but sustained an injury that prevented him from winning the Triple Crown at Belmont. Majestic Prince retired to stud and went on to father 33 more winners before a heart attack sent him to the great stable in the sky. Rumours say it was not overwork that killed him. The coronary came shortly after he got the diaper bill.
Dark Horse's foundation is made up of 12 and six year old all-rye whiskies aged in a variety of barrels including used Maker's Mark and Jim Beam barrels. Like Prince, Dark Horse is a consistent prize winner. But put this muscular whisky on the shelf next to other bottles and it will pinch their oat-sacks, explaining why it is only available in Canada - airlines won't sell a seat to a ruffian stallion.
Best annual connoisseur release
Forty Creek (All of them)
The best way to survive a killer bee attack is to cover your face and run at full speed. I mention this because John Hall's 2013 Heart of Gold whisky is so loaded with honey notes that if you're going to enjoy this whisky outside, you risk being swarmed.
Every year Hall experiments with his creations, releasing the fruit of his labours in September. As reliable as Old Faithful, these whiskies showcase Hall's creativity as a whisky maker. They are always special. In 2010, Confederation Oak Reserve introduced us to whisky aged in sustainable oak barrels from trees that sprouted back in 1867. The sold out John's Private Cask No. 1 released in 2011 was a weapon-grade spice bomb, and 2012 saw the re-birth of Hall's full-bodied Portwood Reserve.
John Hall is a musician so it's no surprise that his whiskies orchestrate their own melodies, elegantly dancing from flavour to flavour with each yearly release. And because they are dependable, I use them as my garden metronome. When Hall announces the year's release, I plant my vegetables. When it's ready to drink, I pick them. It's that simple.
Best single barrel
Stalk & Barrel (Various Casks)
Still Waters distillery was launched in January 2009 when the pieces of a custom made Christian Carl pot still arrived in an empty warehouse Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein had rented just north of Toronto. The package included just one page of instructions - hand written in German. By March 2009 those hand written instructions lay crumpled in the trash as the alcohol began to flow.
Their operation is small. Barry and Barry will tell you that their annual production is about what a major distiller might spill in a day. And every drop of Still Waters' spirit has a personal touch, from the custom milled raw grain coming through the door to one of the Barrys ringing up your bottle at the cash register.
I could go on, but I've just booked passage on a leaky freighter and have killer bee repellant, sunscreen and five Canadian whiskies to pack.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve 40% ABV
Vanilla and fresh cut lumber. Citrus and orchard fruits notably cherry with a long peppery finish that builds into more restrained oak before its final disappearing act.
Alberta Premiums Dark Horse 45% ABV
Hoof to the face of bold flavours. Floral rye with sweet grass. Dill pickles, sweet and sour berries and just a smidgen of sherry.
Pike Creek 10 Years Old 40% ABV
Glows with oak and juicy ginger. Toasty spice and peppery firecrackers with stewed fruits. The heat builds before it cascades into cleansing citrus pith.
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt Barrel 1 62.3% ABV
Childhood memories of juicy fruit gum, marzipan and spice. A one two combo of wild woody floral notes and grassy malted barley.
Collingwood 21 Years Old Canadian Rye 40% ABV
Morning at a bakery as they pull fresh baked rye bread from a wood fired oven. Creamy chocolate raisins then more rye. Silky and sleek.