At whisky events across Canada, it is almost impossible to sing the praises of any other spirit without some seventh generation ex-pat, sporting the tartan of his barely remembered clan, setting you straight with this cliché and a knowing chuckle. Best to smile, remembering some wise words from John Schreiner’s beautiful 2017 book Icon, about Western Canada’s 100 best wines.
“I was brought up short once in 1990 when I took a Canadian Merlot from a new producer to France and offered it to a tasting in a venerable Bordeaux chateau. The wine was embarrassingly poor, not deserving of the acclaim it was being given by its home winery, this shows the merit in tasting wines from other countries and broadening one’s palate.”
Tasting a broad range of wines is important, Schreiner tells us, if we are to avoid developing, “cellar palate.”
Of course, in 1990, winemaking in Canada was in the same overwrought infancy Canadian microdistilling finds itself in now. Just as some of today’s Canadian wines shine in French Bordeaux tastings, in time its new whiskies will find global acclaim too.
Nevertheless, something interesting is happening among Canadian whisky aficionados, particularly those relatively new to whisky. Many are developing a taste for whisky that really could use another dozen years in wood. The more three-years-old spirit they taste, the better they like it. They have learned not just to enjoy, but to prefer the spirit.
Not that Canada’s microdistillers are making poor whisky. Some of them – think Shelter Point, Two Brewers, Stalk & Barrel to name just a few – already acquit themselves well, tasted head-to-head with Scotch and other mainstream drams.
However, over the top accolades accorded to still-green spirit on social media by whisky newbies leave me shaking my head, as do the gold medals from competitions judged by, and restricted to, you guessed it, other microdistillers. There was shock, then outrage a few years ago, when a whisky distilled by a major distiller, slipped in to a U.S. “craft” competition and won top honours.
Equal though different pleasures can be had in some of the entry level ryes as well
If I wasn’t so turned off by their grating ersatz brogues and ill-fitting sense of whisky superiority, I could sympathise with the sentiments of the if-it-isn’t-Scotch-it’s-crap crowd. Still, I can learn from them, and from Schreiner too, because there was a time when I also would drink nothing but single malt Scotch.
One of my most enjoyable dinners in ages was Texas barbeque with the Balcones crew, on an assignment for this magazine’s sister publication, American Whiskey Magazine. Two full pounds per person of turkey, ribs, sausage and brisket were supplemented by half a dozen vegetables. We were a traditional meat and potatoes family, growing up, and I didn’t eat much barbeque. However, after I left home, opportunity, curiosity and sometimes necessity helped to broadened my palate considerably.
Although I do not follow a vegan diet, when people ask for a restaurant recommendation in my hometown of Ottawa, more often than not I send them to one of Chef Olivia Cruickshank's Pure Kitchen eateries.
Their cuisine bursts with flavour, though no creatures were harmed in its making. Having a broad palate makes eating an adventure. The same is true of whisky.
It took years, as a dedicated single malt Scotch drinker, before I was willing to waste a drinking opportunity on something other than Scotch. Today my tastes range across Japanese, American, Irish, Canadian and even Indian whisky. And rum, and gin, to say nothing of the once favoured Johnnie Walker Red, that I discarded when I became a single malt Scotch snob.
But there’s more than that. No question, I enjoy connoisseur quality Canadian rye. However, equal (though different) pleasures can be had in some of the entry level ryes as well. Hiram Walker’s Special Old, Alberta Premium, Wiser’s Deluxe, Golden Wedding.
Golden Wedding! It’s definitely not Scotch, yet it definitely isn’t anything close to crap. Unless, of course, you still cling to the tartan hem of great-great-grandma’s mythical kilt.