In Canada's whisky scene, everything old is new again

In Canada's whisky scene, everything old is new again

A deep dive into the evolution of Canadian whisky
Everything old is new again. That cheery expression once hung over Canadian whisky like a dark cloud. The old: distilleries shrank in number by 90 per cent through the second half of the 19th century. The new: history repeated itself. On New Year’s Eve 1979, while the fashion-conscious traded their bell bottoms for Jordache Jeans, Canadians sipped sweet sparkling wine while whisky bottles gathered dust. The musical drama All That Jazz (1979) hit theatres and, while Peter Allen sang, ‘Everything Old is New Again’, more Canadian distilleries merged or closed until just a handful remained.

A new century brought denim-sporting John Hall to make Canadian whisky all that jazz again. Forty Creek was not technically a micro-distillery, but Hall unknowingly lit a slow-burning, 40-mile fuse that forced governments to permit small distilleries to operate. The industry soon exploded, with a new generation of whisky makers dissipating that dark cloud for good. Names like Tyler Dyck, Ken Winchester, Barry Stein, Barry Bernstein, Colin Schmidt, Patrick Evans, James Marinus, Geoff Dillon, Gordon Glanz, Stuart McKinnon and others released first-generation whiskies that poured beauty and complexity into glasses.

Nolan Van der Heyden pulls a sample from the cask at Willibald Farm Distillery

“John Hall was a big influence on me personally,” says Geoff Dillon (of Dillon’s). “Back in the 2000s, he was the one person who inspired me by showing that Canada can make a real mark in the world of spirits. I’d see his whiskies featured in the big publications next to single malts and dream of one day doing the same. It’s probably no surprise why Dillon’s eventually settled down here in Niagara, five minutes down the road from John.”  

Meanwhile, on the northern fringe of Toronto, Still Waters Distillery first began laying down whisky stocks in 2009. Their whisky challenged the status quo, demonstrating that a distillery making single malt doesn’t need to replicate Scotch. “We were focused on doing something different, but micro-distilling was unique in and of itself,” says distillery co-founder Barry Stein. “Our initial thought was to produce only single malt, and we wanted to do both cask strength and 46% ABV from the beginning. We wanted to play with other grains in terms of innovation but still focus on the single malt. The rye was an ‘a-ha’ moment, and we immediately switched production to about 50 per cent rye because we were so enthralled with the new-make spirit. These whiskies were unique coming from a micro-distillery at the time.” Still Waters now has ageing barrels celebrating their 12th birthday. 

More recently, in Rimouski, Quebec, Distillerie du St Laurent broke ground with their whisky just as they broke real “The long legacy of whisky-making countries inspires everything we do,” says co-founder Jean-Francois Cloutier. He points to working with American-style mash bills and distilling on the grain in simple copper pot stills. “What drives us are the possibilities to use all kinds of processes and ingredients in our whisky program.”

A bottle of St Laurent Rye Whisky

Strong winds whip off the sea as winter temperatures dip below -20°C, then climb in summer above 20°C. The distillery ‘harvests’ this weather in a maturing house built with gabion rock walls, which expose the barrels to the outside environment. The snow and salty winds cut through, meaning Distillerie du St Laurent might be the only distillery on the planet looking to rust-proof its barrel hoops and shovel snow for a path through the building. “When we popped the bung to see how the rye was doing, it sounded like a newborn taking its first breath,” says Cloutier. “I’m excited to see what these extremes will bring to the whisky.”

Just as a Vernesqe imagination excites their whisky, Distillerie du St Laurent is on the cutting edge of Acerum – a new spirit designation made by fermenting and distilling Quebec maple syrup or sap. After ageing some of their Acerum in oak barrels, St Laurent is now finishing whisky in them.

To the northwest, under the guiding lights of the Aurora Borealis, Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen at Whitehorse’s Yukon Spirits prefer innovation to trends with their Two Brewers Innovative series. “Making single malt in Canada allows for some wiggle room – the grains, fermentation techniques, distilling techniques, barrelling, and the like, but it is not like making beer, where you can knock off something completely new and different in a month,” says Baxter.
The team uses its ‘Innovative’ label for new concepts. “For example, we work with a guy here who uses some of our whisky barrels to age maple syrup, then we fill those barrels with whisky again, to extract residual maple flavours from the wood – over and over until the flavour builds to where we want it. Maple whisky is not uncommon or innovative, but building up a natural flavour component over a few years with this technique probably is.”

Canadians love beer, and organic serendipity in beer’s popularity has bubbled over into the country’s whisky. “We’ve worked with many local breweries,” says Odd Society Spirits co-founder Gordon Glanz. “The brewery mashes a unique beer, and then we take over and ferment, distil and age it. For example, we have an IPA whisky in barrels and a Belgian sour cherry saison whisky too.”

Odd Society describes its creative whisky-making approach as being open to new ideas and being in the right place at the right time. In British Columbia (BC), a distillery with a craft distilling designation must use BC–grown grain. Unfortunately, there is no commercially grown peated malt.

“One day, Joel, who does most of our distilling, and I were standing in front of the gin still, lamenting that we couldn’t do a peated whisky,” says Glanz. “As we were talking, Joel looked over at our gin basket and said, ‘What if we used peated malt in the basket, the same way we use lemons?’” Glanz says it worked like magic, and it was just the beginning.
“I’ve come to believe that the only way we can do something special is if we incorporate elements of where we live in the world that make us unique. So, we’ve decided to smoke malts with local woods, including arbutus, big-leaf maple and garryana oak. These trees grow only in the Pacific Northwest.” 

Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen of Yukon Spirits at work on their Two Brewers series

Back in Ontario and just down the street from Still Waters, Don DiMonte and his team at Last Straw Distillery make whisky with a creative flair, including expressions using malted corn. DiMonte rescues abandoned beer rom local breweries and gives it a second chance as spirits. Much as Glanz has done in Vancouver, Last Straw’s beer rescue program has evolved into collaborations with local breweries to ferment, distil and age beer mashes into whisky. The brewery gets the barrel later for ageing beer.

Ninety miles southwest, in Ayr, Ontario, distiller Nolan van der Heyden celebrated his birthday by developing a high-rye mash bill that would become Willibald Distillery’s first whisky. Nolan, an engineer by trade, built a 4,000-litre Douglas fir washback to ferment his birthday brew, using a flavour-generating Norwegian farmhouse ale yeast called Voss Kveik. After maturing in 200-litre new oak barrels, the whisky, like everything Willibald makes, was unapologetically flavourful and sold out in minutes.

“Jordan, Nolan and I liked how bold and robust it was, but the whisky was too big,” says distillery co-founder Cameron Formica. So, they finished it in Colombian rum barrels, which introduced some sweetness to balance out the spiced dry rye notes. The whisky’s name, Greenhorn, reflects the lessons learned in the whisky-making process. “We have a destination in mind for our whisky, and this is one step toward that goal. It was a fitting name for a first release,” adds Formica.

“Entrepreneurship is something to aspire to,” says Jeremiah Clarke of New Brunswick’s Moonshine Creek Distillery. Along with his brother Joshua, the Clarkes keep their hometown on the local whisky map. It began in the 1970s when their grandfather Marlin Henderson would drive stateside into Maine and buy lower-priced whisky in bulk. Paralyzed from the knees down, Henderson was a triple threat – a butcher, barber and bootlegger who still found the time to raise 10 kids. Returning from Maine, he would re-package his haul in Canadian whisky bottles to sell. His door-to-door delivery system saw customers leaving the porch light on if they wanted alcohol added to their grocery orders.

Stories of their grandfather inspired the brothers in ways they only now understand. There was a certain amount of prestige and respect for his entrepreneurship. And making whisky legally was always part of the plan. “Making moonshine products was a segue into whisky since we needed to pay our bills while our whisky aged,” says Clarke.
Moonshine Creek supports local businesses and products, including the New Brunswick Maple Syrup Association, and the whisky-making team drew inspiration from the maple syrup process. “One of the by-products of maple syrup is pure tree water. “We started a conversation with a producer that it would be great to proof down spirits using this water instead of well water. It’s sustainable and renewable. So, we’ve been using the flavourless tree water to proof all our spirits.”

Odd Society Spirits co-founder Gordon Glanz checks the spirit

This includes Moonshine Creek’s Downriver Whisky, an organic high-rye mash bill that blends whisky aged in new, charred American oak barrels with new toasted American oak.

New Brunswick’s original legal distillery, Fils Du Roy, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and is one step closer to realising Sébastien Roy’s grand vision of controlling every aspect of the distilling process. This goal was not born out of ego or megalomania but a personal drive to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible. “The distilleries of the future will have to think like this. We have only one environment to live in,” says Roy.

The distillery recently opened a new business called Maison Fils Du Roy, where chemist Dr Josée Boudreau grows yeast alongside a modern malt house that produces up to five tonnes of malted barley weekly. Roy plans to wash and reuse spirit bottles and is investing in a project to reuse the carbon dioxide generated during the whisky-making process, too.
Roy’s whisky honours his Acadian culture. For example, for his latest, Fort Beauséjour, named for a 1751 five-star Acadian fort, he lightly peated the malt using New Brunswick surface peat moss. The distillery property includes about 10 acres of harvestable peat. “New Brunswick is the second-largest peat moss exporter globally,” Roy says. “We prefer the flavour of this surface peat over the earthier peat deeper down for this single pot still whisky.”

Warehousing at Distillerie du St Laurent.

Though Canada is nearly 5,000 miles across, its whisky makers share a common bond. Among many different approaches and their diverse range of whiskies, they all have an unquenchable thirst to make a whisky that fits Canada like a comfortable pair of jeans.

‘Everything old is new again’ has been turned on its head. When Forty Creek’s Bill Ashburn decided his old whisky was too woody, he redistilled it. He then aged the resulting spirit for five years and released it at cask strength as ‘Master’s Cut’. This crafty approach from a prominent Canadian distillery should surprise no one. Ashburn was part of John Hall’s team long before anyone proudly described whisky using ‘Canada’, the ‘C-word’. And with growing strength in numbers, Canada’s whisky landscape sees sunny days ahead. If there is a dark cloud today, it’s just the weather telling us to find our snowshoes and check on the barrels.
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