Gangster, Al Capone never made it to the theatre to see the movie Frankenstein. When the movie was released during America's Prohibition, Capone was in the fire pleading guilty to tax evasion charges. That plea put an end to his beverage importing business too. Contrary to popular opinion, Canadian distillers were struggling to survive as America, their biggest customer ever since the Civil War (1861-1865), went dry. Facing extinction, Canadian distillers were more than happy as friendly neighbours to supply hooch to any speakeasy and entrepreneur looking to fill Capone's shoes. That willingness to supply a ready market continues to this day.
So, it was no surprise that decades later in 2010, Kruger Wine & Spirits decided to revive that Prohibition tradition with another one of Marcil's creations: Spicebox Whisky, a spiced Canadian rye. Their timing couldn't have been better. The 80th anniversary of repeal has made rye whisky and speakeasies chic again. The combination of Spicebox's Prohibition connection and the growing flavoured whisky trend has resulted in colossal sales both sides of the border.
Spicebox is a blend of three, four, five and six Year Old Canadian rye whiskies distilled in Alberta Canada and shipped to Montreal for finishing. There, Marcil mingles them with three varieties of all-natural vanilla beans, cinnamon and nutmeg. "I created the blend so the aroma and the flavour of the spices enhances but not overwhelms the whisky. I want to take care of the rye flavour so we can enjoy the unique character of Canadian rye whisky," explains Michel Marcil. He believes natural flavouring offers huge opportunities for crafting the premium spirits that younger consumers value. "Spice is all about cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, what you already find in good quality American oak barrels," says Marcil. "I just add notes that are already in the whisky. It's a harmony, not a discordant new flavour."
Karen Maley, vice president of marketing at Kruger adds, "Because of this, Spicebox works nicely with a whole range of mixed drinks. It's genuine enough for mixologists who like whisky because it appeals to them with its rye whisky base flavours."
However, the intensity of flavours in natural spices and botanicals depends on growing conditions so it varies annually. To maintain consistent flavours, Marcil concentrates the essential oils from the spices and botanicals using cold extraction before infusing them into his distilled rye whisky.
"It is important to Marcil to be as authentic as possible so that the aromas and flavours smelled and tasted as natural as possible and enhance the natural flavours and aromas of the rye whisky base as opposed to masking them," explains Maley. This authenticity is also unmistakable in his Tap 357 and Sortilège maple syrup flavoured Canadian whiskies.
Members of the 19-35 millennial generation have received an extra dose of Prohibition from watching television shows such as Boardwalk Empire and so, have caught the brown spirit fever that fueled the Roaring Twenties. And they bring their own rules. They don't care about legal definitions of whisky and stuffy instructions about how to enjoy it. "They are not as influenced by tradition as the earlier generations were. What drives them is taste. They were already open to flavour infusions, had already experienced it with vodkas, and spiced rums (and cocktails)," says Maley. "Whisky was something that a lot of these younger drinkers thought was a very serious beverage, their fathers consumed it and it was unapproachable. But when the flavours came on board, whisky became accessible to them because of the taste." This new generation is mixing Prohibition cocktails with spirits their elders would only serve neat. Their adventurous palates have embraced the world of richly flavoured whiskies.
Meanwhile, at the recently upgraded Highwood distillery in High River, Alberta, flavoured whisky has become one of their best sellers, outpacing even some of their long-established connoisseur whiskies. "Flavoured whiskies are on a huge growth pattern and we want to introduce younger adults to the new exciting whiskies rather than their "Dad's Rye", explains Highwood Distiller's Sheldon Hyra, adding, "These younger adults will eventually find their way to our premium expressions." Following on the heels of their hugely successful White Owl Spiced, Highwood has recently added to their flavoured portfolio with White Owl Ginger Lime Whisky. Once again, their emphasis is on enhancing existing whisky flavours - hot gingery spices along with citrus zest and pith.
Maley supports Hyra's prediction, "Flavoured whisky has introduced a whole new demographic not just by age but by gender to the world of whisky. A whole new generation was brought on board with whisky as they dipped their toes into the pool of flavours because that's what's approachable from a taste standpoint. And if they like it, they continue to experiment and search out those older aged whiskies. They were brought in under flavours. It's a good thing for long term whisky business."
Numbers vary wildly, depending on the source, but according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), Canadian whisky sales in the US are on a steady climb, having increased five per cent over the past year, and sales of flavoured whiskies have almost doubled. Cocktail culture is expanding faster than the Universe and it's these sweeter, flavoured whiskies that offer an easy introduction to whisky novices. Yes, the spirits world is changing. And for a new generation that drinks flavoured whisky, it's going to drive innovation. This means a renewed focus on quality ingredients leading to lively new whiskies. We should thank them now, hate them later as they graduate to traditional aged whiskies and begin to compete for our treasured traditional bottlings. That's when we'll need pitchforks to defend ourselves from Marcil's and Hyra's monsters.
Spicebox Spiced Whisky 35% ABV
Loads of vanilla floating on a soft bed of biting young rye whisky. Clove nutmeg and pumpkin pie with a pinch of cinnamon baking spice.
Sortilège 30% ABV
A day at the sugar shack with thick, sweet maple syrup and a touch of oak smoke. Whispers of fruity rye spice, butterscotch and vanilla.
Sortilège Prestige 7 Year Old 40.9% ABV
Compared with the original, this version has more backwoods horse power. Rich maple syrup, vanilla, and toasted smokey wood fueled by rye.
White Owl Spiced 40% ABV
Subtle vanilla, crisp oak, rich butterscotch and sly rye spices, then hot pepper. Lots of citrus pith in the finish with tingling ginger and cloves.
White Owl Ginger Lime 40% ABV
Citrus fruit and hints of dry gin. Tangy ginger and Rangpur lime with classic hot rye spices. Crisp, clean, fresh, vaguely spicy - cinnamon and cloves.