By Blair Phillips & Davin de Kergommeaux
Davin: Canada's Byzantine system for getting whisky from producers to consumers is a mixed bag for whisky writers. We get paid to complain about it, and we get to sample all kinds of interesting other spirits that whisky distributors, the middle link in the delivery channel, sell to the government retail monopoly.
This is exactly how a story about Alberta's Highwood Distillers transmogrified into a tropical speedboat cruise up Guyana's piranha-infested Essequibo River. Woodman Wines, which distributes Highwood's whisky, also represents El Dorado, the acme of Caribbean rum. Highwood is a fascinating distillery and its recovery from the devastating 2013 flood that wiped out its hometown of High River is a tale of tenacity that bolsters one's faith in humankind. But hey! Blair can cover that story. This former editor is pulling rank one last time and boarding a flight to South America.
Blair: The road leading to High River, Alberta, hugs a creek that twists down through scenic fields from the rolling Foothills of the Rocky Mountains punctuating the horizon. In a scene worthy of a spaghetti western, steep sandy banks lead down to the creek, where cold mountain water sputters over a pebbled riverbed. You can imagine Clint Eastwood stopping here for refreshment after shooting a posse of bad guys. A weathered sign nearby warns, 'No Hunting! No Trespassing', but a hole about the size of a grapefruit, blasted out of it by a shotgun, tells me I'm the first one here in years.
That shattered No Trespassing sign notwithstanding; the countryside around the town of High River is tranquil and relaxing. From today's gentle warm sun, clean air and ocean-blue skies, you'd never guess that in 2013, Mother Nature, as if possessed by Prohibition's axe-wielding Carrie Nation, lashed out, inundating a large chunk of Alberta, and almost flooding Highwood Distillers out of business. What was left of High River was evacuated for months. With new dikes and berms we hope Highwood's beachfront days are passed. Today the distillery is back, stockpiling spirits like a whisky doomsday prepper.
Davin: Riding into Georgetown, Guyana, from the airport, you ask politely, why are all the homes on stilts? "Flooding," the driver responds. "When it rains here everything floats away. People have learned how to live with it." But it is sunny and dry as we pull into Georgetown's Diamond Distillers, a working collection of one-of-a-kind rum stills brought in from declining sugar plantations all over Guyana. Some of these pots and columns, including an ancient square, Coffey still, are crafted from local woods.
Wooden pot stills might puzzle those more familiar with direct-fire copper stills. Why don't they catch fire in the flames that heat them? The answer, of course lies in the coiled steam pipes used to heat the fermented molasses to a boil. Long before health and safety rules ended direct fire in Scotland, steam heat was a given in Guyana.
That venerable Coffey still saw original duty at the Enmore Sugar Estate founded nearly 200 years ago by Edward Henry Porter. Fittingly, that still and its rum are called EHP. Several other Coffey stills on site include a newish copper one, but none can replicate the spirit of old EHP.
Serious fans of whisky history rank visiting this leaky relic high on their bucket lists. Sure, they'll sample the distillery's Diamond Club single malt whisky, but connoisseurs who appreciate the finest of long-aged brown spirits will want to linger over Diamond's El Dorado rums. Even well tuned palates often mistake the 21 Years Old version for long-aged malt whisky. There's a lesson there.
However, it is a trio of single-distillate Demerara rums that tantalise this whisky lover's palate. Light, but complex, EHP bursts with soaring floral fruity notes and hints of cherry cough drops.
A second, called ICBU, starts as spirit produced in an 18th-century four-column metal French Savalle still from the Uitvlught sugar estate. Its creamy caramels, soft fruitiness and a spicy bitterness contrast strongly with EHP. The pièce de résistance though, is a single-distillate rum called PM, after the Port Mourant sugar estate. That is where a 250-year-old wooden double pot still was first used to distill this heavyweight, laced with linseed oil, peppers and vegetal notes.
Blair: Walking up to Highwood Distillery, the flood line is obvious on the brick. But when the floodwaters subsided there wasn't a flopping fish to be seen. None partook of the opportunity of a lifetime: free whisky, proving that Alberta fish may be the dumbest creatures on the planet next to the South American piranha that declined eating Davin as their afternoon snack. Inside, a metre of mud and water lay waste, "Highwood's entire inventory of case goods was destroyed," explains general manager Michael Nychyk. Thankfully, whisky casks are less vulnerable. After sand-blasting with dry ice they were ready to age another day.
After more than a year's reparations, the distillery is back in operation and has resumed its 100-mile diet. Wheat, brought in from farms just outside of town feeds the distillery's batch process again, so it's no surprise that aromas of puffed wheat flood the olfactory senses. Unusually, the 100 per cent wheat that fills the fermenters is not milled before cooking. Rather, the kernels burst open in the heat of the cooker, releasing their starch. From there, the wheat rockets like a crash test dummy against a hard surface that smashes any unopened kernels. Then it is cooled, fermented and distilled in a beer still to 70% ABV, before going into a copper-lined stainless steel pot still. That strange pot looks like something Iron Man would suit up in if he were going up against a tank.
"We have increased our ageing reserves in barrels by 15 per cent since 2013" explains Nychyk. And the blenders no longer require a canoe to navigate from barrel to barrel. Highwood's ex-Bourbon casks now rest on pallets rigged to sit above the 2013 flood line. The warehouse, perfumed by roughly 20,000 whisky barrels is more fragrant than any South American zephyr. Alberta's normally dry climate encourages evaporation, raising the spirit's alcohol content by the time it's ready for bottling. This is aromatherapy at its best. And the spectacular view looking up at the mountain of casks makes the horizon's Rocky Mountains seem almost ordinary.
Davin: Diamond Distillers and its El Dorado rums are a must on any serious whisky traveller's itinerary. It is a treat few ever experience. When we return from side trips to Kaieteur, a 741-foot waterfall deep in the rainforest, and a night on luxurious Baganara Island, a sudden storm has left our guesthouse knee-deep in water. Wading in, we laugh. A great dram is never far from hand in Guyana. It's an education and a true El Dorado for the adventurous whisky palate.
Blair: My research complete, I retreat to the reception hall where a spread of Highwood's whiskies covers the oak bar. Every whisky in the Highwood portfolio is on free-pour including some very rare corn whisky from their legendary Potter's stock. I don't need a gentle stream or an exotic trip to Guyana to unwind. I'm content simply to devote my day to the olfactory vacation of a lifetime here in High River, Alberta, at Highwood's whisky spa.
Ninety 20 Years Old, 45% ABV
Creamy sweet and very rich with milk chocolate, peppermint and fragrant baking spices. Cooked corn cobs, sour fruit and sweet spices. Huge and balanced.
Limited Edition Canadian Whisky, 40% ABV
A shimmering whisky packed with creamy vanilla, puffed wheat grains, butterscotch and oak spice. Mild honey softens this southern Alberta beauty.
21 Years Old Demerara Rum, 40% ABV
Peppermint, brown sugar and dried dark fruit tinged with vanilla and sweet vegetal dunder, all tightly integrated into one. Gorgeous oily mouthfeel.
EHP Single Barrel Demerara Rum, 40% ABV
Floral and fruity essences featuring fragrant grapes and apricots then minty hints of cherry cough drops, postage stamp glue and vanilla toffee.
ICBU Single Barrel Demerara Rum, 40% ABV
Strong and spirity, yet soft and creamy. Hints of honeysuckle accent sweet pungent flowers. Baking spices and a slight bitterness on the finish.