Distillery Focus

A Wave of Innovation

Our man visits this venerable Canadian distillery that has a few tricks up its sleeve
By Davin de Kergommeaux
Visit Collingwood, Ontario late in July, and you will find a tourist town swarming with vintage automobiles and, if you pick the right day, hundreds of Elvis impersonators. People up here have fun. In summer, the sun-catching beaches of Lake Huron draw thousands of vacationers from Toronto, a mere two hours to the south. In winter, all the boats in storage and the lake frozen as far as the eye can see, visitors come for another reason. Nearby Blue Mountain is the largest ski resort in the area. If, in January you happen to wander into Collingwood you might find yourself in the middle of Whiskeylicious, a monthlong celebration of Canadian Mist.

For decades this local distillery produced one whisky: Canadian Mist. A couple of years ago it introduced a new sipping whisky, Collingwood, named after this pretty town of 20,000. "We've had absolutely tremendous support from the whole community," distillery manager, David Dobbin, tells me.

"People line up at the local liquor store for us to engrave their bottle." During Whiskeylicious, restaurants serve dishes featuring Collingwood whisky as an ingredient. Local chefs get competitive and bartenders vie to outdo each other with Collingwood-based cocktails. Besides the excellent food and drink there's also a large ice sculpture downtown: a giant bottle of Collingwood whisky.

The brand has taken some flak from whisky fans for the bottle design because of its unusual flask-like shape. But when broadcaster, and Collingwood aficionado, Christine Cardoso told me she introduced her husband to Collingwood specifically because she liked the bottle's unique shape, I knew they were on to something that worked. A special bottle for an out-of-the ordinary whisky.

Like many Canadian whiskies, Collingwood begins with corn and rye. But once it has matured the distillers give it an unusual twist. Collingwood is the only whisky anywhere finished in maple wood. Staves in the marrying vat where the whisky rests for up to a year are of toasted maple. Canadian Mist distillers collaborated with Brown- Forman blenders Chris Morris and Steve Hughes to come up with this innovation. Brown-Forman Corporation purchased the distillery in the 1970s and the Brown-Forman cooperage makes these unique barrel staves.

In 1967, Kentucky's Barton Brands was ready to break ground in Canada for a distillery to make Canadian Mist. Barton planned this new Canadian whisky for the U. S. and needed a sure supply. Nestled on Nottawasaga Bay, an inlet on Georgian Bay, Collingwood was their ideal location. A part of Lake Huron, Georgian Bay is on one of the five Great Lakes. Their 5,500 cubic mile volume makes them the largest body of freshwater in the world. In Nottawasaga Bay the water is as clear as crystal.

Since 1967, Canadian Mist distillery has been producing a single mixing whisky that has become a best seller in the U. S. Formulated especially for the U. S. market, Canadian Mist is a little sweeter and fruitier than many Canadian preferences. Found everywhere, south of the border, it's difficult to come by in Canada.

Recently, a new Canadian Mist was launched in the U. S.: Black Diamond. Richer, rounder, and bolder, this is for Canadian Mist regulars who want something upscale yet familiar, for special occasions. It worked and may even have started a wave of innovation. By the time you read this three more whiskies will have the Mist name: Peach, Cinnamon, and Maple flavoured. These new whiskies are for the "millennials," that burgeoning young population still discovering whisky.

Even with these innovations, the ingredients and the processes remain pretty much the same at Collingwood. Locally grown corn and rye grain are still mashed, fermented, distilled, and aged here.

Then, after three years maturing in long low warehouses, Canadian Mist is blended in the distillery.

So what's the secret? Ontario dent corn is ground and mixed with water, thin stillage, and a small amount of barley malt to form a slurry. This is then pressure-cooked in a stainless steel cooker to release the starch. Unrefined natural enzymes are added to the mash to convert the cornstarch into sugar - unrefined because that increases the complexity of the final whisky. The mash is pumped into one of 20 60,589- litre stainless steel fermenters, where commercial distiller's yeast is added. Three days later the resulting beer is triple distilled in stainless steel column stills packed with "sacrificial" copper. This is a twist on triple distillation and not typical in the production of Scotch.

The first pass uses a short column, a beer still. It's the second where things get interesting. Spirit that comes off the beer still at about 60 per cent ABV is now diluted down to 15 per cent. That's not a typo. Yes, they add more of that pure Georgian Bay water and re-distill it in an extractive distillation process.

Since fusel oil does not mix with water, this second distillation removes it, leaving all the more flavourful congeners behind. This explains why their new spirit is so clean yet simply bursting with flavour.

The final distillation in a rectifying column brings the new distillate back up to proof, ready to be pumped into barrels and matured.

Canadian Mist uses commercially produced enzymes and yeast for its base whisky but not for its flavouring whisky. The mash for this flavouring whisky is made from a blend of rye grain, corn, and malted barley.

Canadian Mist also uses its own, exclusive strain of yeast which is grown off site. How exclusive? The DNA fingerprint of each batch is checked to ensure it's right.

To maximize its flavour, this mash is left for up to five days to ferment.

Each of Canadian Mist's three warehouses holds up to 38,000 barrels so at any one time more than 100,000 barrels are gently sleeping.

Redolent with earthy aromas it's easy to understand why this whisky heaven is so attractive to the angels.

Tasting Notes

Canadian Mist, 40% ABV

Malty and grassy with yellow apples, Brio, a peppery zing, and earthy rye.

Hints of milk chocolate, a rich butterscotch finish and citrus zest.

Canadian Mist Black Diamond, 40% ABV

Concord grapes, rose water, and ice-cold cola layered onto dusty rye and creamy caramel. Searing white pepper and chocolate-covered ginger tingle with bracing intensity.

Collingwood, 40% ABV

Sweet and fragrant with dried fruits, Concord grapes, Bing cherries, and lilacs wafting over sweet tobacco and hard rye. Full bodied and spicy hot finishing in slightly pulling tannins.

Fact Box

Address: Canadian Mist Distillers Limited, 202 MacDonald Road, Collingwood, Ontario, L9Y 4J2

Website: www.canadianmist.com

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