Jim Robb is a character. We meet at the Gold Pan Saloon where he comfortably nuzzles a drink. He’s relating stories of ‘The Colourful 5%’ - the term he coined for the more interesting folk he has encountered since he arrive in the Yukon from Montreal, more than half a century ago. Robb drew sketches of them to illustrate their stories in a series of books also called The Colourful 5%. Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street can help you find them.
Whitehorse, the largest city in Canada’s arctic, is ever so welcoming which may help explain why so many people who come for vacation, never get around to leaving. Restaurateur, Antoinette Oliphant, holidaying from Tobago is a prime example. She wondered how Whitehorse would react to the Tobagan practice of ‘liming’ – lounging around enjoying food and drink in the company of friends.
Eleven years later, her brilliant gold-coloured restaurant at the corner of 4th and Steele is celebrated as one of the best in Canada.
Sit down at the tiny bar in the Woodcutter’s Blanket and suddenly, you’re a regular. Natalie, who moved here from Calgary, is alone behind the bar. She shakes citrus liqueur, Laphroaig 10 Years Old and two Chartreuses on ice and pours her ‘Natalie’s Supreme’ into a coupe for you. It’s sweet, smoky and wonderful. Perhaps even more so, because you know that six feet above your head, two sculptured moose are butting heads on the roof. There is no sign to tell you this is a bar, just two moose sparring.
This Yukon Territory town of 25,000 people has a lot to recommend it. Sleep at the historic Edgewater Hotel by the Yukon River, then greet the day a couple of blocks over at The Breakfast Club. That’s the bar in Hotel 98. Service there begins at 9am.
Ignore the rest of the brews on the bar and ask for something local. In 1997, a century after Whitehorse became a staging point for the Yukon Gold Rush, Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen came north from Ontario, for a post-graduation canoe trip. They ended up staying to launch Yukon Brewers. It’s “Beer,” they say, ”worth freezing for.” Today, the two brewers like to joke that their idea of making beer in the Whitehorse was conceived just as many Yukon babies are – by a campfire on a canoe trip.
Summers are warm and the days very long in the land of the midnight sun. In other words, summers are beer-drinking weather. This changes in winter though, when the sun dips below the horizon for weeks on end. Yet, despite what we may imagine, arctic residents embrace the dark months.
If you are a brewer though, what do you do in those long winters when the demand for beer tapers off? Baxter and Hansen decided that anything they could brew, they could distil, and in 2009 they installed a pot still to make whisky. They call their new enterprise Yukon Spirits and bottle their whisky on the Two Brewers label.
When Two Brewers single malt was first released in 2016, it became a Canadian whisky phenomenon. With a thriving brewery to keep them afloat, the partners could afford to wait until their whisky was fully mature before releasing it. As a result, Two Brewers whiskies age at least seven years before Baxter and Hansen even consider bottling them. “Time is our friend,” says Hansen. “We sell about half of what we make each year, so the other half keeps getting older.”
“We never intended that whisky would be a money maker,” Hansen continues. Rather, distilling kept the staff employed across the winter and allowed him and Baxter to take their brewing skills in new directions. After all, making great tasting whisky begins with brewing flavourful beer and they certainly knew how to do that. The two set out to turn a variety of malted and roasted grains into whisky, using various fermentation techniques and an assortment of barrels.
While they specialise in single malt whisky, unlike the Scots, the partners do not limit themselves to working with malted barley only. They also use malted rye, malted wheat and various roasted beer malts. Theirs is single malt whisky with a distinctly Canadian twist. Currently they have about 360 barrels ageing in a corner of the brewery.
For each batch of 800 to 1,500 bottles they blend whisky from a selection of barrels. This makes every batch a one-off. And because they are only releasing fully mature whiskies, the result is a wonderfully rich range that is beginning to put Canada on the world single malt map. In 2018, Yukon Spirits was named Artisanal Distillery of the Year at the Canadian Whisky Awards.
Baxter and Hansen are not just distilling whisky spirit then waiting to see how it turns out. Careful planners, they have developed four flavour streams for Two Brewers whiskies.
A ‘Classic’ range is the most familiar for single malt Scotch drinkers. For their ‘Peated’ range they ferment peated malt imported from Aberdeen Maltings in Scotland. Cask finishing is the signature of a third range, dubbed ‘Special Finishes.”
Finally, in their ‘Innovative’ range, Baxter and Hansen get creative, including whiskies made with malted grains other than barley, in the final blend. So yes, these are single malt whiskies that stretch the boundaries of what we normally think single malt should be. Isn’t that what innovation is all about?
The partners grind the malt fresh on site just before mashing. “It’s like making coffee,” says Baxter, “you want to grind your own just before you brew it. “If we can get the malts exactly as we want them we can make the whisky we want too.” A standard beer mash of 100 per cent pale malt becomes the base whisky around which the blends are built. Rich grainy “character builders” made from specialty grains and roasted malts imbue the base malt whisky with a broad range of flavours. It’s a tribute to the way most Canadian whiskies are made and a reminder that wherever they come from, single malts are blends of many different component malts.
It was the Klondike Gold Rush that brought the first settlers to Whitehorse and gold is the reason you should consider visiting Whitehorse too. Except, 120 years later the gold you should be looking for comes in liquid form with a bold Two Brewers label slapped on the bottle.
A word to the wise though. Once you have sampled the charms of Whitehorse it can be difficult to leave. But whisky lovers need not worry. Two Brewers will ensure you have a good supply of great whisky, and who knows, once you get in the Yukon groove, Jim Robb may even sketch you for his next volume.
Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of the book Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert.