Distillery Focus

The quiet revolution

A look at the explosion in microdistilling
By Blair Phillips
Patrick Evans of Shelter Point
Patrick Evans of Shelter Point
When a kid has a loose tooth, Canadian parents don’t tie it to a doorknob and slam. The youngster goes to the backyard with a sibling and a hockey stick, and they slap pucks at each other until the tooth is history. This may be an exaggeration, but it’s not far from the truth. Ask the SWA.

In 2007, when the Scotch Whisky Association challenged a small Cape Breton distillery located in the town of Glenville Nova Scotia, off came the gloves. The SWA wanted the Glenora Distillery to stop using the name ‘Glen’ in their Glen Breton whisky. Back then, Glenora was the only single malt distillery in Canada. Inspired by their Scottish ancestors, they set out to re-create it from floor maltings to traditional Scottish pot stills.

In April 2008, the SWA knocked Glenora’s tooth out when Federal Court of Canada found for the SWA. Glenora simply put that tooth under its pillow and took the SWA into its backyard – the Federal Court of Appeal.

There, Glenora prevailed and the word “Glen” remained.

Although all was now quiet on the eastern front, behind the scenes, a microdistillery movement was spreading across the land. This new wave of microdistillers stepped beyond Glenora’s traditional Scottish methods, embracing Canadian whisky making traditions.

Today, 50 whisky micro distilleries dot a massive 6.2 million square mile land mass. Canada is hot-dog-eating-contest big, with room for 125 Scotlands.

It was Eau Claire Distillery that brought craft distilling to Alberta. David Farran set up shop in a 1929 movie theatre/brothel. Using horse-drawn farming, Farran began growing grain on 25 nearby acres. This hobby ensures he always has a ride to work where Larry Kerwin and Caitlin Quinn ferment and distill the grain in a Holstein copper pot still with a 23-plate rectifying tower. Seeing Eau Claire in action helped me connect the dots.

In a country too large for regions, with microdistilleries located hundreds of miles apart, you can still find commonalities: Canadian grain, smart cask selection, blending and a love for malt whiskies from around the world.

But, Canadian microdistilleries have stiff competition in a country where Scotch single malts were already popular long before Canadian single malt existed. Patrick Evans, the owner of British Columbia’s Shelter Point distillers hears this every day, “I think to a large degree when folks think of single malt they think of Scotch,” says Evans. “It’s a major factor in the global market and single malts are connected to quality. If folks see us as Scotch, I am delighted when compared to them.”

Stuart McKinnon, a Scot himself, and head distiller at Vancouver’s Central City Distillery agrees, “I love Scotch whisky and will always tip my hat to the home of single malts.”

In 2017, western Canadian barley farmers produced an estimated 7,516,400 tonnes, but almost all of it went abroad to make beer.

Still, Canadian grain makes a paramount difference. Barry Bernstein of Ontario’s Still Waters Distillery noted the importance of grain from day one. “I think we need to talk more about our Canadian grain as unique and capable of producing world-class whiskies,” says Bernstein. "Canadian grain quality is among the world’s best. Our climate, soil and the Canadian practice of assured varietal purity produce a consistently rich, fruity and slightly earthy whisky.”

In 2017, western Canadian barley farmers produced an estimated 7,516,400 tonnes, but almost all of it went abroad to make beer. Canadian maltsters alone malted about 2.2 million tonnes, most of it for export. For the religious, Canadian malt is the soul of beers produced right around the globe. But for malt whisky, the angels stay in Canada.

Shelter Point grows malting barley on 35 acres of their 380-acre farm. However, it is too cold to grow barley anywhere near Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory some 1,620 miles north of Shelter Point. “Our decision to make single malts was due to our love of layered and complex whisky that stands on its own, and our desire to use our years of brewing experience with malted grains,” explain Bob Baxter of Yukon Distilling. “We can use all forms of malted grains, not just pale malted barley designed for distilling. We believe that new-make created from a variety of malted grains results in a variety of flavours during the ageing process.” The distillery just released its eighth single malt on their Two Brewers Yukon Single Malt Whisky label.

Baxter and Alan Hansen first opened a brewery in 1997, after dreaming up the idea while canoeing. Had they ingested something hallucinogenic around the campfire? People wondered, to open a brewery in the frigid north. Twenty years in, their brewing success tells us all they inhaled was clean air. By 2009, with the brewery going strong, they bought a still and applied their knowledge to different fermentation techniques: making small batch whisky matured in a mix of barrels. These quickly gained broad recognition with many eyes mistaking their gleaming trophy rack for the Northern Lights.

“Canadian grain makes it Canadian,” says Stuart McKinnon at Central City. As an established giant on the Canadian craft beer landscape, they already knew the importance of malts. Brewmaster Gary Lohin monitors their grain selection closely. At the distillery, the grain is milled, mashed, distilled and aged onsite. Three hybrid Holstein pot stills fitted with reflux columns can influence the character of their distillate in many ways, in just a single pass. They currently have British Columbia barley malts ageing in approximately 15 barrel types.

Canadian single malts are getting their adult teeth, and without a hockey puck to the choppers. So, tooth fairy take note: you may want to start applying for jobs collecting the angel’s share.

Still Water’s dream of Stalk & Barrel single malt began about a decade ago before they bottled a single drop. They named the distillery during an evening spent at Barry Stein’s cottage. While sitting on the dock talking whisky, someone looked across the calm lake and suggested calling theirs "Still Waters”.

Who would’ve suspected the spirit of whisky that would set the tone for the new wave of Canadian single malts lurked under those gentle waters. “We did not want to be seen as trying to produce Scotch. Rather, we wanted to be known for good single malt whisky from Canada,” says Barry Bernstein. “Most of our single cask, single malt bottlings are around the 5-years-old mark now. That extra couple of years is making a big difference and we will offer even older expressions in the next few years.”

The whisky still balances wood against malt while growing spicier as time and quality barrels round the new-make edges. “As our single malt ages, we feel that we are releasing increasingly better whisky.” I couldn’t agree more. “I think we would like our single malt to be known as “Canadian Single Malt” rather than “Single Malt from Canada” and hope more people approach it because it is a unique Canadian-made whisky rather than a single malt whisky made in Canada.”

The importance of barrel ageing is cumulative and Yukon Distillers has discovered a gold mine in Mother Nature’s severe northern mood swings. Bob Baxter believes that broad changes in relative humidity, with dry winters and moist summers drive barrel influences on their whisky. “Cask selection is a huge part,” agrees Patrick Evans. “Shelter Point can fill 25 casks from a single spirit tank and have subtle or huge differences in how the spirit interacts with the wood. We make several different variations of whisky, as personal taste is very subjective. We are trying to create selections for different palates. Our distillers also love the ability to play with single grain and single malt blends.”

Canadian microdistilleries also embrace the importance of blending their malt whiskies. “Blending, as a verb, is hugely important to us,” says Baxter. “We view every barrel like a chef views their spices. No chef would create a fine soup or curry with a single spice, and we see the liquids in our barrels in that same light. We create our expressions with a ’bit of this – bit of that’ approach.”

Other distilleries too are making a statement with single malts. Victoria Distillers, Odd Society Spirits, Distillerie Fils de Roy, Dubh Glas Distillery and Okanagan Spirits top a long shopping list. A drive from Glenora to Shelter Point with pit stops at Still Waters, Eau Claire, Yukon Brewing and Central City, would add 6,000 miles to the odometer and take about five days behind the wheel, giving you plenty of time to reflect.

Canadian single malts are getting their adult teeth, and without a hockey puck to the choppers. So, tooth fairy take note: you may want to start applying for jobs collecting the angel’s share.

The Quiet Revolution Tasting Notes

Jason Hambrey

Fils du Roy

New Brunswick Single Malt 40%
Orchard fruits, raisins, prune, coconut and clove lead into a creamy, grainy body with tannic spice. Finishes with peach cobbler, vanilla and oats.

Lohin McKinnon

VQA Black Sage Vineyard Collaboration Whisky 43%
A rich, intriguing single malt full of dried fruit and the best that a wine cask has to offer – earthiness, rancio, blackcurrants and spice.

Shelter Point

Double Barreled Single Malt 50%
From nose to finish, a well balanced and integrated single malt that showcases rich dried apricot, baking spice, caramel, coconut and vanilla.

Stalk & Barrel

Cask Strength Single Malt 60.2%
Huge yet balanced between the creamy, spicy, fruity and verdant flavors: banana, grassy spice, tea, coconut, vanilla and marmalade.

Two Brewers

Classic Batch 06 43%
Balanced, vibrant and multifaceted, with bright fruit, minerality and smoke – and yet somehow balanced with a complex grain character. A remarkable and must-try single malt.
Two Brewers Single Malt
Two Brewers Single Malt
The barley harvest at Shelter Point
The barley harvest at Shelter Point
A glass of Shelter Point
A glass of Shelter Point