A couple of weeks ago the fine folk at McClelland & Stewart were kind enough to send me a copy of Canadian Whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux. It’s a nice book, a quick and easy read, but I would take exception with it’s subtitle, “The Portable Expert.” To me it’s more of conveniently sized omnibus introduction to contemporary Canadian whisky.
It seems that ever 20 years or so someone comes out with a book on Canadian liquor. Back in the mid 70s, William Rannie wrote Canadian Whisky: The Product and the Industry. In the mid 90s it was Lorraine Brown’s The Story of Canadian Whisky. And now in the teens it’s Mr. de Kergommeaux’s turn. His book is separated into five sections, The substance of Canadian whisky, How Canadian whisky is made, The pleasures of Canadian whisky, A concise history of Canadian whisky and The nine distillers of Canadian whisky. On the surface it all looks fine and dandy, and for the most part it is. But I couldn’t help but having the sensation of wanting more after I was done.
He starts in section one by explaining what makes whisky and how it is made. Even though his description of the grains, water and wood that make whisky is only 29 pages of the 300 in the book, he gets bogged down unnecessarily writing about things like recycling and energy efficiency in contemporary distilleries. While things like that are all fine and dandy, I think I would have preferred to have read more and in more detail about the differences in the ingredients and how they were manifested in the various whiskies.
The book then moves on to describe the processes used to make whisky, what happens in the mash, distillation and blending. I can only think of one book on whiskey that I’ve read that did not include a section on distillation, and it was written a while ago. I don’t know if this is because contemporary writers believe that no one knows their chemistry anymore or that someone somewhere passed a law insisting on it. I’m not all together sure that it needed to be there because again, it gets bogged down in details that aren’t entirely necessary because they are more generic to all whiskeys and not specifically Canadian or specific Canadian whiskies.
Back when I was growing up, I thought that Rye was Canadian whisky. I was wrong. While Rye can be Canadian whisky it can also be American whiskey, and for that matter if it was made in Ireland, Japan or someplace else it could be Irish whisky or Japanese whisky as well. Rye is just a specific way of making whisky that can be made anywhere. Then as I got older I thought that what made Canadian whisky different was that each grain was aged separately and they were only blended after aging and before bottling. I was wrong again. That was kind of how it was done when Seagram’s was a force in the industry (more to the point, Seagram’s would make what was called base whiskies and flavouring whiskies, which I believe were each made from a variety of grains, age those separately, before blending and bottling). I don’t know if any of the brands that used to be made by Seagram’s are still made this way.
Now I understand that the only thing that makes Canadian whisky, Canadian is that is is mashed, distilled and aged on this side of the border. If you are interested the law is here. In a nutshell, the salient fact beyond geography is aged for three years in wood. But it doesn’t specify what kind of wood, or if anything should be done to the wood. Then on top of that it can “contain caramel and flavouring” and after the three years, the distiller is allowed to continue aging it “other containers.” So basically, there really isn’t any unifying style or regulation to Canadian whisky like there is with American Bourbon.
This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Good, in that there is a humongous, if not infinite number of differences between different Canadian whiskies. Bad, in that comparing them is like comparing apples to oranges. Mr. de Kergommeaux never really got that distinction across to me as I was reading his book. I inferred that there were more commonalities than just three years, wood and location. This might be in part due to how the book is structured, focusing on the ingredients and process first (which for the most part are similar) and then only later writing about the companies and the people who ran them.
The meat of the book is in section four. Where he gives chapters to the history of the Molson distillery, Gooderham and Worts, Corby’s, Seagram’s, Hiram Walker and Wiser’s. Unfortunately, each chapter is only about 15 pages long, so there really isn’t too much detail and and things are presented in a very one-two-three manner. Which meant that I frequently had to go back and re-read parts to make sense of it all, since there wasn’t any type of glue connecting things. Instead of threading all the interwoven stories together and presenting it in a vaguely chronological manner, he ends up going over a lot of the same things (Canadian prohibition, laws, etc) many different times in each individual chapter. I was ready to throttle his editor by the time I read for something like the fourth time that the Canadian government has made it law that whisky had to be aged two years in 1890.
Then in the final section he devotes a chapter to nine distilleries in Canada (I’m not entirely certain why he chose not to give chapters to Shelter Point, Still Waters, Myriad View, and Victoria Spirits – actually I’m being disingenuous, he didn’t write about them, because their whisky isn’t the requisite three years-old, and isn’t available yet. But instead of giving each a sentence or two scattered in chapters about other distilleries, it would have been nice to perhaps do something like a chapter on “new” distilleries).
Personally, if I had been his editor, I would have insisted that he radically re-organize the book. While I know there is a humongous amount of history with regards to Canadian whisky, it really doesn’t come through in Mr. de Kergommeaux’s text. The way he has it organized it is almost like viewing slide samples from some biology class without having any larger knowledge of what animal they come from. Or if you prefer, a bunch of snapshots that to the viewer are only related because they were taken by the same photographer.
He has done an amazing amount of research, and I’d love to be able to sit down and talk with him (or even better still go through his notes) so as to truly and completely get a comprehensive understanding of Canadian whisky. The way the book is, it ends up serving as a very nice introduction to Canadian whisky. However it is offered up as the definitive word, and once I started scratching just a little bit below the surface I was able to discover that there are many more levels, nuances and stories that for whatever reason weren’t included in the book.
If I were to use an analogy, it’s like being offered a smell of Crown Royal Reserve but being told that you’re actually drinking and seeing it as well. And then, as long as I’m being grumpy, I’m sorely disappointed that he wasn’t able to explain what happened to the purple Crown Royal felt bag. I’ve heard rumors that involve Claude Brochu, but nothing definitive.
Then finally, dispersed throughout the book are “tasting notes” on 100 Canadian whiskies. Mr. de Kergommeaux needs a thesaurus. After reading half a dozen, they all end up reading exactly like each other. To give you examples;
Alberta Premium, …searing white pepper…
Black Velvet Three Year Old, …spirity hot white pepper…
Black Velvet Deluxe, …glowing hot pepper…
Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve, …and hot white pepper.
Canada Gold, Seductive peppery heat.
Canada House, …mildly peppery finish.
Canadian Club 20 Year Old, …hot pepper…
Canadian Club 30 Year Old, …zippy pepper…
Canadian Club Classic 12 Year Old, …warming gingery pepper…
Canadian Club Sherry Cask 8 Year Old, …searing hot pepper.
Canadian Hunter, …sizzling pepper burn.
Canadian LTD, …peppery warmth.
Canadian Peak, …and hot pepper.
Canadian Supreme, …advancing peppery glow.
Cape Breton Silver, …pepper…
You get the picture.
And I lied, I still have a little more currently the SAQ is carrying 22 different Canadian whiskies, if anyone would like to do a little tasting, let me know which ones you’d like to compare and contrast and we can see if we can get something organized. For the record, these are them:
Crown Royal Extra Rare, Glen Breton Single Malt, BLAT 11 Year Old, Canadian Club 20 Year Old, Crown Royal Reserve, Crown Royal, Canadian Club, STRT 101 10 Year Old, Wiser’s Legacy, Seagram’s Five Star, Seagram’s 83, White Owl, Canadian Club Sherry Cask, Crown Royal Limited Edition, Seagram’s V.O., Golden Wedding, Wiser’s Small Batch, Schenley OFC, Gibson’s Finest 12 Year Old, Canadian Club Classic 12 Year Old, Spicebox Spiced whisky and Wiser’s de Luxe.