Love in a cold climate

14 April, 2014

Collingwood may be handcrafted, but it is not ‘craft’ in the microdistilling sense. Unlike in the US, where a garage just doesn’t seem complete without a still, Canada has punitive start-up costs that have stunted the craft movement. 

Here’s Kergommeaux to explain: “Distillers have to pay the taxes when they make their spirits. Large companies can afford the CAN$1m tax deposit [required]. It’s an enormous expense. It’s cold here so it could be 10 years before they can sell their whisky. Many start out trying to sell whisky, then sell vodka.”


Flavoured spirits is an American fetish but just over the border, Canada is exposed to the trend. “Flavoured brands have taken off in huge way. It has exploded in the US and Canada tends to follow,” says Wiser’s Bruce. 

Among the flavoured fold is Wiser’s Spiced, Crown Royal Maple, Black Velvet Toasted Caramel and Cinnamon Rush. Canadian Club has Canadian Club Dock No 57 – a spiced that also comes in Blackberry form – and Gibson’s Finest has Grey Cup, which includes ‘a hint of maple’. 

Essentially if you are in the Canadian whisky game, you are probably doing a flavour. “The new Black Velvet flavour extensions appeal to younger adult consumers and have resulted in an increased volume of the overall brand family,” says Martin van’t Zelfde, regional director of Europe for Black Velvet.

Unlike Scotch, Canadian whisky producers are allowed to add flavours to their whiskies. Tristan Stephenson takes a break from writing his second book, The Curious Bartender: An Odyssey of Whisky, to give us his take on the category’s pragmatism. 

“Much of Canadian whisky’s success can be put down to its quick reaction to changing tastes and demands. Producers’ ability to put these changes into effect can, in turn, be attributed to the relatively broad legal requirements of Canadian whisky – it can be distilled to virtually any strength, flavouring can be added
to the tune of 9.09%, and ‘rye’ rarely means 100% rye.

Spreading the word

Though corn is the dominant grain in Canadian whisky, rye is historically part of the blend. As we know, rye whisky is hot property in the cocktail capitals of the world, so could now be the time to expand to Europe and beyond? Let’s ask London bartender and consultant, John Lister. 

“When I was at Dach & Sons I wanted to get into Canadian whisky, but there isn’t much shipped over so I haven’t tried many.” So is there a market, in London at least? “It depends on the mash bill. If there’s a whiff of rye, then game on.”

For those schooled in Scotch, it might surprise buyers and consumers that there are only nine major distilleries in Canada – and many more brands. 

At the Hiram Walker distillery – which is subject to a CAN$9m expansion – Pernod Ricard’s Wiser’s is produced alongside William Grant’s Gibson’s and Beam’s Canadian Club. Kergommeaux explains how brand-home sharing works. “They may share a distillery but it’s deadly competitive. They have different blending practices, wood regimes and separate marketing people.”

Could this be Canadian whisky’s Achilles heel? Kergommeaux says: “We have come to revere what marketing wants us to revere. Just because Canadian whisky brands operate in a contiguous space doesn’t mean they can’t create their own individual whisky. It doesn’t match with the Scotch story but that’s a question of marketing.”

It’s true that Canadian whisky is not short on stories to pull on. Take Crown Royal, which was created for King George VI, then passed down to the people – “Made for a king” goes the slogan. In terms of production narrative, the emphasis is on the art of blending, not distilling. 

“Most of Canadian whisky is blended. We ferment, distil and age grain whiskies separately. The master blender then brings it all together,” says Wiser’s Bruce. 

“The big difference in doing it that way is that the rye is more spicy and flavourful.  In the US they put them in a mash together. They make all their blending decisions at the beginning of the process, whereas we make them at the end.”

Canadian whisky will want to go its own way in the world, but other categories can provide hope of
global transition, if not the direction. “There is increased interest in whisky, such as Japanese and Irish – I would expect Canadian to follow over the
mid-to-long term,” says Kunze-Concewitz.

With the US their stronghold, international expansion may not be priority for most producers. But should Canadian whisky really want to make some noise beyond its North American borders, it is starting to develop the products and identity to make buyers listen. With the spirits world’s elite whisky groups conducting its future, one day this category could really sing. 

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