The Rise of Canadian Single Malt WhiskyBy Davin de Kergommeaux and Blair Phillips
Many of Canada’s first craft distillers started out trying to emulate Scotch single malts. However, the resulting Canadian single malt whiskies did not taste like Scotch whisky. Furthermore, they didn’t have the cachet of being imported from Scotland. Add this lack of Scottish authenticity to the new Scottish push on terroir and it seems almost ludicrous to try to replicate Scotch single malts in Canada. And why should they? Canada has its own well-established whisky traditions.
Instead, Canadian distilleries are beginning to make single malts that, while certainly are not Scotch whisky, are every bit as enjoyable. A new Canadian style is evolving, using Canadian grains, Canadian workers, Canadian water, Canadian ambiance and Canadian terroir. Here are some Canadian single malt whiskies to watch for.
Sébastien Roy of Distillerie Fils du Roy makes whisky with an Acadian back story. This one dates back to 1783 when United Empire Loyalists arrived in Nova Scotia from the US. Unhappy with their new neighbors, many locals insisted on splitting away from Nova Scotia to make a new province called New Ireland. When they remembered that Canada’s monarch, King George III also held the German title “Duke of Brunswick” they scrapped the name “Ireland” in favor of New Brunswick. Nonetheless, the mischievous Roy used the Irish spelling for “whiskey” then called it “New Ireland”.
Even crazier than his Rolodex of Acadian history are Roy’s whiskey-making techniques. For this whiskey he aged malt spirit for at least three years in traditional casks. But, when it came time to proof the whiskey, Roy reached for beer instead of water. Not just any beer, but beer made using the same recipe the whiskey was distilled from. Rather than overpowering the whiskey, the malty beer notes accent the Canadian single malt with top notes of banana bread along with fruits like pears and apples.
Central City’s Lohin McKinnon single malt range has expanded to include grand experiments with beer malts. The chocolate malt single malt is revolutionary and so not Scottish. Now the brand is shining a spotlight on barrels—ex-tequila barrels to be specific. These add a black-peppery new layer to the whisky’s maltiness, accenting its grain flavors with earthy agave tones.
On Saturday, April 27, 2013, an enthusiastic crowd of whisky lovers lined up to purchase the first three single-cask releases from Still Waters Distillery. It was a special moment in Canadian whisky history—this was the first single malt released by an Ontario microdistillery.
Ten years later, Still Waters is still releasing its iconic individual cask bottlings. This one begins with 100% Canadian two-row malted barley and is aged in ex-bourbon casks. Though the house style remains consistent, each barrel yields a different whisky with varying levels of banana, grassy spices and malt cereals layered over rich oak balanced by a creamy texture.
Back in 1950s Hungary, Janos Sivó’s family distilled their own spirits using a homemade still. It was fashioned out of two milk cans and some copper pipe borrowed from a nearby factory. Distilling was illegal, but that didn’t matter as the local police force was a customer.
Today, his Maison Sivó Distillery is 100% legitimate and produces this Canadian single malt whisky exclusively from Quebec malted barley. Sivó matures the distillate at 62% abv in new oak barrels and then finishes it in Sauternes wine barrels. This robust whisky abounds with deep cereal notes and toasted grains balanced by a sweet fruity profile that is influenced by oak.
Barrels at Still Waters Distillery / Photo Credit: Blair Phillips
The distillery’s hometown of Turner Valley is a small Alberta hamlet that boomed in 1914 when bubblin’ crude came up from the ground. Those days are gone, but a second gusher arrived when David Farran and Larry Kerwin settled in to make this Canadian single malt whisky. The current release, Batch 003, begins with horse plowed Alberta grown barley. It’s aged in a combination of new European oak and ex-bourbon casks. The whisky hums with grassy barley grain, candied orange rinds and refined peppery spice.
Shelter Point’s Forsythe stills couldn’t be more Scottish, but its whisky, thankfully, tastes like British Columbia barley. Especially this combination for the fourth release containing four-year-old malted and unmalted single grain whisky made with barley harvested from the brand’s own farm. The whisky was finished for 152 days in French oak wine barrels from the Quail’s Gate Estate Winery.
This earthy grain-bomb floods the palate with spiced orange rinds and a distinct cereal quality that rides into a juicy dried fruit finish. These are limited edition whiskies and well worth watching for.
Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen came up with the idea to open their Yukon brewery under the aurora borealis northern lights while on a canoe trip in 1997. Long before Alan and Bob started making beer, people thought those shuddering lights were the spirits of their people. And what better way to quench the thirst of those spirits than to make Canadian single malt whisky and send the angel’s share skyward? Lucky for us, the cold temperature slows evaporation and we don’t need to be on a celestial plane to enjoy these whiskies.
Two Brewers includes this whisky in its “innovative series” portfolio. The pair added some malted rye whisky to create a unique profile that draws on more than one grain. The spiciness of rye with all the nuttiness of mature malted barley whisky is poised and delicious.
Vancouver’s Odd Society distillery has many different whiskies in barrels, but within its small-batch range comes this core release. The whisky is made with malted British Columbia barley and aged in ex-bourbon barrels. Yes, the whisky honors Scotland’s heritage, but the province’s malted barley gives it a Canadian identity. Peppery flavors with cinnamon and wood spice are layered over a sweet backbone. This whisky may be made 4,300 miles from Scotland, but it’s 0 miles from Vancouver, a city that’s become the capital for Canadian single malt.
Editor’s Note: You can read more about these and other Canadian Distilleries in Davin and Blair’s new book, The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries available now wherever books are sold.
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