Philosophical Thoughts on Whisky in Canada

This we trip to Scotland has given me pause for thought. I am struggling with the question – what is whisky?

Technically it is an alcoholic spirit beverage made from barley and other cereal grains. But, the bigger issue is how is it made and to what degree is it elevated?

Technically the definition for Whisky in Canada says that aging 3 years in small wood earns one the right to call it a Canadian Whisky. There is nothing that sets any restrictions on ingredients. A Canadian distiller could use barley, wheat, corn, rye, oats…etc…

The generally accepted protocol seems to be for a big commercial distiller in Canada to bring the distillate off a column still at 95% (almost a Vodka-like material) and then blend that base with distillates of other grains that are perhaps less than 95%. After that, it all gets aged in small wood (casks less than 700 liters), which are oak for the most part. Where this column still notion came from, I do not know. What drove the urgency to create a spirit so clean that it only needed 3 years of aging, I do not know. The 3 years in itself seems to hearken back to Canada’s days as a British colony where the Brits set the laws. But the 3 years is simply a minimum. The urgency is then further added to when one realizes that by Canadian law we can actually add up to 9.09% of other stuff (including wine…) and caramel color. Add artificial flavor and the law says only 2 years of aging is needed. So the next time you are having a Canadian whisky – ask yourself what are you drinking. If the label does not explicitly say how old it is…you might be shocked at what is in that libation. Now I understand why 2 years ago when I was at a spirits conference in London, speaker Dominik Roskrow went on a wicked tirade against Canadian whisky makers, whom he regards as a bunch of mad laboratory scientists.

In Scotland, technically 3 years is also required. But, so many of the distillers have stayed true to the old method of distilling using goose-neck pot stills and then aging for 10,12, 15 years and more. Somehow, this artistry got lost when Canada became a nation.

In the USA, the artistry was partly maintained as the USA became its own nation in 1776. US law demands that bourbon, for example, shall come off the still at 80% or less. Then, law further states that a “new” oak cask shall be used. Then law says the maximum alcohol strength in the aging cask shall be 62.5%. Then the law says, age it 4 years minimum or face the embarrassment of posting an age statement on your label. This has served to elevate the status of American bourbons and whisky’s on the word stage.

And now we have the craft distilling revolution unfolding before our eyes. Craft distillers are relying on our lax laws and are calling their whisky products grain mashes, moonshines, spirit drinks. Some have even found a weakness in the law that technically allows one to call it whisky without even aging it. Excise Canada officials are trying hard to get that “horse back into the barn”. What worse, I see craft distillers now throwing oak sticks and chips into a container to give their so-called whisky some color and oak notes in a hurry. Add some toasted oak chips to some clear distillate sometime and count the days until the liquid is brown, to see what I mean…

These craft distillers, in my not so humble opinion, are making PISS IN A BOTTLE. I am growing ever more worried that the craft movement is going to collapse under its own weight. Consumers in this day and age of readily available information via the internet and easy travel opportunities are getting savvy quickly. I fear they are going to turn their back on craft if craft does not move fast to understand the science behind spirits making. As I caution people in the Distillery Workshops, “Betty Crocker has left the building”. In other words, if you think that making spirits is like baking a cake out of a cardboard box, then maybe craft distilling is NOT for you.

I am now seeing a rumbling of sorts coming from at least one of the big boys. Pernod Ricard owns the Wiser’s brand name and their Vice President is Don Livermore. By the way, Dr. Livermore obtained his pH.D. from Heriot Watt where I am currently working on my M.Sc. Dr. Livermore was quoted in a recent edition of Quench magazine as saying he “hates craft”. I say look out! This is a man who understands the science and who has the corporate horsepower to start bringing some uniquely innovative products to market that will take a nasty swipe at the idea of craft.

So craft people, I say the time to bid farewell to PISS IN A BOTTLE has come. It is time to play the long game and start making whisky that is properly nurtured. The French even have an expression for this. They call it ‘elevage’, meaning to raise or nurture. Forget about running to vendors looking for oak chips from old Scotch barrels and old Bourbon barrels. Get off your lazy asses and embrace science. You want some smokiness in a whisky? Buy some smoked barley with a high phenol content and add it to your mash. How much to add? You figure it out. Betty Crocker has left the building. Better yet, build a little cold smoker and smoke your barley with local woods from your area. Want something that tastes like Bourbon? Never mind adding chips and stuff. Figure out a mash that will give you a nice tasting Bourbon. Better yet – read my book called The Recipe. I give you all that you need. In short – start playing the role of the craftsman. That is what craft distilling is all about. It is not about cutting corners and trying to sneak one by the consumer. The customer is still early in his relationship with craft. Based on the number of craft distillery failures I am now starting to see in the USA, I say this relationship is about to go through a rough spell, even here in Canada.

On on this dire note, I have a wee dram of 15 year old cask strength calling my name. If I listen carefully, I think I can hear choirs of angels singing….

My Faith in Corporate Whisky – Restored……

Last week I was supposed to have done a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, but at the last minute the tour company advised they had to cancel due to the fact I was the only one who had signed up.

Last evening, sitting at my hotel desk writing a term paper on the use of Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy as a tool to help malting companies, an email popped up advising that there would be a Glenkinchie tour today (Oct 13th).

Early this morning, I made my way into Edinburgh and found the tour office. Soon enough the bus arrived and we all boarded. The driver announced that straight away we would be heading to Glenkinchie – a Diageo owned distillery.

What ??????? Oh….no….here we go again I thought. I very nearly got off the bus and called it quits…My Blair Athol experience of earlier in the week was just that bad !

When we arrived at Glenkinchie we were met by our tour guide Gavin and sure enough there were the words I was dreading…” sorry folks, but this is a working distillery, so no cameras allowed…”.

But, Gavin turned out to be extremely knowledgeable and he had a very good presentation manner. And…he answered my questions – even the tough technical ones. At the end, there was none of the Blair Athol high pressure sales crap (as I encountered earlier this week) where you were more or less told what the dram of Scotch tasted like. Gavin was very good and he reminded us that we would all taste something different depending on our taste buds.

To that end…the Glenkinchie 12 year old aged in ex-Bourbon and finished in sherry butts gave me a great big beautiful face-full of fresh raspberries & black currants. Very nice!!

I went so far as to ask Gavin what Diageo products he enjoys when at home. His answer again was very forthright. He apparently drinks Dailuaine Single Malt and Benrinnes Single Malt. He have me a wee taste of both and wow! – I was hearing choirs of angels sing. Needless to say, a bottle of each is coming back to Canada with me. And no, I will not share if you come to visit. You can drink my home-made Bourbon aged 12 months in oak. I will take care of the 15 and 16 year old Dailuaine and Benrinnes.

As I was about to leave, I was introduced to one of the managers on site. I took the time to tell him of my miserable Blair Athol experience. I thanked him for being open with questions and I thanked him for a great tour. I asked Gavin for some corporate photos that I can use in my Workshops and presentations. I hope (fingers crossed, breath held…) that Gavin can find me some.

I am glad I went on today’s tour. My faith in Diageo has been restored. I look forward to visiting other Diageo sites on my next study trip to Heriot Watt in February 2018.

Oh…and by the way…the following photo is of Kinchie Burn, the wee creek from whence some of the distillery water is taken from.

Edradour Distillery – You Gotta Tour Here !

Spending a busy week in Edinburgh holed up in the Library at Heriot Watt University working on assignments for my M.Sc. program. But all work and no play is a bad thing, so I took the time the other day for a couple distillery tours.

Not wanting to get dragged around on a tour bus with other tourists, I contacted Paul Mclean at Mclean Tours and arranged for a private driver / tour guide. Costly? Yes. Worth it? Indeed – worth every pence that I paid. I highly recommend Paul’s company for distillery tours. If possible, ask to see if Andy is available to be your guide and driver.

Our first stop was Edradour near the village of Pitlochry. 30 years ago when I took up Whisky drinking in a serious way, Edradour was my first ever Scotch. I had a great time being toured around by tour guide John and he was very accommodating to me when he found out I was an M.Sc. student at Heriot Watt.

This tiny ( by current corporate standards) makes only 100,000 Liters a year. No wonder I cannot find it in Canada anymore. The mash tank is the old cast iron design from the 1800s. The lautered mash is cooled in a Morton chiller from 80 C to 18 C. The fins shown in the photo following have creek water flowing through them to act as the coolant. The fermenter is made of 3 inch thick Oregon Pine planks. No glycol cooling on this fermenter ! The ferments start at 18 C and at the peak of temperature, the tank is only at 32C, so no harm occurs to the yeast. Distillation is in 2 steps – a wash still run and a spirits still run, 3600 Liters size and 2100 Liters size respectively. In the Distillery Workshops I drive home the point that less surface area in a still allows more heavy molecular weight alcohol molecules to pass into the final distillate. These then take extra time to mature, but they also generate more flavor ( distillates in Scotland usually come off these goose neck stills at 68-70%). Contrast this to Canadian Whiskies where the distillates come off the still at 95%. This then demands the addition of artificial things to make the Canadian Whisky suitable for the customer to mix with Coke. ( I need to be careful here…I may end up wanting to work for one of these big boys when I get the M.Sc. done). But, I digress.

At Edradour, the distillate is aged in ex-bourbon and / or ex-Sherry casks. There is a limit to how often these used casks are re-used. And so there should be a limit, for wood only has so much wood sugar in it to help the Whisky. Again, contrast this to more corporate producers who re-use the casks many, many, many times over.

My favorite ( and I have some in my suitcase…) is 15 yr old, finished in Italian barolo wine casks. And no, I will not be sharing – so stay away !

After Edradour, we went 2 minutes up the road to Blair Athol Distillery. Owned by Diageo, this was corporate to the core. Everything our tour guide Jill uttered was carefully scripted – I dare say by the top dogs at head office. Photography was forbidden. My technical questions were avoided and evaded. I was dis-heartened to say the least. What would be wrong with a couple pics and a few straight answers to some serious questions. Anyhow, guess which Scotch I WILL NOT be bringing home with me!

This tight lipped, stuffy corporate attitude at Blair Athol really ruined my day. As I think about it more deeply, I suppose this corporate attitude is what is driving the craft movement around the world. So sad that the “suits” at head offices just don’t get it…

Anyhow, back to the Library now to do more research into yeast metabolic pathways and also beer spoilage microorganisms.

I plan to tour a few more non-corporate distilleries in February when I am back here. And – yes it will be Paul McLean and his crew that will be taking me around.