Canada is making some of the world’s best whisky

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Globe and Mail/BEPPI CROSARIOL

This may cause a few whisky aficionados to roll their eyes, but bear with me: I’m working up to something. Don Livermore, the master blender behind Wiser’s and several other fine Canadian spirit brands, likes to describe our home and native hooch as “the most innovative whisky category there is.”

I know. I’d chuckle, too, if my impression of the drink were built solely on its more static past, when the insult “brown vodka” was not always unjustified. But Livermore didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. Nor did he hit his head on a grain harvester. He’s got a PhD in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which means he knows more about fermentation and carboxylic acids than your average still operator. (And don’t get him started on yeast infections because he’ll never stop, which I imagine makes him popular at parties.)

He’s also well steeped in laws governing whisky production around the world. Canada’s rules, he says, offer far more latitude for experimentation than do those of U.S. bourbon, Scottish single malt or Irish whiskey. Our distillers are free, for example, to vary the type, size and age of wooden barrels they use. They can employ various distilling techniques. And they can select any combination of grain, be it corn, rye, wheat or barley.

Fortunately for me, the good doctor likes to illustrate his points with examples, and his examples tend to taste really good. He drove his innovation point home to me the other week as we sat in a booth at Pure Spirits Oyster House & Grill in Toronto’s Distillery District. The restaurant forms part of a sprawling urban-renewal complex that was once home to Gooderham & Worts, now defunct but reputed to have been, for a period around 1900, the largest distillery in the world. According to the fascinating book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux, G&W was turning out two million gallons of whisky a year.

We didn’t slurp oysters but we did slurp whisky. Livermore’s teaching prop was his latest baby, a superb new blend called none other than Gooderham & Worts. Though production at the Toronto location ceased long ago, the corporate name was legally retained, as were those of other Canadian whisky pioneers like J.P. Wiser, as part of a stable now controlled by Corby Spirit and Wine, a company affiliated with French drinks giant Pernod Ricard.

Livermore makes the new whisky ($44.90 in Ontario) at Corby’s main facility in Windsor, Ont., and notes that it was not reproduced from an original 19th-century recipe. In the early days of Gooderham & Worts, which was founded as a grain mill, whisky would have been made with “middlings,” or essentially the sometimes stale or rodent-infested leftovers of flour production. It also would not have been mellowed for years in quality oak barrels, a key requirement today.

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