We love rye, but that's not all there is to Canadian hooch: A new wave of risk-tasking distillers are aging rum in historical fortresses and flavouring vodka with a hint of honey. Christine Sismondo tastes a fresh batch of innovative liquors from sea to sea (and up in the Yukon, too)
Photo illustration by Ben Barrett-Forrest/The Globe and Mail
This is the year of Canadian whisky. Not to mention Canadian vodka, gin and rum.
When Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye scooped the coveted 2016 Whisky of the Year title from spirits critic Jim Murray last November, liquor enthusiasts from around the world seemed a bit confused.
We're not a country that's famous for our barrel-aging techniques after all – and that's unfortunate. There are hundreds of innovative products being launched across the country, and plenty of bottles to get excited about.
Happily, the Crown Royal crown has begun turning international attention away from the bourbon boom, agave spirits and other hyped-up trends toward our emerging and dynamic industry. Canada is definitely ready for its close-up.
British Columbia is, far and away, the vanguard. "It's insane right now," says Shawn Soole, bar manager at Olo in Victoria. "I think we have 48 distilleries open now and should have about 65 by the end of this year. So it's a huge boom."
Soole, who's writing a book about B.C.'s craft spirits movement, admits not every single spirit is fantastic but says this is a sign of necessary risk-taking, as people learn to master distillation and aging.
He thinks this culture of iconoclastic rule-breaking has led to some of the province's most excellent and boundary-pushing spirits."One that's kind of cool is Wayward Distillation in Courtenay, that only makes honey-based spirits," he says. "Who goes out and makes vodka with honey? It's a pretty expensive ingredient to start with. And it's not an easy task to ferment. It's actually an insane thing to do."
The dynamism in B.C. isn't merely about the ingredients, it's also about the establishment of a spirited community. Distilleries in Vancouver, Victoria and the Okanagan are working together to develop a tourist trail, so that ambitious tasters can visit several picturesque craft spirits producers in a single day. On Vancouver Island, for example, distilleries range from those set in rolling hills overlooking small towns to dramatic waterfront facilities.
The rest of the country isn't slacking off. Alberta recently reduced its minimum-capacity rules, so it's no longer illegal for small producers to start with any output of less than 5,000 hectolitres per year. This is making it possible for the upstart Eau Claire distillery in the Turner Valley to lay down some spirit, and it's now maturing Canada's first farm-to-glass single malt whisky.
In February, Yukon's Two Brewers made history with a limited release of the first single malt whisky produced in the region, which also boasts several small distilleries making small-batch gin and vodka.
Bragging rights for Canada's first craft single malt (launched in 2013) belong to the Toronto area's Still Waters, which also produces a spicy rye and a complex blend, expressions that suggest this distillery is one to watch. And from Ontario's Niagara region comes the bartenders' favourite Dillon's Distillers.
The next big thing, though, is probably likely to originate in the Maritimes. There's Glenora, a pioneering spirits company that got into the whisky business in 1990 – long before it was fashionable. There's also a variety of new gins from the region and a serious move to produce artisanal rum, the spirit of choice on the East Coast.
"There's a company making a rum called Fortress Rum that's actually aged in the Fortress of Louisbourg," says Jeffrey Van Horne, bar manager at Halifax's cocktail-forward restaurant Lot Six, "The oldest fortress that guarded Cape Breton is now housing rum."
The Fortress Rum project – done in partnership with Parks Canada – ages Caribbean rum in oak barrels at the 18th-century historic site.
Last year also marked the inaugural Nova Scotia Craft Spirits festival, a weekend organized in part by Ironworks, the first craft distillery to open in the region.
"Any bartender that's really serious about the craft will understand that having a bottle from a local distillery on the back bar is a great tool to expose someone to something new, to expose them to this idea that great things are happening here in Nova Scotia," Van Horne says.
An idea, it seems, that the international spirits community is finally ready to listen to.
Bottles to try
In Western Canada
Even though Unruly Gin from Vancouver Island's Wayward Distillation is distilled from honey, there's actually only a hint of sweetness in this rich and slightly viscous spirit. waywarddistillationhouse.com
Stump Coastal Forest Gin from Victoria is infused with fir trees and described by some as tasting like a walk through an old-growth forest – in a good way. phillipsbeer.com/stump-gin
Defender Island Smoked Rosemary Gin from Penticton's Legend Distilling is rich in botanicals, herbs and, of course, smoky goodness. legenddistilling.com
Pemberton's Schramm, a potato-based gin seasoned with local hops, has garnered some serious critical acclaim. pembertondistillery.ca
Taboo Absinthe by Okanagan Spirits is a subtle, traditional product that has the honour of being Canada's first contribution to the revival of legal absinthe. okanaganspirits.com
Cobble Hill's Merridale Estate Ciderworks produces an excellent Apple Oh de Vie as well as a nice Pear Brandy. merridalecider.com
Vancouver's Odd Society Spirits just released a legitimately great Bittersweet Vermouth, inspired by an old Italian recipe. oddsocietyspirits.com
Yukon's Two Brewers recently made history by releasing 850 bottles of the territory's first single malt whisky. twobrewerswhisky.com
Eau Claire Distillery's single malt is still maturing in Alberta's Turner Valley – in the meantime, we can content ourselves with its award-winning Parlour Gin. eauclairedistillery.ca
Dill Pickle Vodka might sound like something you'd do on a dare, but the acclaimed spirit by Saskatchewan's Last Mountain is brilliant in a Caesar. lastmountaindistillery.com
In Central Canada
Dillon's Distillers in Ontario is well-known for its botanical-forward products and has recently launched the standout Dry Gin 7. dillons.ca
Gilead in Prince Edward County, Ont., has a light and bouncy Duck Island rum that's surprisingly complex with fruity accents. 66gileaddistillery.com
Genever almost always comes from the Netherlands or Belgium, a fact that might change thanks to Gin de Neige, made on a quaint cidrerie in southern Quebec. lafacecachee.com
Montreal bartenders are having a lot of fun with locally distilled Romeo's gin, which balances floral complexity with fresh, cool cucumber. romeosgin.com
In Atlantic Canada
New Brunswick's Distillerie Fils de Roy makes Gin Thuya, a bold juniper-forward gin that's perfectly suitable for straight sipping or mixing with tonic.
Aside from its renowned Cranberry Liqueur, Nova Scotia's pioneering Ironworks makes a Bluenose Black Rum that took top honours at the 2014 World Rum Awards in London. It makes a killer dark 'n' stormy. ironworksdistillery.com
Prince Edward Distillery makes a lovely, award-winning potato vodka, putting the island's most notable crop to good use. princeedwarddistillery.com