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.
But as with two of his other majestic achievements – Lot No. 40 and Wiser's Legacy, easily among the two best Canadian whiskies made in my lifetime – Livermore did look to the past for rough inspiration. Where most whiskies are distilled from one, two or at most three types of grain, this contains four: corn, wheat, barley and rye. That last one, all the rage these days, is the spicy accent grain that came to define Canadian whisky even though it usually accounted for only a small portion of the blend with corn or wheat. G&W would have cycled through all four back then, sourced from farmers who traded a portion of their grain to get finished flour in return.
Aged mainly in new 190– litre oak barrels in the manner of Kentucky bourbon (and in contrast to Scotch, which relies on used barrels to downplay the vanilla-caramel influence), the new whisky is relatively mature, with the various components spending an average of 10 or more years in that mellowing wood, much longer than the legally mandated minimum of three years.
"This is right in my wheelhouse," Livermore says. "It's what I like to drink and what I perceive as an excellent-quality Canadian whisky."
I think it's also shrewdly and compellingly aimed at the fashion-conscious consumer of craft bourbons and single malts. The heavy, tall-neck Scotch bottle and well-executed retro label are pitch perfect, as is the spirit's complex and harmonious flavour.
It's also just one in a slew of excellent domestic drams emerging from Canada's newly invigorated and surprisingly agile whisky sector. The other major offering this season, one that over the past couple of weeks has received more than its share of global hype, is Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye ($32.60 in Ontario, $29.79 plus tax in British Columbia). In a shot heard 'round the world, and with a special sting in Scotland, the leading British critic Jim Murray declared Northern Harvest Rye his "World Whisky of the Year" for the 2016 edition of his Whisky Bible.
"To say this is a masterpiece is barely doing it justice," wrote the characteristically effusive Murray, who awarded the liquid 97.5 points out of 100, singling it out for top honour. Most whiskies chosen for the top spot in his annual review have, understandably, been Scottish, though it's been two years since a Scotch brand, Glenmorangie, took the title in 2014 with a special offering called Ealanta.
Not everyone, at least not in Canada, took kindly to the announcement. A headline in London's The Telegraph proclaimed: "Scots left reeling as Canadian whisky named world's best." More disturbing was a piece in The Times of London under the headline "Scots protest as whisky from Canada is named world's best," which cited veteran Edinburgh-based Scotch writer Charles MacLean. "Canadian whisky allows for all sorts of additives, such as prune juice to sweeten it," he was quoted as saying.
If that's what he said, I'd like to give the man – accomplished though he is on the subject of his native dram – a lesson in Canadian whisky production. (And, for starters, he will know that Canada led Scotland by a quarter-century in legally mandating oak-cask maturation, a defining essence of whisky as we know it today.) Besides, I've got a case of Scotch in my cellar with MacLean's good name on it if he can prove there's a drop of prune juice in a sea of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye.
Also, as any whisky geek would know, regulations governing Scottish whisky – last updated as recently as 2009 – continue to permit the use of "caramel colouring E150A." And that's not a legal technicality; the additive is crucial to fine-tuning colour appearance from one batch to the next.
Predictably, Northern Harvest Rye flew off shelves and is in short supply. To be frank, I'm not massively disappointed because I remain a bigger fan of its regal companion, the marvellous Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend ($59.95 in Ontario and $66.99 in British Columbia). I just hope that not every ounce of Northern Harvest Rye and Gooderham & Worts Four Grain will end up in tumblers of Canada Dry. Most of Canada's new premium whiskies are good enough not to need "additives," even if they're not good enough for certain whisky writers.