For Caitlin Quinn, the prospect of a career as a single-malt distiller might have seemed a logical marriage of geography and her interest in science. After graduating in chemistry from the University of Glasgow a few years ago, she realized that, despite her talent for the discipline, spending the next 40 years in a lab coat held little allure. So, she traversed the Lowlands to Edinburgh for a master's degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University, the top school for careers in whisky making.
"I pretty much decided from an early age I was going to do something science-related, and from there it morphed into being a distiller," Quinn said in a rich Scottish brogue. What she did not foresee was that she'd end up making her single malt in Alberta.
Now 26, Quinn didn't waste time becoming a master distiller. That's her title at Eau Claire Distillery in Turner Valley, a small operation 30 minutes southwest of Calgary, which launched its first whisky late last year. She landed the job when Eau Claire co-founder David Farran tapped Heriot-Watt for a graduate to replace brewing-industry veteran and eager-to-retire partner Larry Kerwin in the distilling role.
It turns out Quinn came with a fast-track asset, too: dual citizenship. Although raised in Scotland, she was born in Winnipeg to a Scottish mother, who resettled back in the motherland when Quinn was 18 months old.
These days, Quinn might be considered the new face – and accent-appropriate champion – of Canadian single malt, a small but growing whisky category based on a distinctively Scottish playbook. There are at least 13 establishments producing the style in Canada, according to Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert. The field includes early pioneer Glenora in Cape Breton, N.S., and such relatively recent names as Shelter Point on Vancouver Island, Victoria Caledonian in Victoria, Pemberton Distillery on the British Columbia mainland and Fils du Roy Distillery in Petit-Paquetville, N.B.
While none of it would be mistaken for storied Scottish brands, such as Glenmorangie or Highland Park, de Kergommeaux applauds the efforts. "I don't think they're going to have an awful lot of luck producing Scotch," he said. "However, they are producing single-malt whisky that I think is very enjoyable."
Based on my samplings, including Eau Claire's fine first release (barely more than 1,000 bottles sold out to distillery club members before it was packaged), I'd say the category has a promising future.
Although Canada has long been a major player in grain-based brown spirits, embodied by such global brands as J.P. Wiser's, Canadian Club and Crown Royal, for more than a century the vast majority of its output has relied chiefly on mellow corn, with spicy rye and other grains in a supporting role.
Against that landscape, domestic craft producers, whose first whiskies started to trickle from barrels in a significant way only in the past five years, generally have displayed a stronger, aspirational allegiance to the more robust and earthy flavours of fashionable single-malt Scotch.
"When we started, our focus was entirely on single malt," said Barry Bernstein, co-owner with Barry Stein of Still Waters Distillery, Ontario's oldest microdistillery, based just outside Toronto. The two partners, both Scotch aficionados, began distilling in 2009 and released the first of their generally excellent wood-matured whiskies in 2012. "We were singular in our thinking."
For others, barley was simply the pragmatic grain choice, at least in the case of microdistillers that sprouted out of craft-beer operations. In the beer world, malted barley – not corn, rye or wheat – is the key commodity.
At Central City Brewers and Distillers in Surrey, B.C., both factors came into play. "It was a passion of mine," said brewmaster and partner Gary Lohin, who persuaded a group of other partners to incorporate European copper stills into the business plan in 2013 as the brewery expanded to a new facility.
The line, called Lohin McKinnon in homage to Lohin as well as head distiller Stuart McKinnon, even comes in bulbous-necked bottles that evoke more than a few Scottish brands. "That was by design," Lohin said.
While the term Scotch enjoys legal protection, the generic descriptor "single malt" does not. It has, however, become the global standard to denote Scottish-style whiskies made – forgive the geekspeak – at a single distillery entirely from malted grains, usually barley, in individual batches in copper-pot stills, versus continuously operating column stills. Numerous distilleries in Japan, India, Taiwan, Australia and elsewhere have adopted the term for such liquids, as have many small distilleries in the United States where corn-based bourbon is not the only whisky on offer.
At Yukon Brewing in Whitehorse, distilling was hardly a distant dream for co-owners Bob Baxter and Alan Hansen when they started making beer two decades ago. Baxter says it was Hansen's chemical-engineering background that prompted them to tinker with the alcohol once they had mastered the art of barley fermentation. But they decided to dive in deep, waiting for their first distillate to mature for seven years in oak (four years longer than the legal minimum for Canadian whisky) before releasing it in 2016.
"We wanted it to be as good as most single malts on the market," Hansen said of the brand, called Two Brewers. Patience paid off. Their bottling called "Release 05: Innovative" was awarded an impressive 94-point score by Britain-based writer Jim Murray in the 2018 edition of his annual Whisky Bible. "What a classy, complex, truly brilliant whisky this is," Murray wrote. "Take a bow, good people of the Yukon."
Both Lohin at Central City and Baxter at Yukon believe brewers have at least one advantage over bonafide Scotch producers. They have experience experimenting with malts roasted to varying degrees, from pale varieties to "chocolate" or "black" malts used in darker beers. That's not been the tradition in Scottish distilling, where such priorities as germination and fermentation performance trump whatever flavours various roasting levels might impart.
But there's a well-worn contention that quality whisky derives most of its flavour from contact with wood barrels as it matures, not from source grain. De Kergommeaux notes that Canada's offerings today generally are far younger than Scotland's. Eau Claire's, for example, spent slightly more than three years in oak, a stark contrast to the 10-plus years for most top Scottish malts.
And there are other inherent differences, including climate (heat and humidity have a big impact on the maturation process) and the craft industry's much smaller stills.
So, Canada's Scotch wannabes may have to play up other distinctions. Caitlin Quinn says she was gratified to learn that Eau Claire grows some of its own barley. That's certainly not the case with most Scottish counterparts. It even harvests grain by horse in Wild West fashion.
Located on the provincial highway called the Cowboy Trail, Eau Claire also distills on the premises of a 1920s movie theatre. The tasting room and kitchen sit on the site of the old town brothel, Quinn says, adding that it took time adjusting to Western customs after she arrived. "There's, like, genuine cowboys out here," she said.
"It was a big learning curve when I first came out. Everybody owns a pair of cowboy boots. It just doesn't happen like that in Glasgow."
Cowboy Scotch. It's got a ring to it, don't you think?