Class was in session Thursday afternoon as Davin de Kergommeaux stood at the head of a table in the Hotel Grand Pacific’s Saturna Room. De Kergommeaux, Ottawa-based author of Canadian Whisky: the portable expert (2012), quickly turned the wee, windowless hall, into a place of Canadian whisky lore.
Lined up in front of de Kergommeaux was a flight of five bottles from the premium Canadian whiskies category, through which he gracefully and knowledgeably guided a dozen of us, one dram at a time.
We nosed. We sampled. He talked.
“A lot of people wonder what they need to do to taste whisky,” de Kergommeaux said. “I tell people, if you can taste bacon, you can taste whisky.”
The tasting started with Crown Royal Black, a complex blend of 50 different whiskies from within Crown Royal’s distillery in Gimli, Man. But all eyes were on the third glass in the flight, Forty Creek’s Heart of Gold from Grimsby, Ont., and the fifth and final glass, Corby’s Lot No. 40 from Hiram Walker in Windsor, Ont. He also served Masterton’s Straight Rye Whisky and Alberta Premium’s Dark Horse.
The Crown Royal Black stood up well considering it went first, the so-called death seat. Putting Corby’s Lot No. 40 last in the flight was mostly due to its being named the 2014 Canadian Whisky of the year at the Canadian Whisky Awards banquet in Victoria on Friday (Jan. 17). Despite Corby’s impressive consistency with the judging panel’s results, de Kergommeaux feels a case for could have been made for Forty Creek’s Heart of Gold in top spot.
But the true point of the exercise was to hustle a few of us rookies into the world of Canadian whisky – a talk that settled on the world of Man Men, 10 minutes in.
“Don Draper has had a huge affect on the current whisky trend,” de Kergommeaux said.
But even before the show, in which Canadian Club is doled out as frequently as a 1960s substitute for coffee, premiered in 2007, American bourbon makers had anticipated a trend towards bolder flavours. Many were three to five years into the shift. The trend took hold north of the border too, though personally, I was sipping from my first bottle of bourbon when I finally watched my first episode of Mad Men in 2009.
“The trend is towards much bolder, complex flavours with Canadian whiskies and the growth in sales is amazing. And the growth isn’t with the value whiskies. People are drinking the premium whiskies.”
But Draper’s go-to libation, Canadian Club, is the hallmark of the value price range in Canada. And the iconic drink won the lottery with that product placement, said de Kergommeaux.
But until recently, he added, there was little reason to defend the low quality of the six year old Canadian Club, even with its worldwide sales. Which is why CC’s recent transformation has been nothing short of miraculous. “Just five years ago it was little more than a ‘bar rail’ bottle and now Canadian Club is a sipping whisky. They’ve put it into new barrels and are giving it so much character that despite dropping the distillation process to just five years, they’ve made it a much better whisky. I was very surprised.”
Draper would be too. Even with a legendary reputation, Canadian Club was among the reasons one U.S. spirits columnist, albeit in a naive moment, called Canadian whiskies brown vodka.
“These whiskies are not the mellow, smooth whiskies of old but you know what? Those days are over anyways,” de Kergommeaux said.
While we brooded back and forth between Lot No. 40 and Forty Creek’s Heart of Gold, it was noted that Forty Creek’s value line of Barrel Select is popping off the shelves across the country, and would hold up just fine were it to compete above its price range, de Kergommeaux said.
And it’s not just the straight pours that are drawing people to whisky. Draper’s time at the bar and business dinners in a dimly-lit booth have push mixed whisky drinks like the Old Fashioned into new fashion.
“Bartenders love the bold whiskies that can hold up in a mixed whisky drink. They’re hugely popular.”
For full transparency: my flight was not finished. Nor was anyone’s. I did finish the bottle of water.
My pick was the Forty Creek Heart of Gold.
Here are the full results of the Canadian Whisky Awards:
Whisky of the Year – Lot No. 40
Connoisseur Whisky of the Year Best New Whisky – Forty Creek Heart of Gold
Connoisseur Whisky of the Year Domestic Market – Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Connoisseur Whisky of the Year Multi Market – Lot No. 40
Sippin’ Whisky of the Year Domestic Market – Last Mountain Private Reserve
Sippin’ Whisky of the Year Export Market – Canadian Rockies 10 Years Old
Sippin’ Whisky of the Year Multi Market – Royal Canadian
Whisky Value of the Year Domestic Market – Canada Gold
Whisky Value of the Year Multi Market – Canadian 83
Award of Excellence Canadian Whisky Profile – John K. Hall Forty Creek Distillery
Award of Excellence New Distillery of the Year – Still Waters – to acknowledge the release of Stalk & Barrel – the first Canadian micro-distilled single malt whisky in recent years.
Award of Excellence – Innovation 35 Maple Street for the release of Masterson’s 100% wheat and 100% barley whiskies.
Award of Excellence Line Extension Kruger/Mondia for Spicebox Pumpkin Spiced Whisky
Flavoured Whisky of the Year Domestic Market – Forty Creek Cream
Flavoured Whisky of the Year Export Market – Wiser’s Spiced No. 5
Flavoured Whisky of the Year Multi Market – Crown Royal Maple
Award of Excellence Flavoured Whisky of the Year – Forty Creek Cream
Lot No. 40
Forty Creek Heart of Gold
Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Masterson’s 10-year-old Straight Rye Whiskey
Wiser’s Red Letter
Crown Royal Black
Masterson’s 12-year-old Straight Wheat Whiskey
Forty Creek Cream
Sortilège Maple Cream
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve
Crown Royal Limited Edition
Canadian Club Classic 12
Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old
Wiser’s Small Batch
Pike Creek 10 Year Old
Crown Royal Cask 16
Rich & Rare Reserve
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
Crown Royal Reserve
Canadian Rockies Ten
Last Mountain Private Reserve
Forty Creek Copper Pot
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18 year old
Pike Creek NAS
Sortilège Maple Cream
Legacy Small Batch
Canadian Club Sherry Cask
Crown Royal DeLuxe
Canadian Club Reserve Triple Aged
Masterson’s 10-year-0ld Straight Barley
Sortilège Prestige 7 years old
JP Wiser’s Spiced No. 5 (US)
Crown Royal Maple Finished
Spicebox Pumpkin Spiced Whisky
Spicebox Spiced Whisky
Forty Creek Barrel Select
Stalk & Barrel single malt Cask 8
Canadian Club Premium
Collingwood Canadian Whisky
Ninety 5 Year Old
J.P. Wiser’s Rye
Gibson’s Finest 12 Years
Gibson’s Finest Sterling
Spicebox Cinnamon Whisky
Wiser’s Spiced Whisky (Canada)
About the Canadian Whisky Awards
The Canadian Whisky Awards recognize the very best Canadian whiskies and encourage distillers to maintain the highest standards for making whisky. To qualify, whiskies must be distilled and matured in Canada. An independent panel of whisky writers, bloggers, and journalists selects the winners after tasting each whisky blind. Operated on a not-for-profit basis, the Canadian Whisky Awards are fully independent of the Canadian whisky industry.
The Judges: Johanne McInnis, New Brunswick, Jason Debly, New Brunswick, André Girard, Quebec, Mark Gillespie, USA, Kris Shoemaker, Ontario, Chip Dykstra, Alberta, Blair Phillips, Ontario, Graham MacKenney, New Brunswick, Davin de Kergommeaux, Ontario.