Whisky Advocate

Part One: Lost in Alberta

June 25th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin De Kergommeaux, Dave Broom and Lew Bryson hit the prairies in search of real Canadian whisky. Lew brings you along for the ride.

Our Canadian whisky reviewer, Davin de Kergommeaux, contacted Dave Broom and I a couple months ago about a trip to visit Canadian whisky distilleries, sponsored by the Association of Canadian Distillers. We were eager to learn more about the Canadian whisky tradition—especially after reading Davin’s excellent book, Canadian Whisky—so the second week of June saw the three of us, and the Association’s president, Jan Westcott, converging on Calgary.

I landed first…and realized Davin and I had made no plans on how to meet. My emergency plan worked: sitting in an armchair beside the baggage carousels till Davin walked by. We picked up the rental car and drove to our motel in downtown Calgary, where we ran into a colorful demonstration against the government. The Ethiopian government. Didn’t make sense to me, either, but Davin waded right into it—they politely held the door for him, it is Canada—we dropped our luggage in the rooms, and headed to a well-recommended spot, Beer Revolution, to meet friends of mine for pints and pizza. Or at least, I did, and Davin headed back to the airport to get Dave. They got lost on the way back; it was a precursor.

The next morning we met up with Jan, who was going to lead us to Alberta Distillers Ltd., our first stop. We saw some nice neighborhoods, the Bow River, one really nice neighborhood under construction — we were lost. After some quick discussion, we were off again, and found the place, off in an industrial area, surrounded by magpies. We learned about enzyme creation and the difficulties of 100% rye distillation, and tasted Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old, two wonderful limited release whiskies that are vanished from the shelves, and Dark Horse, a 45% NAS kicker that was just stuffed with flavor, a very lively whisky indeed. (More to come on Canadian distilling in an upcoming issue of the magazine; we’re just having some fun here).

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

After lunch, we headed south across the prairie, the Rockies in the distance to our right, rye fields all around us. We stopped at one, Tom Riehs’s farm—I’d asked Davin to see a rye field, and he delivered!—and Tom was good enough to take us out to see the field, stand in it, see what rye looks like and how it grows. He told us that it was just young at this point, up to our knees, but when it was ready for harvest, it would be almost head-high. He also told us that fewer farmers are growing rye—a variety of reasons; his son’s probably not going to grow rye when he takes over because he doesn’t want to raise cattle, and pasturing them in the rye is part of the process—which doesn’t bode well for whisky.

Back in the car, and as we approached the turnoff for Lethbridge at Fort MacLeod, Jan said he had to stop to stretch his legs, and started going on about a great hamburger he’d had in the bus depot in Fort MacLeod. He went looking for it. We didn’t find it—it had closed about five years earlier, and to be honest, it looked like a lot of the rest of the town was waiting to join it—but we did stop and tour the recreation of Fort MacLeod, home of the North West Mounted Patrol, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: the Mounties. It was a great tour, with Mountie memorabilia, photos, and a gift shop…where Jan found that one of the women who worked there used to be a waitress at the bus depot. He was overjoyed.

We drove on to Lethbridge, and I took over the directions: we rolled straight to our motel, where we discovered a tiki-type bar in their central courtyard, which was full of tikisemi-tropical plants, water, a piano, and cast-iron alligators. We had to have a drink! I got a rummy-pineapple concoction (with umbrella; Dave insisted on getting a picture: “For evidence.”), Davin had a beer, and Dave got a daiquiri (Waitress with permanent smile: “What flavor would you like?” Dave, wary: “Daiquiri flavor.”). After a long walk for a nice dinner (and a continuing enjoyment of Calgary-brewed Big Rock Traditional ale), we called it a night.

We set out across town for Black Velvet the next morning. After our misadventures with directions, I was prepared with a mapped-out route to the distillery. It was great, until we hit a roadblock and detour on the main road that dumped us onto the road out of town, in the wrong direction. We were cursed! Davin found a quick route back through a nature preserve, and we took side streets to Black Velvet.

They really rolled out the red carpet—all the distillers did—and opened every door, answered every question, even the sticky ones. For instance, why do they feed the heads of the distillation process back into the fermenters? The compounds in the heads induce the shutdown of certain metabolic paths in the yeast, which keeps them focused on alcohol production; they’re getting 14-15% ABV in fermentation. We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).

Then we got to taste the Danfield’s 10 and 21 Year Old, at which Jan protested in mock fury: “No, they can’t taste them, and they can’t have them outside of Canada!” We’d already discovered that Canada does indeed keep “the good stuff,” and we were intrigued. The Danfield’s whiskies intensified that, full of fresh-sawn oak and cedar notes, vanilla, and sweet warm cereal, delicious without the cloying sweetness of some younger, export Canadians. We wanted them, and Jan wasn’t letting go!

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

We had overstayed in our curiosity, and the rest of the day would be a rush. We grabbed a quick but delicious lunch at a local taphouse, then went to Fort Whoop-Up, an old “whisky fort” where sharp traders swapped diluted grain alcohol-based “whisky” to the natives for furs; it was another thing the Mounties were formed to monitor.

Then we zoomed across the prairie to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site where native peoples without effective weapons had craftily stampeded buffalo over a cliff for food and materiel for millennia; the last such hunt took place only 120 years ago. Our guide, Edwin, was a Blackfoot, and even though we got there just before closing, took us up to the cliff site, showed us the herbs the hunters used to disguise their scent, and—really—beat a drum and sang a Blackfoot song for us. It was a fierce moment, and a great experience, with a tremendous view of the vast Alberta prairies.

The next day we would see a third Alberta distillery, then head east…to Windsor.

12 Responses to “Part One: Lost in Alberta”

  1. Tadas A says:

    Great story. Thank you.
    What are the difficulties of using 100% rye distillation?
    I’ve heard that Alberta Distillers are using 100% unmalted rye. Why aren’t they using malted rye? What enzymes do Alberta Distillers use for rye mash fermentation?
    What percentage of aged GNS do Canadian distillers use in their blends?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      According to ADL, rye is a more complex grain than malted barley or corn: les starch, and a stickiness in the cell wall material. They use direct add of enzymes for conversion rather than malt (and to cut down on foaming in fermentation); the enzymes are all propagated at ADL, on rye. We asked what enzymes…a variety, was the essential answer.

      The amount of aged “base whisky” (as ADL calls the high-proof spirit) varies in each bottling, and at each distillery. It’s such a different process, and approach to blending, that the question is almost meaningless except in a Canadian whisky context. It would be similar to asking how much sour mash backset is used in Scotch whisky. I have a much different impression of “base whisky” or “neutral spirit” now, I’ll say that much.

  2. Dan says:

    You may want to fact check with Davin on the line here that states “We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).” He’s been pretty adamant in his book and in discussions online that there are no GNS (or Neutral Grain Spirits) in Canadian whisky. There are higher proof base whiskies that are aged, as are all Canadian whiskies, for a minimum of three years, but there are no GNS.

    • Tadas A says:

      Dan, if you are using the American terminology, there is no such thing as “higher proof base whiskies”. They are called “grain spirits” by TTB – neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.

      • Dan says:

        Tadas, I’m using Canadian terminology, and the base whiskies used by Canadian distillers in the blending process aren’t distilled to the level where they would be considered Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS), and they are aged, as are the flavouring whiskies, for at least three years. This myth that Canadian whisky contains GNS, is something Davin has been tirelessly trying to dispel (see page 58 of his book ‘Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert’, where he is very clear on the issue), which was why I was surprised to see it pop up here, too.

        • Lew Bryson says:

          Dan, the base whisky was repeatedly referred to as GNS and “neutral spirit” at Black Velvet, and it comes off the rectifying column at 96%. It IS aged: the high wines are aged for 2 years “then blended w/new GNS, proofed to 77% and barreled for 3 yrs.” (quote is from my notes, not a BV document)

          The spirit in question is not purchased GNS, of course, but distilled there in Lethbridge. But unless I drastically misunderstood what I was told, and wrote down the wrong thing ten or more times in my notebook — which IS possible — it was called GNS at the distillery.

          • Dan says:

            Thanks for the clarification, although I find it interesting that they’d refer to it as ‘neutral spirits’; I guess we are cutting a thin line between distiller produced base spirits that are subsequently aged to meet Canadian legal requirements and used for blending purposes in Canada, and non-aged GNS that is sourced for blending purposes by a non-distiller producer as per American regulations…I imagine your notes far more accurately reflect what was said than my mad ramblings, as you were there taking said notes, and I’m just reading a summary of what was likely a very in depth technically oriented discussion.

          • Lew Bryson says:

            No worries, Dan. I’ve since looked at the handout we got from the distillery — Black Velvet — and it says: “The high wines are fed into the E.D. (Extractive Distillation) Column, which purifies the alcohol, and then into the R. C. (Rectifying Column) which concentrates the alcohol further to a concentration of 95.5% to 96.5% by volume. R.O. water is added to the alcohol to dilute it to 94%. This highly concentrated alcohol called Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS) is stored in various receivers until it is used by the blending plant.”

            Kind of a relief: I was pretty sure they’d said GNS, but I was starting to doubt myself! I think — think! — they also said that they sell some of the GNS as a commodity, but I may have got that wrong; I feel less sure on that.

            In any case, the aged GNS is NOT just brown vodka. Like I said, I learned a lot on this jaunt, and that was part of it. More in the next installment!

          • sam k says:

            I’m probably missing something here, but I’m curious why distillate run off at +95%, referred to by the distiller as grain neutral spirit, and aged in “various receivers” is not “brown vodka?” That’s exactly what it sounds like, given your detailed description.

          • Lew Bryson says:

            Well, that’s a semantic issue, Sam! What I meant was that despite the derogatory tag of “brown vodka” for Canadian whisky; it’s got a LOT more flavor than I expected, more than I’ve been led to believe by other whisky distillers. That’s all.

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