A Whirlwind Canadian Whisky TourMay 16th, 2014
Davin de Kergommeaux is a tireless chronicler of Canadian whisky, and one of his best attributes is that he very much wants to share the good news. Here he takes Whisky Advocate writers Dave Broom and David Wondrich along on a tour of some big Canadian distilleries: Crown Royal (Gimli and Valleyfield) and Canadian Mist.
I meet Dave Broom at the baggage carousel at Winnipeg airport. Dave’s flown in from England for a first-hand look at Canadian whisky, beginning at Crown Royal’s distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, 55 miles north of here on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
It may well be May, but the ice lies thick on the lake. That’s fitting. In the late 19th century, Icelanders fleeing volcanoes and other woes settled here. The very name Gimli is Icelandic for “Haven From Hellfire,” and this haven feels like the coldest place on earth to make whisky.
Jan Westcott from the industry group Spirits Canada joins us as we head to the plant where twelve massive columns produce 90,000 liters of five different distillates daily. Local Manitoba corn is used for continuous base whisky, producing a light, sweet, and nutty flavor with a floral essence. It comes off the still at 94.6% ABV and turns crisp, woody, and spicy after 8 years in barrel.
A second, batch base whisky contributes Crown’s signature creaminess. Batch base starts with the same all-corn mash as continuous base and is distilled to the same ABV, but in a column and kettle still. Low wines boil in a large sideways pot, which slowly feeds vapors up a tall 54-inch diameter column where heads and tails are discarded. Already creamy as new make, with hints of juicy fruit and butterscotch, 8 years in wood adds cedar, grapefruit pith, and nutty elements. With skillful additions of flavoring whisky, these bases become seven expressions of Crown Royal.
Rye flavoring comes from a mash of 95% rye and 5% barley malt, and corn flavoring from a mash of 65% corn/30% rye/5% malt. Both are distilled in a beer still to 64% ABV.
The pièce de résistance is the Coffey rye. Distilled to a low ABV, it transforms into stunning rye whisky after 11 years in wood. Remarkably, it’s made from the same mash bill as the corn (yes, corn) flavoring, but distilled in an improvised Coffey-style still transported from Seagram’s shuttered Waterloo distillery. Each of the three flavoring whiskies is fermented using proprietary yeasts grown on-site. Corn and rye flavoring mature in 80% new wood barrels and 20% one-time bourbon dumpers, Coffey rye matures in new wood.
Dropping by the Icelandic Museum we sample Icelandic hard fish, washed down with Brennivin – Black Death. Then, Toronto, 1,400 miles to the east where we meet David Wondrich and drive north to Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood.
Distillery manager David Dobbin guards the secret mash recipes carefully, but clearly there are several. The base is made from local corn and barley malt, the flavoring from corn, barley malt, and Ontario rye, all fermented using proprietary liquid yeast. Canadian Mist and Collingwood whiskies are distilled in a single beer still and two columns inside a tiny stillhouse.
Production at Canadian Mist is increasing, evidenced by rows of new barrels in a warren of twelve cinder block warehouses under a common roof. Forklifts thread pallets of newly filled barrels down long narrow rows. Others transport mature whisky for dumping. This involves drilling holes in the heads then vacuuming out the whisky, four barrels at a time. In winter the warehouses are heated to 50° F for continuous maturation. Once blended, Collingwood is shipped to Woodford Reserve for bottling, while Canadian Mist is bottled in Louisville, by Brown-Forman.
In the lab we sample Canadian Mist. “Highly improved,” declares Wondrich. Next: Collingwood. Suddenly, quality control manager Don Jaques pulls out a bottle of cask-strength Collingwood 21 year old rye. Dobbin’s eyes widen. “Where’d you get that?” he asks.
“I kept a few extra retains,” Jaques grins, as glasses are thrust forward faster than any last-call tippler at a whisky show. Rich, spicy, and smooth, with hints of ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate, you wish they’d bottled this one-batch-only 100% rye-grain whisky at more than 40%.
That evening, Wondrich introduces us to Normie’s, a recently renovated, brightly lit dive whose owner, Janet, overhears our discussion of libations. “Last time I drank tequila I ended up in handcuffs, and not for a good reason,” she confesses. Wiser’s it is, we decide. Next morning it’s Montreal, 400 miles east.
Distillery manager Martin Laberge greets us at Valleyfield, Diageo’s other Canadian distillery, outside Montreal. Each day, 200 employees turn 260 metric tons of corn into the annual equivalent of 28 million liters of pure alcohol. In classically Québecois-French style, this distillery is a long narrow strip of 22 buildings stretching back from the road.
Valleyfield makes base whiskies only, importing flavoring whiskies from Gimli for the Diageo blends made on site, including V.O., Five Star, and Crown Royal Maple. They also bottle the low-volume Crown Royal blends, such as XR.
Eight thousand kilos of local corn make up a mash and it takes eight mashes to fill one of the twelve fermenters. Two proprietary yeasts take 55 hours to convert the corn into alcohol. Batch base whisky is distilled in a beer still and then a kettle and column still. Continuous base travels through four columns: a beer still, aldehyde column, rectifier, and fusel oil column.
Huge, nine-story warehouses hold a million barrels of maturing Valleyfield whisky, on racks, pallets, or offset rows of barrels piled in pyramids.
Sampling is the best part of any tour and master blender Andrew MacKay offers five versions of Crown Royal. Based in Valleyfield, he is also responsible for the Gimli blends. Creamy texture defines Crown Royal, though each whisky exhibits its own flavor spectrum. My favorite? The one-batch-only Monarch 75th Anniversary, containing the most Coffey rye ever in Crown Royal. “You would expect that if you put more flavoring in you’d get more flavor but it kind of smudges together,” MacKay explains. Base whiskies open up these flavors. This is regal whisky, rich in butterscotch and pine-cedar complemented by chocolate fudge and rich spices.
Our Canadian whisky whirlwind ends on this high note and then we follow Andrew MacKay to Montreal’s Trudeau airport. Broom is New York bound for a book launch, Wondrich to Nashville to judge cocktails, Westcott home for family time. And me? Ottawa and this blog. Ahh, the whisky life!