Part One: Lost in Alberta
Davin 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).
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 semi-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!
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.