By: Tod Stewart
Just close your eyes…“You can see Faith, Hope and Charity as they bank above the fields….” – Al Stewart, “Flying Sorcery,” from the album “Year of the Cat.”
Stewart was likely referencing the nickname of the three Gloster Gladiator fighter planes flown during the Siege of Malta in WWII in that line. From 10,000 or so feet, I was looking down at a different, though similarly named, trio as my Bell 407, flown by Alpine Helicopters Inc., banked languidly port-side. Referred to as the “Three Sisters” (Faith, Hope, and Charity – or Big Sister, Little Sister and Middle Sister, respectively), their peaks jut skywards as part of the South Banff Range of the Canadian Rockies.
The breathtaking flight was just one of the many memorable activities arranged by my host, Alberta Distillers Ltd. (ADL), as part of the “Rye Ranch” experience. Over the course of four days, I was to get an intimate look at all facets of Canadian whisky production. I would also have the honor of being one of the first “civilians” (i.e., not a member of the Bean Suntory, ADL’s parent company team) to taste ADL’s latest rye whisky expression. Both of these would go a long way in helping answer the question: what makes Canadian whisky unique?
Founded in 1946, ADL has risen to become perhaps the most respected and significant distiller of rye whisky on the planet today. In fact, its Alberta Premium expression is the top-selling rye whisky in the world. Davin De Kergommeaux (DDK), who, as I mentioned in my previous Beverage Master Magazine story, literally wrote the book on Canadian whisky, doesn’t mince words. “I think ADL is my #1 Canadian distillery right now for quality whisky and straight-shooting staff. [It’s] the best rye distillery in the world, and they make so much else besides.”
Seeing as how I had DDK on the line, I thought this might be as good an opportunity as any to get an expert’s opinion on what, precisely, makes whisky from Canada unique.
“The key to making great Canadian whisky is blending many components to make a whisky with consistent flavor from batch to batch,” he began. “Each component is made to emphasize specific qualities which blenders then integrate batch by batch. The amount of each component used can be adjusted as needed for each new batch, to even out any differences in the grain from different growing seasons, and any differences among barrels.”
More about barrels in a bit. Carry on DDK….
“Making individual components also allows distillers to tailor maturation to the specific distillate – charred oak for corn, toasted for rye, for example. Spirits aged in a variety of barrels and for different lengths of time give noticeably different whiskies and blenders are able to use just the right amount of each in the final blend so they get exactly the flavor profile and texture they are looking for.”
He simplifies the concept this way: “American whisky-makers blend the grains together in mash bills, while Canadian whisky makers blend them as mature spirits. Each has its advantages, and each gives the resulting whisky its own personality, so one approach is not better than the other, just different.”
While at the Rye Ranch (and before a truly superb dinner prepared by Chef Corinna Murray from Personal Thyme), I managed to corner George Teichroeb, ADL’s general manager, into one of those unprepared for, unscripted and (likely for him), totally annoying one-on-ones to pepper him with similar questions. Dressed in my awesome boots and Stetson from Lammle’s Western Wear (if you wanna look like cow-poke, this is the place), I brashly asked questions like, “Did I hear you say earlier in the day that making bourbon is easy, but making Canadian rye whisky is more challenging?” (Teichroeb has spent time in Kentucky – at distilleries, not in prisons, as far as I know – so, he’s up on the ins and outs of both whisky styles.)
Beverage Master Magazine: Did I hear you say earlier in the day that making bourbon is easy, but making Canadian rye whisky is more challenging?
George Teichroeb: Well, to be clear, I didn’t say making bourbon was necessarily easy.
BM: Okay, fine. It was a bit loud on the distillery floor. But you said something along those lines, right?
GT: What I said was that with bourbon, there are guidelines set out for its production that remove some of the complexities of the process that we, as Canadian whisky producers, face.
We can use continuous distillation, batch column distillation or kettle, and we can determine how much of each style make up the final blend with a fair amount of flexibility. If we were making bourbon, we would be much more regulated. With Canadian whisky, the distiller can decide which spirit and at what strength can go into a specific type of barrel. At ADL, we use ex-bourbon, new Canadian and multi-use barrels – and we have the advantage of deciding which option to choose.
BM: It would seem that Canadian whisky is “a thing” again. Why, from your point of view, is this happening?
GT: I read an article about three years ago that said from 2009 to 2019, there was a 230 percent increase in global distillers’ use of rye grain in their whiskies. Consumers and distillers have started to understand that the use of rye creates a flavor profile that is very unique, and this has led to a refocusing on the country that’s been a pioneer in rye distillation—namely, Canada.
BM: So, it really is a ryevolution!
GT: [Deadpan glance].
BM: Um, sorry. What, then, from your perspective, sets Canadian whisky apart from all others?
GT: I think there are certain historical standards that play a large part. Canadian whisky has to be matured for at least three years. It has to be aged in wood and on Canadian soil, but these are requirements that are similar to those of other countries. It’s in the blending process where Canadian whisky makers’ expertise comes to the forefront, and consumers are really starting to understand the value of skillful blending.
BM: Anything about the Canadian whisky industry you’d like to see changed?
GT: You shouldn’t be able to call a whisky “rye” if there isn’t, in fact, any rye in the blend! [In my previous Beverage Master piece, I mentioned the somewhat strange situation that distinguishes “rye whisky” as a category rather than a reflection of what is distilled.]
BM: Where do you see ADL, and the Canadian whisky industry in general, heading into the future?
GT: It’s been great that ADL has always been seen as a pioneer rye distiller, but this doesn’t mean we won’t continue to try new things in the future. We will continue to consistently use prairie rye as a main whisky ingredient, and I think this association with specific, regionally-grown grains will take hold in other Canadian distilleries. You might see different strains of corn being used in the eastern Canadian provinces. The prairies will likely remain heavy on wheat, which is a great base for vodkas.
While touring ADL’s barrel warehouses a few days back, I noticed another unique feature of many Canadian distilleries: the use of pallets rather than racks for barrel maturation. While this is common in the majority of Canadian whisky distilleries and significantly improves efficiency, the verdict is out on whether it has any negative effects on the aging of whisky. To play it safe, ADL incorporates both rack and pallet warehouses. Racking barrels increases airflow around them and gives the liquid greater exposure to the barrel heads, both of which have a beneficial impact on development.
Other features that are unique to ADL’s whiskies are the use of predominantly unmalted rye and (because of this) the reliance on in-house reactors that yield one of the two types of enzymes that make up the “enzyme cocktail” used to convert rye starch to glucose.
One aspect that’s unique to all Canadian whiskies, and the one that stirs up the most consternation, is the “controversial” 9.09 regulation, which, in reality, is much ado about nothing. I won’t go into a long dissertation on how this regulation came about (there has been plenty written about it), but the upshot is that a Canadian whisky distiller is permitted to add up to ten percent of another liquid to every 100 liters of mature whisky. So, for example, ten liters added to 100 liters brings the total volume to 110 liters, and ten percent of that volume works out to one-eleventh or 9.09 percent). This “other liquid” is typically un-aged whisky or wine.
While purists like to rant about this, think of how much “non-scotch” winds up in Scottish whiskey finished in casks that once held sherry, port or Madeira. Teichroeb sees this regulation as beneficial in that it adds a degree of flexibility to the generally ridged requirements whisky makers are governed by. And it allows blenders to introduce subtle flavoring elements to a final blend, the result of which I was about to taste.
As the sun dipped low behind the majestic Rockies in the distance, and as the embers of the campfire contributed to the glow of our already-somewhat glowing group, Teichroeb poured us drams of ADL’s latest whisky: Reifel Rye. Named in honor of the distilling family that helped establish ADL, it is a 100 percent Canadian rye whisky showing distinctive, dusty/spicy rye on the nose, with subtle hints of vanilla custard and dried fruit. Smooth, warm, mildly fruity/spicy and beautifully balanced, it was the perfect nightcap to wrap up with what had been a pretty much perfect stay in Canadian whisky country.