Back on the (Rye) Ranch

whisky bottle and glass

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.

Slowly Sipping Premium Sake

bottles of sake

By: Hanifa Sekandi

You have most likely sipped on this subtle, smooth spirit at your favorite sushi restaurant. Sake is a drink that warms up your soul and shockingly excites your senses. Some would say it brings the same joy as tequila. But you do not see it coming. Sake is a humble beverage that does not announce its presence immediately on the palette. Its balanced flavor profile satisfies the desire to sip and dine without overpowering the experience. Alas, a few sakes in, there it is, a feeling unlike any other alcoholic beverage you have sipped on before. It does not hit you in the chest or burn the throat. That tipsy feeling comes later, even for those who don’t consider themselves lightweights.

  Sake has enchanted North American imbibing culture. So much so that it has transitioned from the beautiful Japanese restaurants where most people first experienced it to liquor stores across the US. As of late, luxury sake brands are making headway, creating an alcoholic beverage niche just like wine and other high-end spirits and liquors. Like premium tequila, it is becoming a staple on bar carts for those who value a selective drinking experience where just anything will not do. It is about quality and the story that makes the alcohol they drink meaningful.

What is Sake?

  Sake is a Japanese alcoholic beverage. The word sake in Japanese describes all alcoholic beverages. Nihonshu is what sake is called in Japan, most likely something sake enthusiasts in the West are unaware of since this designation is rarely used in western Japanese restaurants. For most people, their first experience with sake is at a Japanese restaurant. While dining on seafood dishes, sake is served and an excellent pairing for this type of cuisine. So, what is sake? Sake is a translucent rice wine. It is often served in a small cup called an Ochoko. It is made with rice and water and brewed by converting starch to sugar. From the sugar, alcohol is produced. The brewing process of sake involves several steps.

  The sake brewing process starts with polishing the rice to remove the outer layer. Once this stage is complete, the rice is soaked to ensure that any leftover bran is removed. Next, the rice is steamed to cultivate koji cultures, an imperative component of making sake. While one batch of rice steams, Koji mold is added to the steamed rice. The steamed rice and rice with added koji mold are mixed in a tank containing yeast to create a starter. Next, the mashed ingredients are transferred to a tank with steamed rice, water and koji, frequently added during the alcohol fermentation period of approximately one month. The fermented mash is then pressed and stored.

  As you begin the at-home sake experience, you need to buy the appropriate cups since the size of the cup, the shape and the material it is made with influence the fragrance of sake. There are several vessels that one can use to serve sake. For example, a masu container is a small wooden box with a shot glass placed in the center. Another vessel is a Sakazuki, a flat wide-mouthed cup used for Shinto ceremonies and rituals. Small shot glasses are another option for serving sake since thin glass supports a rich tasting experience. It is also suitable for high-quality sake. Shuki is a commonly used vessel. Shuki is a term generally used to describe all sake vessels. Wooden shukis are favorable since they enhance the aroma of sake and provide a milder aftertaste.

Sake Beginnings

  To truly appreciate an alcoholic beverage, it is essential to understand its beginnings. These stories over a warm meal with friends bring us together. Further, history demonstrates that bridges and communities have been built simply by sharing spices and drinks with people from different cultures. Sake has its own story. Although the birthdate of sake is hard to determine, its roots are intriguing. The Book of Wei in the Records of the Three Kingdoms contains Japan’s earliest record of alcoholic beverages. It is believed that sake dates back to the Nara period (710–794). Initially, sake was used during religious ceremonies. During the Heian period, sake was consumed as part of games and festivals.

  In the earlier stages of sake, before it became a viable commodity. The Imperial Court during the 8th and 10th centuries governed and controlled its production. The types of sake that people could drink were also determined by the rank they held in court. For example, clear, robust-flavored sake was reserved for those in high-status positions. People viewed as a lower class could only consume unrefined, cloudy brews. During this time, people drank sake for festivals and offerings to the gods.

  In the 12th and 14th centuries, shrines and temples became sake brewers and the central producers for over five hundred years. It was at the temples where the brewing process was perfected into three stages. Sake’s longevity, stronghold into the future and availability to the general public are due to these efforts that ushered in the production of sake at a scale. It is important to note that the upper-class nobility only had access to sake during this time. A move into commerce created a demand for this once-exclusive drink.

  Once specialized brewers entered the market in the 14th and 16th centuries, temples and shrines no longer held a monopoly on production. Innovations for serving sake made headway during this sake rebirth. New sake vessels offered an easy way to purchase sake to-go, a departure from the wooden pails. Fast-forward to present-day sake production, where technological advancements that commenced years prior and continue to improve brewing methods have allowed sake producers to distribute it globally. New avenues opened the door for the sale of refined luxury sake. It is no surprise that premium sake brands are finding a space among elite alcoholic beverages.

What Is Premium Sake?

  So, what is premium sake? Is it worth the price? Does it stand out among other luxury beverages? Luxury sake brands are just getting started. It will not be long before such brands are found next to top-shelf wines and spirits on bar menus in North America. Premium tequila has reigned supreme in recent years. It is now sake’s turn.

  Sake has an average ABV of 15% to 16%, quite compelling for those looking for an alternative to high alcohol content spirits. Not bad for a rice wine! Sake Hundred, a high-end sake developed by Ryuji Ikoma, a sake connoisseur who also founded Japan’s Saketimes, is gunning to shake up the fine wine and high-end Japanese whiskey terrain. Ikoma aims to “expose drinkers to the most outstanding examples of Japan’s national drink, showcasing its many styles and sophisticated complexities that allow it to pair with a myriad of cuisines well beyond that of simply sushi.” While developing his brand, he visited hundreds of Japanese breweries to learn about the techniques and art of making sake from those who have gained expertise through their lineage. In 2018, he launched Sake Hundred, a new portfolio of sake for a new generation of sake drinkers. He partnered with select breweries to help him produce his new line of high-end sake.

  “Our collection of sakes will take drinkers through a journey of both culture and taste, two elements that are closely intertwined in sake making. You can taste the personality of the sake brewer in our sake, just as you can taste the terroir of a fine wine,” noted Ikoma. He added, “Each part of Japan has its own culture and there is no better way to get to know that culture than through sake.”

  Sake Hundred released the limited edition Gengai with an eye-opening price tag of $3,100. Their flagship sake, Byakko Bespoke, made from the “king of sake rice,” Yamadanishiki retails at $380. Of course, other premium sake brands are eager to enter the U.S. Kikuhime ‘Kukurihime’ Ginjo Sake, produced by Kikuhime Brewery, is a top-shelf sake named as a tribute to the Goddess of Hakusan Mountain. The water near this mountain is used in this renowned, slowly aged sake for approximately ten years. Some retailers sell it for $650. Another notable high-end sake is Shukondeinoshiro Kamutachi. Producers of this sake only make 60 bottles a year. Luckily, the price tag on this sake is not as shocking. Getting a taste of this premium slow-matured rice wine is a possibility for those who do not mind splurging just a little. It retails at $229.

  Those in the know do not mind lower-priced sake while dining at their favorite sushi restaurant. Even if it sits at a lower price point, it is a great accompaniment to your meal. For many, this led them to explore the world of sake. Its rich cultural roots and the unique brewing process bring each bottle to life. Do not be surprised if it also becomes a member of the new-age beverage trend for individuals seeking wheat-free and gluten-free alcoholic drinks. For now, sipping on warmed sake feels just right.