Occasionally, a book will come along and change the way we view our surroundings. Action Comics #1 did it for the comic book fan, introducing Superman to the world. The literary have classics such as The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Charles Darwin gave natural science a makeover with, On The Origin of Species. In the whisky world, Davin de Kergommeaux has set out to change how we view Canadian whisky with his book, Canadian Whisky the Portable Expert. (Available here)
Canadian whisky has been in a suspended state for too long. It’s always on the verge of a comeback like an actor that has faded from the spotlight waiting quietly for a resurgence. International whisky books look through the same foggy goggles dedicating just a few pages to the topic as a passing courtesy. Thankfully, Davin refused to contribute to the slump when he decided to pen this book. Instead, he decided to fix it.
He has a passion for all whisky regions but saw the light at the end of the tunnel leading to Canada. They tasted just as good as the world’s best – if not better. “It wasn’t so much a matter of deciding to write the book as it was realizing that I was already writing it. I was digging up information about Canadian whisky in tiny little archives and historical society records just for my own interest,” explains de Kergommeaux. “However, it wasn’t long before I realized that I was the first person to look at this material from the perspective of whisky. I also began to realize that the official story of Canadian whisky, was riddled with myths and inaccuracies that were dutifully transferred from one book, website or article to the next.”
The book debunks several myths about Canadian whisky setting the record straight. “There are so many. I hope that as people learn the story of Canadian whisky the myths will die out.” Davin said, “Killing rumors with facts as I say.” Rumors such as Canadian whisky is made with grain neutral spirits. These are spirits produced by taking fermented sugars and distilling them repeatedly until all detectable flavors are removed. “Canadian whisky is whisky – flavoring whisky – not vanilla or fruit juice,” de Kergommeaux further clarifies.
I’d also like to add that Canadians are not genetically pre-disposed to playing hockey and it only snows during the winter, but back to whisky. Another rumor Davin kills with facts is, “prohibition did not make Canadian whisky America’s favorite, the Civil War did.” It is a little known fact that the Civil War put a serious dent in alcohol production throughout the States causing a demand that only Canadian distillers could supply. There are many more.
However, this book covers a lot more than just setting the record straight. This is the complete story of Canadian whisky. It covers everything from how Canadian whisky is made, how it develops its flavors, its detailed history and what goes on behind the closed doors of each distillery. Not to mention, there are plenty of tasting notes.
Armed with formal training as a sommelier, it’s these tasting notes that set de Kergommeaux apart and he’s not afraid to share his methods. He factors in the whisky’s story as the most important point in tasting a whisky. “People identify with their whisky, like to talk about it, tell others about it. The Scots and the Americans have done a wonderful job getting their stories out and Scotch and bourbon are booming. Yes, we have whiskies here in Canada that are just as flavorful, but until people know their stories, and their interest to try them is piqued, these whiskies will remain our little secret.”
The tasting notes are very thorough and could be described as poetic. “My big breakthrough came when I stopped worrying that I couldn’t taste all the things Michael Jackson could. He was the whisky guru that everyone followed and his word was God. There is still no one, except maybe Dave Broom, who even comes close to him in his ability to describe whisky. I could never get the notes he did,” explains Davin. “Then one day I sat down with Krishna Nukala and an old-style Macallan and he showed me first the lemon, then a whole bunch of other things and suddenly I realized that each person’s palate is unique and it didn’t matter a hoot if I tasted different things than Jackson did.”
What is it in Canadian whisky that gives it an identity? “Rye,” Davin says without hesitation. “Canadian whisky always has that rye spiciness or pepperiness. The finish too is characteristic in that it is often cleansing with a pleasantly bitter grapefruit pithiness. That said, I am squarely in the camp that says defining whisky by country of origin is a bit over-simplistic.”
Overcoming tough luck is an underlying theme in Canadian whisky. It seems like every distillery has a “Spinal Tap” moment with the token tragic fire followed by re-building. However, tragedy breeds heroes and it’s no different with whisky. Davin has a surprising answer for who the chosen ones are, “I am going to say Beam Inc. and Pernod Ricard…The Hiram Walker distillery suffered a fate worse than fire when it was purchased by Allied Domecq. These guys didn’t have a clue about Canadian whisky nor did they care much about it, and the whisky and the brands suffered,” Davin explains. “Since Pernod bought the plant they have encouraged Corby’s to make the best whisky they can and the result is Wiser’s Legacy and 18 year old among others. At the same time, Beam has given Canadian Club a real shot in the arm. They believe in the whisky and once again we see innovation. Right now we have Canadian Club 20 year old, a simply fabulous whisky at a very affordable price. If I could mention two names, they are Dan Tullio and Tish Harcus who kept the Canadian Club name out there despite everything that was going on. They may not own the brand but they are Hiram Walker’s real successors and he would be thrilled with what they have done for the brand. Things have so turned around at Walker’s that Gibson’s now trusts them with their very carefully crafted 12 year old and Sterling editions.”
This book has an effect that begs for a reaction. It makes you want to taste what you’ve been missing. To run out and hunt down one of the bottles described so you can experience them instead of just reading about them. It’s too early to know if this book will turn out to be the Superman of whisky books – leaping tall buildings in a single bound putting Canadian whisky back on the map for good.
Davin de Kergommeaux is hopeful, “I hope that once people have a better understanding of Canadian whisky and its centuries-long traditions, they will give themselves the opportunity to savor some of the really great ones. There are some real treasures and it is a shame that connoisseurs are deprived of them.” Davin recalls, “I remember when Wiser’s Legacy was tasted blind at the World Whisky Awards in 2010. As judges we didn’t know what it was and we were raving about it. These are the elite palates of the whisky world. Had they known it was Canadian I’m not sure they all would have been so enthusiastic. I hope that will change as more people read the book and start talking knowledgeably about Canadian whisky.” With that said, the story of Canadian whisky may fit into Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky the Portable Expert, but it’s up to us to make sure its future finds its way into our glass.
Photos courtesy of Davin de Kergommeaux and McClelland & Stewart
Visit Davin de Kergommeaux at www.canadianwhisky.org