Artisan distillers are starting to crack open the barrels. And the verdict is . . .
Canada is a whisky nation. We make it, we drink it, we love it. But until recently, we haven’t had a made-in-B.C. whisky to call our own.
Now, at long last, rye, corn and single-malt whiskies are starting to come of age, and the first few sips suggest we have something remarkable in the works.
Whisky is made from four ingredients: water, grain, yeast and, perhaps most importantly, time. In Canada, grain spirit must be aged for a minimum of three years in a barrel before it can be called whisky. It often needs more than that, though, to fully develop those toffee, spice, nutty and dried fruit notes we love so much.
B.C.’s oldest artisanal distillery, Okanagan Spirits, was only founded in 2004. We now have 65 distilleries, most of which opened after 2013 when the Liquor Control and Licensing Act’s somewhat onerous regulations were eased for distillers. That’s only five years ago. Five years isn’t a whole lot of time to develop a whisky culture, yet in that short period, B.C. distillers have already produced some exceptional products, with many more in the works.
Not surprisingly, Okanagan Spirts was first out of the gate, and now offers rye, corn and
barley-based whiskies, including its Laird of Fintry single malt, which is only available for purchase through a lottery system. A handful of other independent distilleries have released their own vibrant and exciting whiskies, including Odd Society, Shelter Point, Victoria Caledonian, Pemberton and Phillips. Many others have whisky gently slumbering in barrels.
The first few sips have been impressive.
A couple of years ago, Surrey’s Central City Brewers + Distillers introduced their Lohin McKinnon single malt, which has earned a cask-full of awards, including double gold at the 2018 SIP Awards and gold at the Canadian Artisan Spirits Competition. They have since released different cask finishes, as well as peated versions.
In 2018, Mark Anthony Brands launched its Bearface Triple Oak, a corn-based spirit that just won Best New Whisky at the Canadian Whisky Awards. It is aged in bourbon casks for seven years before spending time in French oak ex-wine barrels, then being finished in Hungarian oak, which contributes a powerful, almost rye-like spice.
That same year, Delta’s Goodridge & Williams Distilling, best known for its popular vodkas and aperitifs, introduced Western Grains whisky; this year, it will be followed by Northern Grains, which is made from a mash of winter wheat and malted barley, then aged in bourbon casks and finished in wine barrels.
We can’t wait to see—and taste—what our distillers will come up with next.
Three to try
G&W Distilling Western Grains (40% ABV) Lovely dark caramel colour. This is a smooth, easy-drinking whisky with lots of vanilla, oak and sweet spice on the nose and honey, stone fruit and toffee on the palate, along with a well-integrated woody character. Impressive for such a young whisky. $39.99
Lohin McKinnon Single Malt Whisky (43% ABV) Light bodied and well made, with surprising complexity. It has aromas of vanilla, butterscotch, light spices and almonds; on the palate, more spice and butterscotch, as well as fresh pears and green apples, and a slightly tart finish. $59.99
Mark Anthony Bearface Triple Oak Canadian Whisky (42.4% ABV) Surprisingly spicy for a corn whisky, thanks to its finish in Hungarian oak, one of three barrels it spends time in. Caramel, vanilla and a touch of maple syrup on the nose; lots of oak on the palate. Creamy-smooth and bold, though not overly complex. $39.95
Recipe: Puddle Jumper
This elegant whisky cocktail comes from Goodridge & Williams Distilling.1 oz (30 mL) Western Grains Canadian Whisky
1 oz (30 mL) Bitterhouse Ladame
1 oz (30 mL) Amaro Montenegro
1 oz (30 mL) fresh grapefruit juice
Shake ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice. Strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a grapefruit twist. Serves 1.