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Spirits Feature

Ontario’s Whisky Boom

by Rachel DelRocco Terrazas
November 30, 2018

My grandmother was Canadian—a Québécoise who taught me the capitals of the provinces at six; I had learned my hockey terms at an even younger age. So I have a certain affinity for the country. And when whisky expert Dave Broom, on tour for his book on Japanese whisky, named Canada as a region to watch, I needed to know more.

The Canadians have been making whisky since the 1800s, after a wave of immigrants from Great Britain settled across the country and planted grains. Production was limited, however, by what could survive the winters, and it wasn’t until the Dutch and Germans arrived and planted rye, a hardier grain, that the industry began to take off. By the late 19th century, the Canadians had developed a reputation for whisky made from a mash of corn, barley, wheat and rye.

That mash bill made for a spirit that was lighter and gentler than many whiskies—an advantage until the Bourbon booms of the 1950s and the 2000s. In the face of Bourbon’s robust brown-sugar-and-oak flavors, Canadian whisky became known to some as “brown vodka.”

Today, a number of producers are working hard to overcome that moniker, crafting whiskies with real character. The trend is especially prevalent in Ontario, where a thriving wine industry has encouraged farmers to take an artisanal approach to everything from cheesemaking and brewing to distilling. Since Toronto is just an hour away from NYC by air, I jumped on a flight to check out the scene myself.

Barry Stein & Barry Bernstein Barry Stein & Barry Bernstein

“It’s different from Bourbon, different from Irish whisky. And Canadian whisky has a history.”
—Barry Stein
While Toronto sports plenty of bars stocking local whiskies, the distilleries are not far outside of town. I started with Still Waters, a distillery in Concord, about 15 minutes from Pearson International Airport. It’s not the easiest to find, set back off the highway, deep in a maze of warehouses, nor the prettiest, but inside, it feels thoroughly welcoming: The smell of nutty cereal wafts through the air, barrels line the walls from floor to ceiling and a large copper still holds pride of place in the middle of the room.

“With our history, Canadian whisky should be a blend,” says Barry Stein, who owned a paint company before partnering with a fellow Scotch collector, Barry Bernstein, to make their own whisky. While they bottle a Rye and a Single Malt from Canadian barley, the Red and Blue blends are their flagships, bottled under the label Stalk & Barrel. Both are based on a blend of aged rye and single malt; the difference is in the percentage of aged corn whisky added. The Blue, with its higher percentage of corn, is sweeter and softer than the Red, which shows rye’s punchy flavors, notes of anise and endive punctuating the mellow orange-marmalade notes. Stein also pulls out the Canada #150, a special bottling released for the country’s 150th anniversary, in 2017. A blend of corn, rye and malted barley aged for more than five years, it’s minty and honeyed, with a mouthfilling texture.

Just across the street, Last Straw Distillery is gearing up to release its first whiskies. While Don DiMonte opened this 770-square-foot distillery in 2015, Canadian law stipulates that all whiskies must be aged a minimum of three years in wooden barrels no larger than 700 liters—just like Scotch and Irish versions. To keep the lights on while his whiskies come of age, DiMonte has been producing vodka, gin, rum and moonshine, all from Canadian produce.

But when I step into his one-room facility, DiMonte makes it clear that whisky is what excites him. Bouncing around from one tank to another, he lets me peek at and smell his experiments, including fermentations of spelt, wheat bran and rice; then he pulls out some aged moonshines made from cracked corn and sugar. Both the Dark Side, aged for a year in Tennessee oak, and the Darker Side, aged for four months in charred new oak, integrate the notes of the wood-aging well, with flavors of vanilla, caramel and mint coming across in a soft, delicate texture. They make fine lead-ins to the whiskies. One of his has just turned three years old: Although he plans to give it more time, it’s impressive right out of the cask, with a meaty structure and bright orange-zest notes.

There are a few other small distilleries scattered across Eastern Canada, but the growth of the craft movement is most pronounced in Ontario’s wine country, in the Niagara Peninsula. It takes just under an hour driving down the Queen Elizabeth Highway to get to Forty Creek Distillery, one of Ontario’s first craft distillers. Founder John K. Hall opened it in 1992, after running a winery; he says he’d set out to be a distiller in the 1980s, but most small distilleries were closing down. Today, Gruppo Campari owns Forty Creek, one of the few places with well-aged whiskies made in Canada.

A copper still at Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers A copper still at Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers
I arrived just in time for the launch party of a special release, and the place was packed with tour-takers and enthusiasts tasting through flights. Following a narrow hallway, I found a high-ceilinged warehouse full of barrels and large copper stills, then continued on to a wood-paneled tasting room, where I elbowed my way to the bar for a tasting flight. The standout was the flagship Barrel Select, a blend of single-grain whiskies made from rye, corn and barley, aged in Bourbon barrels for six to ten years, then blended. It’s a bottle for Bourbon drinkers, rich with notes of butterscotch, dill and popcorn, with the backbone to make for a great Manhattan.

In Beamsville, about eight miles east down the highway, Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers offers a completely different take on Canadian craft whisky. The bright blue warehouse sits in a pastoral landscape of grape vines, grains and gardens; inside, the fruits of those gardens are all on display in a wide array of spirits, from grape-based vodka to infused gins, bitters and absinthe.

Joshua Beach, distiller for Wayne Gretzky Estates Joshua Beach, distiller for Wayne Gretzky Estates
Owners Geoff and Peter Dillon, who founded the distillery in 2012 with Gary Huggins, are away on business when I arrive, but assistant distiller Jaclyn Harriman comes out to show me around. “In spite of the loose restrictions for Canadian spirits, Geoff and Peter wanted to use 100 percent rye and 100 percent grapes for their bases, and nothing else,” she tells me. Whisky wasn’t, in fact, in the original plan for the distillery, but the challenge of crafting a characterful whisky inspired them to begin to tinker a few years back. After a quick tour to see the stills, I head to the tasting room. The White Rye, an unaged version, is surprisingly fruity and easy-drinking, with slight spice notes of pepperberries. Three Oaks, released in 2017, builds flavor into that base by aging it in three types of barrels over three years. Rye’s spice reads clearly in notes of peppery arugula while the wood comes through in black-tea tannins and a clotted cream flavor and texture. This is the kind of whisky that’s earning “Canadian rye” a new reputation.

For my last stop, I head farther east along the lakeshore, toward Niagara-on-the-Lake. However skeptical you might be about a project headed up by a star hockey player, Wayne Gretzky Winery & Estates is worth the trip. As you might expect, it’s hard to miss, a large glass-and-steel structure with bright lights shining from within. Walking through the door, I admit I looked at the hockey memorabilia on display up front and gazed into the reflecting pool before diving into the spirits. Tasting my way through the whiskies, the advantage of sharing space with a winery became apparent: Master Distiller Joshua Beach starts with a base of Ontario grains—malted rye, unmalted rye and corn—for all his whiskies, then works closely with winemaker Craig McDonald to source used barrels for aging. The difference a barrel can make shows clearly. My favorite was the Ice Cask, finished in barrels that previously held ice wine made from vidal blanc—an Ontario specialty. Mixing herbaceousness with a touch of sweetness, it’s a stunning whisky, and uniquely Canadian.

This feature appears in the print edition of December 2018.
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