Using the last of my Canadian whisky for an Old Fashioned - is this justifiable homicide?...
A few years back, I wrote a letter to Malt Advocate magazine with a very general question about Canadian whisky. I knew very little about it and was wondering whether they planned on devoting an article to Canadian Whisky - which I (regrettably) referred to as "brown vodka." They ended up publishing my question and then answered my question a few issues later. The author of the answer article wrote to me personally too. I took this as an opportunity to learn about Canadian Whisky myself.
Since Canadian whiskies fall under my New World categorization, it's no surprise that the chief grain used is corn/maize. However, blending seems to be much more important to creating the final product in Canada than it is for whiskies made in the United States - perhaps due to the proportionally larger Scottish heritage in Canada than the U.S.
All distillers have a master blender. Why blend? If you have flagship product (which carries your brand's name) you'll want it to be consistently good - emphasis on consistent. To deliver a large quantity of this product to your customers, you have to then blend a lot of barrels together. However, every whisk(e)y barrel ages differently. This depends on the age of the barrel it's in, the inborn qualities of the barrel (i.e. thickness of caramelized-sap layer), location in warehouse - among other factors. On my trip to Buffalo Trace Distillery, I tasted bourbon directly from the barrel. I tried bourbon from seven different barrels - three of Eagle Rare and four of Buffalo Trace. Even though all barrels were roughly the same age, they all were distinctly different - even those made from the same mash bill (Eagle Rare or Buffalo Trace). The master blender's responsibility is to use four distinctly different barrels (in this example) of Buffalo Trace whiskey to create one blend that would match as closely as possibly to the previous bottling of Buffalo Trace. As a distillery's portfolio expands, this responsibility for the master blender also expands as they try to keep the product consistent.
The single-barrel phenomenon has really taken off in the bourbon industry. Perhaps this is to give it the same distinction and notoriety that Single Malt scotch has. Consequently, with each single-barrel bourbon having it's own unique characteristics, it puts less pressure on the master blender to deliver consistency on the higher end of the product line. Despite this new uniqueness of the single-barrel, the continued popularity of scotch in both its blended and "single malt" forms has put the blender in Scotch production in a brighter limelight a bit longer than some other whisk(e)y blenders. Following my idea that Canadian whisky distillers follow in the footsteps of Scotch distillers (and not only in spelling), given the lack of choices in the total Canadian Whisky product line it is important to deliver a consistent product - hence, the importance of the blender. Obviously, there is a lot more to Canadian Whisky distillation then just blending, there is plenty of history (especially as part of the British Empire and its role in the supply chain during Prohibition in the United States) so I don't mean to simplify it this much. However, when speaking in broad generalizations (as most do in blog posts) it is just easier to focus on the simpler idea of blending in both Scotch and Canadian whisky distillation and production.
Not surprisingly, I've had mixed success with Canadian Whiskies. Nothing has been bad but there have been very few stellar examples either. Forty Creek (just outside of Niagara-On-The-Lake) makes some really good whisky. However, most claim Crown Royal to be the best. I don't disagree that it is a very good Canadian Whisky but I rarely see someone buying two-fingers of Crown Royal to enjoy - it's usually only purchased for slamming down shots. Consequently, I have trouble divorcing that image from the whisky. I've had the high-end Crown Royal too (XR and Cask No. 16), which are both very good, but because of the brand name you pay a brand premium too. Bang-for-buck, the best I've had (thus far) is the Canadian Club 15-Year. Unfortunately, this whisky is only available in limited release now. Therefore I had to buy the Canadian Club 12-Year one New Year's Eve (a few years back) in order to make Manhattans.
Manhattans? Yes, Manhattans. Had I found the 15-Year Canadian Club, I would not have used it to make them but the 12-Year is a big step down in quality from the 15-Year. This goes back to two points I made already: 1) consistency among Canadian whiskies and 2) Canadian whisky is "brown vodka." Since there are only so many Canadian whiskies available, very few stand out while the rest are fairly interchangeable. That being said, most can be used for mixing when a whisk(e)y is called for in a mixed drink. Again, I don't mean to speak down to Canadian whiskies - as I said, there are notable examples. Nevertheless, there are few that I have had that I have said to myself "Wow, I'd like another bottle of this."
Tonight, I decided to finish the last of my Canadian Club 12-Year by making an Old Fashioned. Although I didn't have the lemon peel to throw in for garnish, I did have the other necessary ingredients:
1 tsp of sugar (or 1 sugar cube)
dash of Angostura bitters
1 tsp of water
1 oz of whisk(e)y
lemon peel (garnish)
-Muddle sugar in bitters and water. When the sugar is dissolved, add whisk(e)y and ice cubes (and lemon peel... if you've got it)
Given the wider portfolio of other types whisk(e)y, it is difficult to motivate myself to try new Canadian whiskies (especially given the history of let-downs I've had). However, there is now a new open space on my drink cart for some new whisk(e)y - maybe I'll get adventurous and look to the "Great White North"? Whatever I choose, you'll be sure to read about it.