We don’t talk enough about Canadian whisky on the MoM blog. To remedy this, we spoke with the master blender at Hiram Walker, Dr. Don Livermore, on Canadian distilling history, some cask finishes that went wrong and why Canada is the most creative place in the world to make whisky.
Look back through old cocktail books (I have lots of them) and they always say that there are four major whisky producing countries: Scotland, Ireland, America and Canada. This blog covers the first three extensively – it seems that not a day goes by without exciting news from the American, Irish and, especially, Scottish industries. And that’s not all, recently we have run features on distilleries in Sweden, Australia and Israel. But what about poor neglected Canada?
It’s not like Canada doesn’t have the heritage. It’s been producing whisky since the 19th century. Canada has the numbers too. According to these figures, it produces around 189m litres of whisky a year, less than the Scots (700m) and the Americans (333m), but far outstripping the Irish (63m). That’s a lot of whisky. Until recently, most of it was used to make mega-blends like Canadian Club and Crown Royal; some of it went into American brands. But the world is waking up to the treasures that lie north of the 49th parallel, whiskies with character like Pike Creek, Lot 40 and Wiser’s 18 Year Old. So, to tell us more about this under-the-radar giant of whisky, we talk to master blender at Hiram Walker, Don Livermore. And don’t forget, there’s no ‘e’ in Canadian whisky.
Master of Malt: How long have you been working in whisky for?
Don Livermore: I started 23 years ago. My background is microbiology so the distillery here, which I work at, the Hiram Walker Distillery, in Windsor Ontario, hired me as their microbiologist in the quality control laboratory. The company has been fantastic to me. They spent their investment on me and they sent me to school where I did my Masters of Science at Heriot Watt. I finished that in 2004 and then I finished my PhD in 2012 at Heriot Watt as well. Along the way they promoted me in different jobs in and around the distillery, and today I’m the master blender for Hiram Walker.
MoM: If people asked you, ‘what makes Canadian whisky different from American whisky’, what would you say?’
DL: Canadian whisky, I always like to say this, it’s the most innovative, creative, adaptable style of whisky there is. All we have to be is fermented, aged and distilled in Canada. Aged in a wooden barrel, less than 700 litres for a minimum of three years. And a minimum of 40% alcohol, and first it’s got to come from grain, like any whisky category. And that’s about it, so they give us a lot of latitude, on what we can do with Canadian whisky. They don’t tell me how to distill it so we here have the ability to just column distill it, like a bourbon. Or we can also pot distill it like you’d see in the single malt batches. So we do have those capabilities here, they don’t tell us barrel types either. I mean we can use new wood, we can use used wood, we can finish in wine barrels, or whatever. The latitude is pretty wide open and that leads to creativity. To be honest with you, I wouldn’t want be a blender anywhere else. Now, traditionally Canadian whisky is lighter, if you go back early days in Canadian whisky, in the early 1800s, we would have been just a moonshine-style whisky. It would have been done just by pot stills or single pot distillations. But along the way, Canadian distilleries started double-distilling through two column stills. So they were making like grain whisky, that’s what’s Scotch would call it, we call it ‘base whisky’ but it’s similar. Our whisky ended up being very light because that’s what people wanted but at the same time, the way we would make our whisky was we would separate our ingredients so we would make double-distilled grain whisky from corn. But they’d also single distill or pot distill rye whiskies and then they would blend that in as their flavour type of ingredient – we used to call them ‘flavouring whiskies’. So that’s traditionally how we are made because rye is really the grain that traditionally grows in the Canadian climate. The moniker in Canada is usually ‘give me a rye and Coke’ or ‘a rye and ginger’ and it’s understood as a Canadian. It means ‘Canadian whisky and coke’. Ryes are ingredients, just like Irish whiskey will use barley for their flavouring ingredients.
MoM: Do you have a view of these aged Canadian flavouring whiskies being sold south of the border and being bottled under American labels?
DL: I don’t have any issues with that. I think in the whisky industry, we’ve been buying and selling and trading barrels with each other for 300 years and I don’t see it as any issue for me, blending whiskies and buying ingredients to go into our whiskies. I think to be upfront in what you’re doing, for the consumer, is important. We’ve been doing it for 300 years. You could probably point at the Scotch industry – they buy barrels from one another and make their blends right? There’s a rich history between Canada and the United States of selling and buying whisky.
MoM: Does Canada have as long a whisky heritage as the States?
DL: From what I’ve read about Jim Beam, Jack Daniel and some of the old whisky barons from the United States, I think they probably started a little bit before Canada. You see those date from the late 1700s, but you start seeing the distilleries in Canada mid-1800s. So we’re probably about 25-50 years behind. Canada was settled later and our population is a little less. Most people will say ‘what made Canadian whisky is the American prohibition in 1920-1933’ and that really isn’t true. What actually grew the Canadian whisky category was the American Civil War from 1861-1865. So you’ll see a lot of the Canadian distilleries have their inception dates around the late 1850s. Because if you think about it, the American North was fighting the American South right? And if they’re going to war with one another, they’re shutting their distilleries down. And who took advantage of that situation was the Canadian distillers.
MoM: When did the revival of drinking strongly-flavoured rye whiskies start?
DL: We launched Lot 40 in Canada and the US in 1998, originally, and it failed. It had a little bit of a following but at that time you were starting to see the single malt Scotch craze take off and it was just about timing and what consumers were looking for. I give this analogy, I’m older, I’m in my forties, I grew up on a meat and potato diet – I’m from the country in Canada and I think a lighter style of whiskies was what suited our palettes. My kids today are growing up on sushi and you’re seeing a lot of diversity within Canada and the United States as well. And they’re experiencing foods from around the world that are very rich and very spicy. A lot of flavour to it. And I think that’s what has happened – I think people’s diets have changed and I think in the year 2019 we are starting to see rye whisky as big, bold, spicy and that’s what people are looking for. Similarly, I think peated Scotches, they’re taking off as well.
MoM: I just wanted to ask you about cask finishes because I know you do some interesting things with Pike Creek. What are we likely to see in terms of innovative finishes from you?
DL: We actually had an innovation summit with our marketing department about a month ago. And there’s a pipeline of things I’m working on with finishing and various types of woods or wine barrels, or spirit barrels. I think you’re going to see some things come out of Canada in the next one to five years that are going to be exceptional. I’m already very excited about it. I mean, I think this is a rebirth of Canadian whisky and excitement to our category. I’m already seeing some of the other Canadian whisky competitors I work with are doing it as well, so I mean, we’ve done some French oak finishing, we did some Hungarian oak finishing, and there’s some wine barrels I’m playing with. We don’t have a release yet but the Pike Creek 21 year, that’s going to be released this fall will be finished in an oloroso sherry cask. I haven’t heard of anybody using oloroso sherry casks in Canada before. There has been failures here, I’ll be quite honest with you, I’ve played with finishing in some beer barrels, that didn’t work out too well. I finished some in some Tequila barrels which I’m unsure about. I think it would be a very niche market. If I’m not playing and looking at different things, I’m not doing my job.
MoM: What other things are you playing with apart from barrels?
DL: Grain is another one. It’s reading the consumer. I think it’s very important for master blenders to get out from behind their desk or their laboratory. Go to these whisky festivals, talk to the consumers and understand what they’re looking for. And I’ve come to realise that consumers today understand and get a barrel. I think the barrel-finishing thing is the exciting thing today but the other thing is, what’s tomorrow? I think the next thing that consumers are going to be asking about is grain. They’re already asking about rye, I think the next evolution is variety of rye. We started putting away a very specific variety of rye that is very spicy. We’re actually asking our growers to plant a specific variety. My dream some day is yeast! Because I told you my background is microbiology but yeast probably makes more flavour in your whisky than any other thing that we add to it. You can do lots around brewing. Yeast has a huge impact. I got the actual original yeast strains from the whisky barons of Canada in a dried state. They’re in in little test tubes. From 1930 and I can crack them open and they can grow. But if I’d sat in the corner barstool at your local pub and talked about yeast and whisky, I don’t think your consumer will care. But I think some day they will. I just think it’s about timing and when consumers get more and more savvy, I can see it happening at some point. Some day I’m going to crack those vials and make a brand of whisky out of it, but not yet!
MoM: Which of your whiskies that you blend is your ‘end of the day’ favourite when you get back from work?
DL: It’s a brand that is no longer made to be honest with you. It’s a brand called Wiser’s Legacy. But I’ll tell you this, Wiser’s Legacy is basically two thirds Wiser’s 18 year and one third Lot 40, so I can blend it myself! I love doing that at whisky festivals and people ask me ‘what’s your favourite whisky?’ ‘here, I’ll blend it for you!’ so I take those two brands and blend them together. Again, that’s my sweet spot for the rye level. I do adore the 100% rye whiskies but I do like blending and I like a certain level, just like putting salt on your French fries, there’s a level that you want.
MoM: And then finally, do you have a favourite whisky cocktail?