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Davin de Kergommeaux: Canadian Whisky – The Portable Expert

by Oliver Klimek on May 19, 2012

Canadian Malt Maniac Davin de Kergommeaux has done it again! After launching his highly acclaimed website dedicated to Canadian whisky, he continued his quest to make the world familiar with this drink by writing a book about it.

If you are a whisky drinker living outside Canada, chances are that your knowledge of Canadian whisky is limited to the three big brands with global exposure – Canadian Club, Seagram’s and Crown Royal. But Canadian whisky is more than cheap supermarket booze best drowned in ginger ale.

Not only on the shelves of whisky shops but also in book shops, Canadian whisky has been leading a life in the shadow of Scotch, Irish or bourbon whisky, usually in the form of being mixed up with bourbon or with a few extra pages at the end of a general whisky book between Japan and the rest of the world. This book wants to put an end to this miserable situation.

The first thing you notice after opening is that this really is a book made for reading and not for casual browsing or use as a reference work. There are no tables, no ‘fact sheet’ boxes, no colourful artsy pictures making you want to book a trip to the country at once. It is straightforward writing, occasionally interrupted by tasting notes and underlined with tinted black and white pictures. The design is strictly monochrome in a ‘whisky’ colour and has a decidedly 1960s ‘retro’ feel. The tint of the pictures is a bit on the dark side, though, sometimes making it difficult to see details.

Canadian Whisky is essentially a history book. Wrapped by a detailled explanation of how whisky is made in Canada and short but intense portraits of the country’s nine big distilleries, it is telling us the long and almost forgotten story of this spirit often only called ‘rye’, and the story of the people who made it, begining in the late 18th century. Along the way, plenty of myths and misconceptions about Canadian whisky are debunked, and the small distilleries having opened in recent years are not forgotten either.

Even though it only makes up a third of the three-hundred-something pages, the history part is where the heart of this book is beating. Only when we understand the history we can put the present situation into context. Canadian whisky is not only a brand tag for the portfolios of global conglomerates, and its heritage is far richer as to be reduced to Al Capone smuggling booze into the USA during prohibition.

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in whisky beyond Scotch and bourbon. Reading it makes you want to sip these whiskies that are so hard to come by in other parts of the world. Hopefully this book can contribute to change this.

336 pages, hardcover, available at amazon.com

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Gal Granov גל גרנוב (@galg) June 27, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Excellent book and looks wonderful.
just reading it now. will write my impressions when done. but good good work.

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Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 11, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I have always been a bit of a fan of David, and at The Rum Project we long awaited his new book, bought it early and posted a nice review. Accordingly, it is fair to say that David is perhaps both the best friend AND worst enemy of what is called Canadian Whisky. As for the former, his history of CW and of the nine major (and several minor distillers of it) is complete and extremely informative. Read it and you will vastly improve your understanding of recipes, fermentation, distillation and aging.

At the same time he fails to overcome what he calls the great myth of Canadian Whisky, namely that is largely composed of GNS (grain neutral spirits). This is barely true and here’s why. GNS is clear and near pure alcohol distilled at 95%, as is vodka. While it is true that CW allegedly does NOT contain any GNS, it DOES contain CWS (Canadian Whisky Spirits) which is distilled to – are you well seated? – 94.5% or even a tad higher. The difference between GNS, vodka and CWS is negligible.

He also confirms that Canadian Whisky then achieves its flavors only by adding small amounts of what are called “flavoring whiskies”, and worse yet almost any additive – including wine – up to 9.09% in complete accord with Canadian regulations.

This fact – that Canadian Whisky is largely composed of grain, er Canadian neutral spirts that must be flavored with additives – is exactly why Canadian Whisky is not a pure and noble spirit (think single malt whisky and bourbon), but rather a mystery mixed-drink-in-a-bottle. I’d long believed this, but I was glad that David himself confirmed what many have suspected.

Still, a must buy.

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Oliver Klimek July 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm

Canadian whisky is not neutral spirit flavoured with additives as you suggest.

What you write about GNS vs. CWS is only partly correct. Yes, CWS is basically neutral grain spirit. But what makes Canadian whisky different from US bottom shelf blended whiskey is that in Canada this spirit is matured in barrels until it becomes whisky, essentially a higher proof equivalent to the comlumn-distilled grain whisky used for Scotch blends. US blended whiskey in contrary is a mix of proper whiskey and unaged neutral spirit. So US and Candaian blended whiskies are clearly not the same. And despite the high strength there are differences between various ‘neutral’ spirits since there are still enough congeners that make it through distillation to create a distinctive (yet subtle) difference.

And with regard to the additive issue, I think you are generalizing too much. Your comment reads as if all Canadian whisky was flavoured according to the 9.09% rule. In the book Davin clearly states that only the bottom shelf stuff uses additives, and he also states that not all distillers do it.

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Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 12, 2012 at 3:12 pm

Fair enough, but it was David who called the use of GNS a myth, when in fact it is for all practical purposes indistiguishable from CWS. Sure it’s aged, but if I wanted a “whisky” based on aged vodka I’d buy one. To equate aged vodka, or CWS, distilled at 94.5 to 95% with a true aged whisky distilled at say 70% is folly. The goal of distilling GNS, vodka or CWS is to maximize output and alcohol at the cost of a very considerable loss of flavor.

If CWS was so tasty, they wouldn’t need to add “flavoring whiskies”, or wine, et al. And all of the major distillers do so to various degrees.

As far as additives go, you can be sure the ability to add up to 9.09% of flavorings, including wine, simply has to be meaningful. As in the United States – which allows up to 2.5% of certain unlabeled additives in rum – you can be sure that all regulations are heavily lobbied by the industry for a reason. Kindly compare to single malt whisky or say bourbon which allow no such additives – these are truly noble spirits.

The problem with the Canadian regulations is first, that they allow additives and flavorings – including wine! – in the first place, and second – that the distillers are not required to label additives. I am not aware of any major distillers of Canadian Whisk who claim purity, free of such additives. Although rum distillers are likewise not required to label additives, a few prestige rums actually promote their rums as “free of additives or coloring of any kind” and “unfiltered”.

With all due respect no spirit can have it both ways – you can’t allow unlabeled additives and flavorings on one hand, and promote unbridled quality on the other. Let’s be honest. Basing a whisky on what amounts to aged vodka, that is flavored with lesser amounts of real whisky, and possible allowable wine and other flavoring additives is not my cup of tea, however tasty.

I don’t imply that Canadian whiskies all use such flavorings, yet I can’t claim that they don’t. And that, my friend, is the problem.

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Capn Jimbo's Rum Project July 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Horror of horror’s, and I know better than to call Davin “David”! However, as The Compleat Idiot of Rum, I am allowed such transgressions. My sincere apologies to Davin, whom I greatly respect and have communicated with over the past couple years.

Sorry, Davin! And again, a great and informative book that is a must buy for anyone who wishes to better understand and appreciate Canadian Whisky, not to mention the process of distillation, aging and tasting of spirits in general. A Tour de Force.

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