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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

{ 10 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 October 18, 2014 at 5:56 pm

Let’s address your points: first, that the Canadian near-GNS (CWS) is AGED for three years, and second, you compare CWS to Scottish grain whiskey in this regard. Regarding the first, aging CWS would be hardly different than aging vodka or GNS. While you may pick up some wood effects, you are still aging a spirit that it tasteless in itself. And further, this does NOT compare well at all with Scottish grain whiskeys, which just like their single malts are typcially double distilled in pot stills to 68-75% (compare to CWS at 94.5%). By distilling to just 70% there is a LOT more inherent flavor and congeners, compared to the almost tasteless Canadian CWS.

Your comparison to American Whiskey also fails as Am. whiskey does not allow the 9.09% of additives (including wine) allowed by Canadian law, nor may any American straight whiskies contain ANY GNS. Even blended American whiskies (which do allow GNS), limit the GNS to 49%, whiile there is no such limitation for Canadian whiskies, blended or not.

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Oliver Klimek October 18, 2014 at 6:28 pm

Today Scotch grain whisky is uniqulely distilled in industrial scale column stills and not in pot stills as you state. For example the Cameronbridge distillery uses the same stills for their grain whisky which mostly goes into Johnnie Walker and for Smirnoff vodka and the base spirit for Gordon’s gin. The only real difference between Scotch grain whisky to the Canadian base whisky is the alcohol content. Yes, the Canadian column still base whisky is pretty much oak aged vodka. But it does have a taste of its own because it has extracted flavours from the cask wood over 3+ years. Because of it being aged it can not be regarded as equivalent to the pure and completely tastelss GNS (Everclear) that goes into the cheap US blends.

And just because they CAN add flavouring this does not have to mean they do it all the time. I guess pretty much all. Canadian whisky is unflavoured. As long as you don’t call American whisky “straight”, you can do pretty much everything with it you want. See the recent Templeton ‘scandal’ where they admitted they had added flavouring to their rye without mention on the label. This is compliant with Section 5.23(2) of the US whisky regulations. (Link below)

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Oliver Klimek October 18, 2014 at 6:34 pm

And you are wrong about the 49% GNS limit. Blended US whisky like Fleischmann usually contains 70% GNS. The limit is 80%. And there is also a “spirit whisky” category that allows 95% GNS http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr;sid=ac8667546a93d7a51c79114e2d80c135;rgn=div5;view=text;node=27%3A1.0.1.1.3;idno=27;cc=ecfr

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Capn Jimbo's Rum Project October 18, 2014 at 7:22 pm

Parse not, lest ye be parsed. I am well aware of Section 5.22, but I’m sure others will appreciate the link.

§5.22 The standards of identity.
(4) “Blended whisky” (whisky—a blend) is a mixture which contains straight whisky or a blend of straight whiskies at not less than 20 percent on a proof gallon basis, excluding alcohol derived from added harmless coloring, flavoring or blending materials, and, separately, or in combination, whisky or neutral spirits. A blended whisky containing not less than 51 percent on a proof gallon basis of one of the types of straight whisky shall be further designated by that specific type of straight whisky; for example, “blended rye whisky” (rye whisky—a blend).”

To wit: any blended straight whiskey, eg blended corn whiskey, blended rye whiskey, etc, is limited to 49% GNS. Thank you for finally agreeing that CWS is nothing more than aged vodka, demonstrating only wood effects. This “aging” is intended primarily to be able to call it Canadian Whiskey, and for economy of production. I’ll take you at your word re Fleishman’s, but only as an argument by exception. Unlike Canadian Whiskey, the United States has many more categories of whiskey, of which blends and your “spirit whiskey” are included, but which also limit the amount of GNS. None of these were relevent insofar as comparing CWS-based “Canadian Whiskey” to single malts and bourbon.

Still and all being said, the above remains an unnecessary diversion, as my OP and point remains:

“This fact – that Canadian Whisky is largely composed of grain, er Canadian neutral spirits that may be flavored with additives (and/or “flavouring whiskies”) – 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.”

Back on point – in comparison to pure and unadulterated single malts and bourbon – if you please, but you’re on your own now…

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Oliver Klimek October 18, 2014 at 7:46 pm

I do actually understand your points. But I think in a way this discussion is more about regulations than about the whisky itself. You think Canadian whisky is not as “noble” as single malt or bourbon because the Canadian regulations are very open. Keep in mind that practically all Scotch is “adulterated” too by using old casks for maturation. Scotch whisky contains bourbon, sherry and/or wine in the single digit percent range. The more the better, as it appears. On the other hand the Scottish regulations deny a whisky the single malt status if you put a teaspoon of whisky from another distillery in it whereas it is perfectly ok to do this with bourbon. And also bourbon can have additives according to Section 5.23(2) if it is not labelled “straight”. Much of today’s American “craft whisky” is just as mysterious as Canadian whisky.

Also I don’t really feel comfortable with defining a “nobility” of a whisky by the distillation proof. Single malt malt can be divine and godawful. Young grain whisky is shite, old grain whisky is wonderful.

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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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