A shot of whisky history


First aired on All in a Day (15/05/12)

In the Mad Men universe, the characters at the ad firm Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce don't know much about the suave but aloof Don Draper, but they all know this: he loves his whisky.

Thanks to shows like Mad Men and HBO's Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire, whisky is enjoying a pop-culture renaissance, and is a spirit no longer primarily associated with old men or emotionally tortured writers. In fact, Davin de Kergommeaux, an Ottawa-based author and self-described "malt maniac," thinks that Canadian whisky (popularly known as "rye") is ready to blow up again as well.

He chronicles the fascinating history of this homegrown potent potable in his new book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. Many Canadians may overlook our domestic whiskies like Canadian Club or Forty Creek in favour of single-malt Scotch from Scotland or Irish whisky or American-style ones like the infamous Jack Daniel's brand, according to de Kergommeaux. There's a definite public relations problem here.

"I think one of the reasons that Canadian whisky does not get the kind of attention is because the Canadian whisky makers have not really done a good job of telling people how great some of our whisky is," he said during a recent interview with All in a Day. "I think people ... when they think of Canadian whisky, they think of the mixing whiskey. We make a lot of that, but what people are often not aware of is that we have a lot of really high-end whiskies made in Canada, including, if you're talking about Canadian Club, Canadian Club 20-year-old, a fantastic whisky that people often just don't know about."

CanadianWhisky-125.jpgDe Kergommeaux spent seven years working on this book, combing through private archives and documents from small historical societies, and interviewing people with knowledge of the old distillers. Whisky certainly has a fascinating history. Take for example the popular label "rye" itself. It's a misconception that Canadian whisky is distilled from mostly rye. In fact, Canadian whisky began as something made by millers who used wheat (these days it's corn). At some point, someone decided to add a few shovels of rye into the mix, which produced a unique taste. In essence, it was "white whisky" with a bit of rye punch, but when people started asking for the "rye whisky" instead of the other kind, the name rye just stuck with it. Some Canadian whiskies have little or no rye grains in the recipe.

This book arrives at a time when Canadian whisky companies are coming out with new products designed to appeal to a new generation of whisky drinkers, from fruit-flavoured whiskies to drinks that are pre-mixed. But ultimately, what de Kergommeaux hopes is that drinkers won't overlook the simple pleasure of a humble glass of rye: neat, on the rocks or with a splash of water.

"People don't have an appreciation for how much real craftsmanship, even [in] the big companies, the real craftsmanship that goes into making Canadian whisky."