Taste Canada Q&A: Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky

CanadianWhisky-125.jpgQ: For the spirits novice, could you briefly explain the key differences between Canadian whisky and the other famous whiskies (i.e., American, Irish and Scotch)?

A: Simply put, Canadian whisky is a grain spirit that has been distilled and matured in Canada. Just as they do in other countries, in Canada we use a number of different grains to make our whisky. However, unlike some others, we distil these grains separately then blend the spirits together to create whisky that is a synthesis of many elements and influences. This means each grain makes its own contribution to the final flavour. Elegance, spiciness and cleansing citrus pith are the hallmarks of great Canadian whisky. And there are many GREAT Canadian whiskies.

American bourbon is big, bold, and in your face, and although it must be made from at least 51 per cent corn, the majority of the flavour comes from the use of brand new charred oak barrels for aging. The rich caramels and vanillas in the oak are the primary flavours we taste in bourbon (and in American rye as well).

Irish whisky is made in a similar manner to Canadian. However, the Irish climate leads to different aging characteristics. As well, the Irish often triple distil their whisky leading to less influence of the grain and more of the barrel.

About 90 per cent of Scotch whisky is a blend of corn whisky, wheat whisky and malted barley whisky. Most people would doubt that if you told them, but it is true. The primary influence on flavour is from the malted barley, also known as malt whisky. Single malts represent about 10 per cent of all the Scotch whisky sold but it is single malts that people think of when they think of Scotch. Too bad. They make wonderful blended whisky in Scotland too.

Q: Where does Canada stand today in the whisky world?

A: Canadian whisky is still the best-selling whisky in North America, just as it has been since 1865. In the U.S., sales of bourbon caught up with Canadian whisky in 2010 and bourbon now outsells it by a tiny margin. However, in North America as a whole, Canadian whisky still dominates. Canadian whisky is huge and in a typically Canadian manner, it flies under the radar.

Q: What is one of your favourite myths or folk stories about whisky?

A: Whisky marketing people love to use (and create) myths to help sell whisky and cast their brand in a good light. One of my favourites is the false story that Prohibition launched Canadian whisky in the U.S. market. In truth, 60 years before Prohibition, the American Civil War so disrupted American distillation and delivery channels that America looked to Canada as a reliable source of whisky. By 1865 -- three generations before Prohibition -- Canadian whisky was the best-selling whisky in the U.S. and it remained so until the recent bourbon renaissance pushed bourbon neck-and-neck with Canadian whisky.

The reality of Prohibition is that it hurt Canadian whisky sales. Canada had a great legitimate sales and distribution network in the U.S. before Prohibition but the Volstead Act put an end to it and Canadian distilleries suffered badly. It is said that in the last few years of Prohibition more Canadian whisky evaporated from the warehouses than was sold. And if you look at sales records and grain purchases, that is a story that is much easier to believe.

Q: When it comes to drinking whisky, there are a lot of "you gotta do it this way" bits of advice floating around. In your opinion, what's the best way to enjoy whisky? How do you personally like to take yours?

A: The mystique around how to taste whisky has been cultivated by people who were trying to establish their credibility as experts, or sell glassware. That's a shame as it really has reduced a lot of people's pleasure in a dram. When I get together with my friends who have enjoyed a lot of whisky, one thing we all understand is that there is no wrong way to drink it. Straight, diluted, mixed, with ice, without -- it all depends on the occasion. So, when someone tells you that there is a proper way to drink whisky the best thing to do is nod and smile, but know in your heart that there really is no such thing.

Professional tasters in a distillery will dilute a whisky sample to 20-23 per cent. Is that the best way? Only if you are in a hurry to analyse all the flavours and reveal the flaws. Some will say that you must use a tulip-shaped glass to focus the flavous. This is probably the best way to isolate the aromas, especially if you want to write tasting notes. Some will say no ice, others will say no water. However, if you know that ice tends to decrease certain flavours you can use it to disguise alcohol and make inexpensive whisky even more enjoyable. Water tends to free up certain congeners -- flavourants -- so adding a few drops can make everything seem more flavourful. But there is no one correct way to taste whisky. It all depends on the occasion.

We need to stop letting so-called experts intimidate us and make us feel that our tasting techniques are inadequate. If you can remember the flavour or smell of fresh bread, bacon or maple syrup, then you already have all the equipment and aptitude you need, and you don't need expert advice or special techniques to taste whisky. If you enjoy such things, go ahead and follow a ritual, and let others enjoy it their own way too.

My favourite way to drink whisky is with friends, neat, with water, or with ice, in any old glass. My two favourite aspects of whisky are friends and conversation. We need to stop taking whisky so seriously and simply enjoy it.

Q: What are some foods and dishes that pair very well with whisky?

A: Much of what we eat does not go well with whisky. Food pairs best with drinks that quench our thirst -- wine and beer. Red wine works so well with red meat because blood and tannins combine so beautifully. Whisky and other sipping drinks are not naturals to have with a meal. However, there are some truly great exceptions. For example, a sip of whisky after a bite of spicy or peppery food can be sensational. You don't taste the whisky but the spices simply explode in your mouth creating an all-new and pleasurable tasting experience.

As well, wine-finished whisky pairs beautifully with chocolate. Try 70 per cent chocolate with Canadian Club Sherry Cask, Pike Creek 10 year old, or Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. They are each wonderfully complementary to chocolate.

Another real treat is sweet whisky with ice cream. A particular favourite of mine is Black Velvet Toasted Caramel with non-dairy coconut ice cream. Absolute bliss. Maple whisky with green-tea ice cream has some crispy creamy woody notes that are simply delicious.

Where whisky works especially well with food though, is in cooking. Adding whisky to any kind of seafood brings out flavours that are too subtle otherwise to be appreciated. The trick is not to use too much whisky. This works with anything from Jack Daniels to Ardbeg but is especially good with crisp old-style Canadian rye. Whisky-plank salmon, for example, is a West Coast favourite.

The best whisky-food pairing ever though, is peaty Islay Scotch poured over fresh oysters on the half shell. You cannot beat that experience.

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