One of the most interesting aspects of Savour Stratford continues to be the Tutored Tastings held on Saturday. They're a great chance to learn about a gastronomic topic you've always wanted to explore. In my case it was local whisky via the Whisky vs. Bourbon tasting, which made a return appearance after being one of the most popular tastings last year. Led by Davin de Kergommeaux, one of Canada's authorities on all things whisky, attendees were able to taste what makes Canadian whisky unique from Scotch or American bourbon.
De Kergommeaux explained that history is the reason why Canadian whisky is often called rye. Initially whisky in Canada was primarily wheat-based. Wheat makes a decent whisky and back when Ontario was the country's bread basket, producing much of the wheat for Canadians, creative types seized an opportunity using the byproduct to make whisky. But someone even more ingenious had the idea of adding a touch of rye to it, which imparts a spicy peppery note. Word traveled fast that rye greatly improve the flavour and it became a hit with people specifying that they wanted rye whisky. It was that rye character which helped build Canadian whisky's reputation and is why people still tend to get a Canadian whisky when the ask for rye in their drink at the bar.
Despite that nickname Canadian whisky has always contained rye as a minority ingredient. As de Kergommeaux explained rye can be quite potent so a little goes a long way. Although in recent times times there's been a movement to add more rye to modern whiskies it's still very much a secondary grain in most Canadian whisky. De Kergommeaux believes that is okay because of the way whisky is made in Canada. “In Canada rye is more of a flavour and in the U.S. it's a process,” he explained.
American rules for making rye are quite clear. To be labeled rye, the mash (the grain-water base that begins the process) needs to be made with 51 percent rye, distilled to the required alcohol level and aged for at least two years in new, charred oak barrels. To be called Canadian whisky or Canadian Rye Whisky (there's really no legal distinction between the two), a whisky only needs to be aged for three years and smell, taste and have the character of a Canadian whisky. In short that means there's few hard and fast rules mandating what grains go in it. Despite that the rye nickname continues and climate has a role to play in that. The colder winters in Canada mean whisky tends to age at a much slower rate than it does in the southern states like Kentucky, where most bourbon is made. Without the requirement to only use new charred barrels and an additional year of aging means more previously used and un-charred barrels are used in Canadian whisky production. Interestingly that actually helps produce a rye flavour, as those used barrels contain more of a rye-like flavour compound. Whereas new, charred oak barrels contain more vanillin and produce a sweet vanilla-like flavour, which is prominent in bourbon. It's a difference that you can taste and you don't need an expert's experience to do so, de Kergommeaux told the audience during the tasting.
The key is to not be intimidated, he said. As he points out you weren't taught how to taste bacon or maple syrup, but you could probably describe their distinct taste to anyone who asks. Whisky is not really different, tasting it is simply a matter of drawing on your experiences of eating and drinking and using your senses to describe what you're smelling, tasting and feeling in it.
The tasting began with Balvenie's 12 year Doublewood as a baseline. As with all single malt Scotches, this standby is made from malted barley. Also as is typical, this Scotch is aged in old oak barrels that were previously used to age bourbon. This one however is finished in a previously used Sherry cask imparting a bit of nuttiness. I found this scotch to be quite mellow and nicely layered with a nose of honey, dates and hint of vanilla and nutty sherry on finish. That honey and dark fruit combination is what is prevalent on the palate and it's joined by a touch of smoke and peppermint on the finish. This certainly wasn't the the most intriguing Scotch I've ever encountered, but overall it provided those nuanced honeyed notes and refined character that you expect from one.
The first Canadian whisky we tasted, Wiser's Small Batch, was remarkably different. It was much bolder and more reminiscent of sweet dessert than the Scotch. There were notes of bold butterscotch, burnt sugar and cinnamon with a touch of pepper on the finish that I associate with Canadian whisky. I found it interesting, but its rich round feel lacked the tension which would keep me coming back for another glass.
Up next was another whisky from Wiser's called Legacy. It shared a family resemblance to the Small Batch with its bold flavours, but it was a bit more refined in its approach. Just like the Small Batch the Legacy harkens back to recipes the company founder, J.P. Wiser made in the mid-late 19th century—so there's a bit more rye in it. In fact it features malted rye distilled in an old-style copper pot. Legacy draws you in with toffee, dark fruit and the sweet smell of cookie spices. Those cookie spices were a harbinger of things to come. After the initial flavour of toffee coated dates, came a wave of bold spices. There was cinnamon, allspice, peppery rye and a touch of caraway on the finish. The combination of the spice and additional alcohol left me with a bit of a hot feeling on the finish. Still what really intrigued me was a tangy note of pickle brine on mid-palate. Like a squeeze of lemon in cream sauce, it was that note which kept this whisky from tasting overly rich and round.
After the Legacy it was on to the bourbons. If there's a single thing that characterises all bourbon it's vanilla. Whereas the two Canadian whiskies had a flavour profile closer to rich, sticky toffee pudding or dense, spiced fruit cake, bourbon is closer to fudge or Scottish tablet. The first bourbon from Buffalo Trace was very much along that classic line with pure vanilla and a touch of caramel and sweet corn on the nose. After all, the mash of all bourbons is at least 51 percent corn, which has an underlying sweetness, but is largely neutral in favour. As a result bourbons rely on the notes from the charred new oak barrels and other grains in the mash (usually wheat, rye or a combination of the two) to provide much of their character. In this case rye happens to be providing most of the intriguing character and although it's in the minority, it makes its presence known. It doesn't show the same overt peppery character as the Canadian whiskies, but it shows on the finish and provides a bit of a spicy kick that counters the bourbon's natural sweetness. A little thicker than the Scotch, but not as fat and round as Canadian whiskies, this Buffalo Trace Bourbon was a nice compromise between the two in terms of texture.
The final whisky: an 8 year bourbon from Basil Hayden's was a little more esoteric than the Buffalo Trace. It possessed some intriguing nuances under the classic vanilla-forward bourbon flavour profile. Joining the vanilla and dark caramel was a subtle smokiness, cinnamon and a black tea note. It also has a intriguing hint of mossy undergrowth on the nose that drew me into the glass. Similar to the Buffalo Trace it had a nice satisfying and rich, but not too thick, latte-like texture and finish.
Overall this was fascinating tasting that provided structured guidance and education while still allowing you to explore and make discoveries on your own. As far as I'm concerned that's exactly what you want to get out of a tutored tasting. I would not be surprised if de Kergommeaux was invited back for another Whisky vs. Bourbon tasting at Savour Stratford next year.
The Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood
Wiser's Small Batch Whisky
Wiser's Legacy Canadian Whisky
Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
Basil Hayden's Straight Bourbon 8 Year
Written by Mike Di Caro
Michael Di Caro covers all things vinous at Spotlight. His lover affair with Ontario wine began over a decade ago and he’s been in front of tasting bars trying to sweet talk staff into pouring a taste of a library wine or the latest unreleased bottle ever since. Since good wine can’t be made without great grapes, you can also catch him amongst the vines trying to persuade the winemaker into revealing his/her next big thing for you on Spotlight. His epicurean tendencies don’t just stop in the glass either. During the rest of his free time you can find him searching for the perfect bowl of Dan Dan noodles, exploring the city’s best tasting menus or baking cookies and mucking about in the kitchen.