"If I had a penny for every time someone told me their granddad drank Canadian Club," says brand ambassador Tish Harcus. "The category is considered boring."
While many drinkers (and Boardwalk Empire fans) believe Canadian whiskey owes its American presence to Prohibition, Harcus points out that Canadian whiskeys first became popular south of the border when the Civil War disrupted U.S. whiskey production and distribution. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, the U.S government imposed a suite of labeling requirements and excise taxes to combat the growing American preference for Canadian liquor, then celebrated for its superior quality.
But if Canadians excelled at distilling, they didn't do a very good job of telling consumers so.
"The bourbon guys are tough cowboys, they've got it going on," says Harcus, who spent the weekend proselytizing for Canadian Club at Victoria's Whisky Festival, widely considered the continent's top whiskey event. "Here we are, we're passive Canadians with passive Canadian whiskey."
Yet the status quo may be unsettled by renewed interest in regional food-and-beverage styles and the acquisition of Canadian brands by the world's biggest distilling companies. For the first time in Harcus' memory, Canadian distillers last year gathered in Toronto to brainstorm ideas for recharging the category.
"We need to put a fire under it, start making noise," says Harcus.
Canadian whisky has already made inroads with savvy connoisseurs, an achievement that's partly attributable to the work of Davin de Kergommeaux, a prolific Canadian whiskey writer. His book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, will be published this spring.
"People who have an open mind need to try these," de Kergommeaux says of the finest Canadian whiskieys. "These are whiskeys the Queen would drink."
De Kergommeaux knows which Canadian whiskeys are best since he last year established the Canadian Whisky Awards. He picked the winners of the inaugural awards himself, but this year recruited a panel of judges to bestow the prizes, a strategy that both enhanced the program's esteem and exposed the spirit experts to Canadian whiskeys they might not have otherwise sampled. "If they taste the stuff, they'll write about it," he says.
Another change this year was the addition of an awards ceremony to the WhiskyFest program.
"It was unbelievable," De Kergommeaux says. Within hours of the ceremony, which was extensively covered on Twitter, liquor stores placed orders for the winning whiskeys and winning distillers reported distributors had sent them flowers.
"It's not moving at lightning speed, but there are big possibilities for us," Harcus says. "We're all trying to make Canadian whiskey bigger and better."