There were hundreds of whiskies for sampling this past weekend at Victoria Whisky Festival, an event that has a global reputation for seriousness and comprehensiveness. But I was most interested in trying the Canadian whiskeys, a few of which aren't yet available in the U.S. -- and at least one of which isn't yet available in Canada. The following whiskeys were especially riveting, and worth seeking out even if a border crossing's required.
Canadian Club has released a whiskey with 30 years of aging behind it, but folks who know (namely, Davin de Kergommeaux) assured me that the 20-year old spirit is even tastier than its elder brother. While I was biased to like anything with the Canadian Club label after learning the brand was launched in 1858 by a Detroiter who bought cheap land across the river in Windsor, I'd wager it wouldn't require a provincial mindset to love this terrifically elaborate spirit's woodsy, toffee-like flavors.
Named for Bat Masterson, a Canadian emigrant who became a U.S. marshal and buffalo hunter, Masterson's is a 10-year old straight rye produced by Sonoma's Sebastiani wine family. "We wanted to take a wine approach," owner Richard Zeller explains. "We wanted the best rye, and the only country that does a great job with rye is Canada." Since its release last August, Zeller has entertained offers to buy the entire bottling of 4000 cases. While the whiskey has a delicacy and balance befitting a liquor made by someone with a wine background, its dominant flavors are manly: There are lovely notes of tobacco, leather and earth.
Canadian distillers of very proud of their homegrown grains, but it's rare to find a whiskey aged in Canadian wood. White oaks are slow to grow in Canada's cool climate, so Canadian whiskey is typically barreled in American white oak. But Forty Creek's John Hall found a stand of oaks just miles from his distillery, and used the 150-year old trees to make casks for his Confederation Oak, a whiskey that sounds notes of vanilla and fruit -- and has a raft of awards to show for it.
In the U.S. whisky market, the absence of color indicates a distillery's trying to tap into the nostalgia for backwoods moonshine or -- more likely -- couldn't afford to wait to release its first product. But Canadian distillers aren't allowed to slap a whiskey label on white dog, since federal law requires all whiskeys spend three years in the barrel. To produce a clear liquor, White Owl filters its aged whiskey, emulating a method that once had a strong foothold in Quebec under the name "whisky blanc." de Kergommeaux likens the end product to Sprite "with hints of oak tannins." Since we're already talking soda, I think the drink's even closer to Squirt, with strong citrus flavors and a creamy mouth feel. A spiced version is slated for release this year.