A distillery which was partly responsible for Canadian whiskey's shabby reputation this weekend held its first-ever master class at the prestigious Victoria Whisky Festival, signifying the industry's wholesale shift toward higher quality.
"Everybody equated cheap with Highwood," concedes Jarrod Grant, operations and quality assurance manager at the 38-year old Alberta distillery. "People used to say our niche was the $10 whiskey you can get drunk with on the weekend."
But rather than promote its affordability or lower-class cool, much as PBR did in 2009 when it parlayed its divey associations into a 30 percent jump in sales, Highwood is now distancing itself from its "Highwood Flywood" past. The transition was helped enormously by renewed interest in Canadian distilling and by Highwood's 2005 acquisition of Potter's, British Columbia's only distillery. The purchase added a dozen new brands to Highwood's portfolio, and left the company with a store of premium aged whiskey.
"We had aged whiskey, but we didn't have anything like this stuff here," Grant said of the 25-year commemorative whiskey he was pouring at the event.
Highwood last year produced just 6000 bottles of its 25-year old Calgary Stampede, a last-minute collaboration with the famed rodeo which required Grant to scramble for a distinctive bottle design and appropriate label. Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whiskey: The Portable Expert, used descriptors such as "brawny richness", "creamy mouth feel" and "soft pleasant woody notes" in his five-star review of the $52 whiskey, which is now nearly impossible to find.
The Calgary Stampede claimed a gold medal at the festival's Canadian Whisky Awards, first organized in 2011 by De Kergommeaux to promote Canadian whisky. While the genre's profile has soared in recent years, whiskey blogger Johanne McInnis said Canadian distilleries still appeared to draw the fewest sample-seekers at the festival's Scotch-centric tasting gala.
McInnis and I participated in a Canadian whiskey tasting panel convened by WhiskyCast, a popular whiskey podcast, which included Highwood's 15/25 Century Reserve. The whiskey was rough and woodsy, but most definitely not the proper fuel for a weekend bender.
Grant says his job now is to barrel and bottle with an eye toward maintaining its commitment to quality.
"We have to maintain our economic segment, while planning how much liquor to put away," he says.