Dave has a great passion when it comes to enlightening people about the history, production and of course the creation of cocktails with Canadian Whisky.
He was the co-owner and operator of several well-known restaurants and bars in Toronto as well as the inaugural President of The Canadian Professional Bartenders Association, Ontario Chapter.
Canadian Whisky with Dave Mitton
Dave has always had a great devotion for community and security amongst bartenders. He is a big believer in training and providing staff with the knowledge and tools they need when it comes to making great drinks and everything else that comes with working behind the bar.
Where do you think the category originates from, and in what time period was this?
1762 to 1850 Highland Clearances – Scottish immigrants came to Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances, where rich, urban landlords forced people out of their homes, causing mass displacement and relocation to North America. With them, came their distilling techniques, and as people moved inland, and Quebec and Ontario began to be settled, resourceful distillers started looking to local crops, namely cereal grain, for inspiration.
1776 American Revolutionary War – The British lost the war and anyone fighting with them were considered British loyalists and they migrated north to Canada in masses in the early to mid-1800s, bringing with them their expertise producing wheat products. They were the first commercial distillers in Canada, and wheat was the first commercially distilled grain. Wheat is a lighter, softer, sweeter grain. That is what Canadians were used to drinking… until the Germans brought rye to Canada, much like they did in the U.S. A train system was being built from east to west, connecting people, connecting ideas, leading to innovation in many industries – whisky included.
Soon, the English began adding just a little bit of rye to their wheat whiskies (5-10%), changing the flavour profile drastically from what people were used to drinking – adding a spicy note. So, if you were lucky enough to go to a saloon and see 2 barrels on the backbar, you either ordered a whisky (wheat whisky) or a rye (wheat whisky with a tiny bit of rye added). As an ode to that history, Canadian whisky does not have a minimum amount of rye required to label it a “Canadian rye whisky.” Eventually, the northerners got their hands on corn from the U.S. and began to grow it themselves. And, today, the most distilled grain in Canada is corn. Again, a lighter, softer, sweeter grain.
1789 to 1815 French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars – The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars led to shortages of brandy, which was England’s spirit of choice. Turning to grain spirit, the English were only allowed to mash less than 25 tons annually in the Highlands of Scotland. They could acquire grain spirit from the lowlands, but taxation was very high. This created incentive and motivation for importing whisky from North America. Canadian whisky makers started using Brandy and Cognac in their blends to attract Cognac and Brandy drinkers into the category of Canadian whisky.
1861 to 1865 American Civil War – The American Civil War was one of the most devastating conflicts to ever take place in North America, having not just a profound effect on the political landscape, but also on commerce, and on the American whiskey industry. As a result, the years encompassing this conflict saw tremendous growth for Canadian whisky. A-number-of American businessmen, J.P. Wiser and Hiram Walker specifically, acquired properties in Canada because taxation was lower; land was cheaper, access to the US market, civil war, and rumours of prohibition. During Civil War, the production of American Whiskey was for the most part in the south. When the America North started to fight the south, it cut off the whiskey supply.
1920 to 1933 American Prohibition – It’s common opinion that Canadian whisky got a major boost from the introduction of Prohibition in the United States, which took place from 1920 to 1933. It was a time of lawlessness and smuggling activities. Two key individuals took advantage of the situation, Sam Bronfman and Harry Hatch. Harry began as a salesman with the Corby Distillery and, also owned a bar in Oshawa, Ontario. The main clientele Harry’s bar were fishermen. Harry both strong-armed and convinced the fishermen to sell Corby whisky across Lake Ontario. One savvy tactic he often used to leverage his offers was to finance loans that fishermen took out for their boats. At one point he had over 450 fishermen working for him, giving credence to the terms “Hatch’s Navy” or “rum runners”. He grew the Corby brand during a time when Canadian Whisky producers suffered. Harry tried to strike a deal with the owner of Corby for part-ownership of the company, but the owner refused. So, Harry left the Corby Distillery disgruntled, took out a loan, and bought the Gooderham & Worts Distillery in 1923. Corby’s sales plummeted. Harry Hatch’s business strategies succeeded as bought the four largest distilleries in Canada at fire-sale prices – Gooderham & Worts, JP Wiser’s, Corby, and Hiram Walker – within 8 years. This led to the consolidation of the Canadian whisky industry.
Post American Prohibition – After American Prohibition, as cocktail culture slowly re-established itself in Canada and the United States, Canadian blends quickly became the best-selling whisky, even out selling American whiskey. With its consistently smooth, sweet, and slightly peppery qualities, Canadian whisky was a perfect fit for the era. It provided a great base for all the sturdy, spirit-forward cocktails that people loved in the 1950’s and early 60’s.
The USA had very little aged whiskey and very little regulations in place until the 1960s. Some American producers were blending in NGS, unaged whiskey, amongst other products of lower quality. They still do and can by regulation today if it is labeled a blended whiskey. This has boosted the Canadian whisky market, as all Canadian whisky had a minimum aging requirement and were seemingly of better quality.
What is Canadian Whisky made from?
Canadian whisky is made from cereal grain like all whisky making countries, we use corn, rye, wheat, and barley in our blends.
In a nutshell how is it made?
Canada’s rules and regulations give us a blank palate to create some beautifully unique blends. To be called “Canadian Whisky”, the distilled spirit must be made with cereal grain, this is true in all whisky-making countries. Everything must be distilled in Canada in any distillation style, so we can take away characteristics of the grain or concentrate up flavours of the grain. We once column distill, we double column distil, we once column distil and then pot distill as well.
The spirit must be aged in Canada in small wooden barrels no larger than 700 litres for a minimum of 3 years. This leaves us with endless aging options. Like Scotland and Ireland, we use quite a bit of ex-bourbon casks from our neighbours to the south. But we also use new American oak, new French oak, Rum casks, Speyside casks, Peated Quarter casks, Sherry casks, Madeira casks, Port casks, Sea casks, Cherry cask, Cognac casks, and many others. Here’s a little-known fact; I bet you didn’t know that Canada was the first country to mandate an aging law for their whisky in 1887. Canadian whisky must be bottled at a minimum of 40% abv (80 proof). But we go as high as our cask strength whiskies, which get up to 64% abv (128 proof). Like most whiskies, it may contain spirit caramel for colour consistency.
Lastly, it may contain 9.09% of an aged spirit of no less than two years, or wine. The addition of spirits has always been part of our process in making whisky. For instance, in the late 1800’s Canadian whisky producers would add Rum and Cognac, to attract Rum and Cognac drinkers to the category. And it worked extremely well, the only problem is things like rum and cognac were and are very expensive to purchase and add to the blend of whisky. Because of that, we don’t generally take advantage of this rule at Hiram Walker and Son’s Distillery, but we have in the past, to create some truly unique and special expressions of whisky.
One of the biggest take-aways about Canadian whisky production is that the grains are all produced separately. They go through fermentation, distillation, and maturation at 100% grain builds. Most Canadian distilleries do not make mash bills, and most American whiskey distillers do. It’s not regulated that Canadian whisky be made this way, just like it’s not regulated that American whiskey be made from a mash bill of grains. It’s just the way it is done, primarily. So, in large, American distillers blend their grain profiles at the beginning of production making a mash bill. And Canadian distillers blend their grain profiles after production, which is why the Canadian whisky category is so well known for its blended whiskies.
Why should everyone be drinking Canadian Whisky?
While the competitive sport of “my whisky is rarer, older, more expensive than yours” does still exist, a younger audience is drinking it in the spirit of fun. In the past, Canadian whisky was seen as “your father’s drink.” These perceptions are now being demolished. Whisky is the drink everyone wants to be seen with in hand. Consumer orders at bars revolve around classics like the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, and Whiskey Sour.
Canadian whisky has reached a larger, more diverse audience through cocktails. Whisky cocktails are integral to the experience, and today these are some of the highest revenue-generating categories on menus. Bartenders are pushing boundaries to give us drinks that are “Instagrammable” and delicious; it is natural that Canadian whisky should pitch itself to mixing with where we were there in classic cocktail recipes in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s just as American Rye was.
Why should everyone drink your brand?
That would depend on which brand you’re talking about. We bottle distillates of single grain, such as Lot No. 40. Being one-hundred percent rye whisky, it works perfectly in classic cocktails, such as an Old Fashioned, Manhattan, or Vieux Carré. It holds its own up against big full-bodied vermouths and herbal liqueurs. But it also has a soft and sweet elegance to it, making it extremely versatile in lighter and more refreshing cocktails, paired with sherries, citrus, and bubbles.
We also blend and bottle multiple distillates, each made of a different grain, like Gooderham & Worts which is one of our more complex blends of four grains and seven distillates. This whisky being sweet, rich, full-bodied, and spicy makes for a perfect sipper on its own. But it’s perfect in classic cocktails such as a warming and slightly bitter “Toronto” or a refreshing “Whisky Sour”.
And we also barrel finish some of our whiskies, for instance Pike Creek 10YO whisky which is finished in rum barrels. This whisky is stunning to sip on its own, but it is extremely versatile when used in cocktails as well. In the warmer months it works perfectly with warming spice syrups and fresh tropical juices, such as “Sours” or “Tiki” cocktails. And in the colder months its soft, sweet, and rich qualities pair up perfectly in “Dessert” and “Coffee” cocktails.
Give us one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding Canadian Whisky!
One of the strangest things I’ve heard while working in the United States, throughout my nine years in this role, is Canadian whisky producers can put whatever they want in their whisky? Nothing could be farther from the truth, we can’t put neutral grain spirit, juice, or maple syrup, as I’ve been asked numerous times.
This always sounded so strange to me, and I couldn’t understand where this misconception was coming from, until some of my American friends who work in the whiskey world explained to me that unlike Canada, Ireland, and Scotland, some categories of American whiskey allow up to eighty percent neutral grain spirit into their blends and are considered American whiskey. So as far as I can tell, this misconception comes from people getting some American whiskey making rules and regulations mixed up with Canadian rules and regulations. With the United States having over 36 categories of whiskey, that’s a lot of rules and regulations to keep track of.
Coolest story or anecdote about the Whisky category?
I’ll give you a few! The United States of America consumes 25 million cases of all 36 categories of American whiskey combined annually. The United States of America also consumes over 24.1 million cases of the solo category of Canadian whisky annually. The state of Texas consumes more Canadian whisky than the entire country of Canada every year. It’s been produced and sold in over 160 countries around the world for nearly 200 years, it’s arguably the most overlooked and misunderstood category of spirits, and yet, the category is going through a renaissance and still considered “under the radar” to many enthusiasts.
For decades, Canadian whisky has been stereotyped as unassuming, a bit bland and adverse to change. It wasn’t considered premium like Scotch whisky, exotic like Irish whiskey or fun like Bourbon whiskey; it just wasn’t cool. But these days, Canadian producers are challenging those preconceptions, celebrating our diversity, and youthful spirit, and embracing innovation.
Favourite cocktail made with your brand, ideally something everyone can make at home or in their bars?
I’m a huge fan of an Old Fashioned made with Lot No. 40, it’s a drink where both flavour and colour of the base spirits shines.
The delicate bite of our 100% pot distilled rye, gently softened by a touch of water, sweetened by a lump of sugar and accented by the bitters, which bring together the drink’s ingredients in complete harmony. All this with a hint of fresh, bright citrus oils on your initial sip.
Over to you. Anything else you want to tell everyone about Whisky, your brand or anything else?
Some fun facts about Hiram Walker and Sons Distillery:
- Our distillery is the most southerly in Canada, giving it a unique climate for aging whisky. It’s also one of the largest in North America, processing over 112,000 metric tons of corn per year, and over 10,000 metric tons of rye as well as wheat and barley. Annually we distill about 51 million litres of alcohol.
- We have 19 grain silos which hold 750 metric tons of each grain.
- We have 39 fermentation tanks that hold 200,000 litres each, and they make 180,000 litres of alcohol per day.
- 2 column stills 5 stories high, with a capacity of 55 million liters of alcohol per year; 37.5 million liters will go into whisky fills.
- 1,300 barrels are drained and filled daily in an 8-hour period.
- 16 warehouses that are 480 ft. x 200 ft. x 20 ft. Inside barrels are staked 6 pallets high with 600 barrels per row.
- Our warehouses, located in Pike Creek, are at the most southern tip of Canada where temperatures reach up to 35°C (95°F) in the summer months and as low as – 40°C (-40°F) in the winter months.
- We are aging over 1.6 million barrels at any given time.
- We lose 3% every year to the “angels’ share”, which equals to 48,000 barrels of whisky. 5 million cases bottled per year.
The history of alcohol and cocktails is not only fascinating, but it can be confusing and frustrating too. Especially as it can all change without notice as historians and researchers regularly unearth new pieces of information that up-end our favourite booze stories, muddle our understanding of different categories, and even undermine our most solid facts!
As always, don’t forget to show us what you made by tagging us!
@Candra_Drinks #MakeBetterDrinks #CandraDrinks
As always, don’t forget to show us what you made by tagging us!
@Candra_Drinks #MakeBetterDrinks #CandraDrinks