You always learn something new when speaking with the people who make whisky for a living, and few are as naturally informative as Dr. Don Livermore, the man behind Lot 40, Pike Creek and Wiser’s Canadians, all part of the new old wave of rye-forward Canadian whiskies that, whether the word “Canadian” appears on the label or not, have been swept up in the gold rush for rye now going on in American bars and whisky shops.
Livermore and his Hiram Walker Distillery, where the Pernod-Ricard Canadians are made, are hardly the only ones pushing out interesting Canadian these days. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is the most notable success story lately, but numerous unattributed ryes - Masterson’s, WhistlePig, and Lock, Stock & Barrel, to name only three - have their origins on the great northern plains. Many of the now-popular brands are touted as 90% or even 100% rye, no easy task for a distiller, but Livermore gets a little bugged when people ask him about what percentage of rye a certain spirit is made from.
“The percentage of rye in the whiskey is irrelevant; if you run a 100% rye spirit through a column still twice, and any number of distillers do, you end up with a much lighter base whisky and it doesn’t matter what grain it is: you can’t tell once all the character has been stripped out,” he says.
Livermore says the essential qualities of rye (floral, fruity, grainy) that make it flavorful are generally removed when the second distillation occurs in a column still. However, when the first-run spirit is then distilled again in a pot still, the craft of the distiller takes over and determines how much to cut and where, and how to concentrate the rye’s spicy, heavier qualities to suit today’s fan. It’s a matter of tastes swinging back. For Wiser’s rye for instance, Livermore uses a formula from the 19th century to make something he considers closer to the traditional Canadian style whisky than what recently has become the standard: the light, mellow, easy but not especially characterful or flavorful whisky that has become synonymous with Canadian.
That’s all changing, as the large companies who own all this tasty stuff are tweaking formulas for new brands and line extensions designed to emphasize what Livermore says is a Canadian strength.
“We do ourselves a disservice up here, not telling the story of the heritage and quality of Canadian whisky. The quality is here, but we may be too humble, tending to apologize rather than brag,” he says.
Could be, but now they’re more likely to let the whisky do the talking.