By Alexander Foot
The poor shoeless cousin of world whiskies is undoubtedly rye whisky. It is generally considered to be something your liverish uncle would top up with ginger ale or diet cola. Scotch, on the other hand, is regarded as an aristocratic tipple, with Irish a smooth alternative and Bourbon a staple of the horse-racing crowd.
Rye’s problems are myriad: it is too sweet, too proletarian, too Canadian. But I believe it is now time for a reconsideration of our humble home-grown hootch – one of only four national whiskies to be found in the world.
First of all, most ‘rye’ whisky is in fact corn whisky with a smattering of grains. That is why the famous labels (Crown Royal, Canadian Club, VO etc.) call themselves “Canadian” whisky. They dropped the word rye years ago when the public decided they preferred the smoother flavours imparted from corn. This pandering was, in my view, a mistake. A well-made rye has an unctuous fruity oiliness that is unique.
That is not to say there are not terrific corn-based Canadians out there. The Crown Royal made at Gimli – because of its proximity to the rich grainlands of the Red River Valley and the clear aquifer running beside and below Lake Winnipeg – is superlative. (While drinking in a Gimli bar late one summer’s night, a few locals explained to me that the much cheaper Club 83 is finished in the Crown barrels, a nugget that has been a godsend for those occasions when I am financially embarrassed). Some of the newer boutique distilleries are turning out fine product. And of particular note, Alberta Premium is made from 100 percent rye, with Centennial and Wiser’s Old Rye consisting of mainly rye but including other grains.
Recently, a cartoonist friend of mine (whose work can be found on these pages) and I decided to sample a range of Canadian whiskies at his ranch outside of Winnipeg. The wind was howling, the snow was drifting against the doors and his tamarack fire was blazing. The task ahead of us was difficult but somebody had to do it.
We kept copious tasting notes on the back of a cigarette package. These are now a little difficult to decipher and the last few lines seem to be the beginning of a country song, but the gist is this: all the whiskies were good, especially with a single ice cube and a splash of branch water. But Centennial, made in High River, Alberta, was fantastic. It is a drink that I would put against Bushmills or Jim Beam any day.
To give you a sense of the problems facing Canadian whisky, I will tell you about a tasting I attended a few years back. The faculty club at one of our august universities had invited the local liquor commission buyer to conduct a taste-test of world whiskies. The worthy gentleman lined a cornucopia of liquors along an oak sideboard with the labels covered in foil. He then proceeded to lead us through a tasting, asking us to guess the country of origin of each sample.
Now I have managed to drink gratis at many establishments where the young bartender fell for the old double or nothing game. (The rules are simple: she pours me a Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and Canadian, and if I guess even one wrong, I pay double for all.) Needless to say, for a palate as experienced as mine, this is a pleasant and inexpensive way to spend an evening.
Anyway, I began to amuse myself by writing down not only country of origin, but also brand and age. When my little parlour trick was exposed by the political scientist on my left, the liquor commission rep decided to put me in my place.
“Dr. Foot,” he said (I had somewhat exaggerated my academic credentials in order to be invited), “Are you aware that one of the whiskies tasted tonight was in fact a rye?”
The assembled professors chuckled in disbelief. They weren’t paying to taste rye.
“No, my good man,” I replied, checking my notes, “You have not served us a single rye.”
The rep triumphantly pulled the foil off one of the bottles. Canadian Club. There was a smattering of surprised applause.
I pointed at the bottle. “That is a corn whisky sir. Not a drop of rye in it. I think you will find in your own stores that only three brands still say rye on the label. All the rest will be called Canadian. In fact, I am prepared to bet on it.”
The poor fellow fell into my trap. We agreed that he would give me any bottle of whisky from any country stocked in his flagship store if I was right. The now quite-soused professors hooted in derision. They might not drink Canadian whisky but they knew it was called rye.
The next day the rep called me. In a subdued voice he told me he could find only three whiskies called rye in his entire inventory. He invited me down to make my winning selection.
I arrived at Grant Park within fifteen minutes. The humbled but honourable rep took me to the whisky section.
“I assume you will want one of these 25 or 30-year-old single malts,” he said, pulling the key for the glass doors from his pocket.
“Heavens no,” I replied. “That Alberta Premium over there will be perfect.”
“But that only costs twenty-five dollars,” he exclaimed.
I smiled happily. “Yes, but it is a real rye.”