Sunday, June 24, 2012
"Canadian Whisky - the portable expert" by Davin De Kergommeaux shines a brilliant spotlight on a vital area long overlooked
This isn't a book coming from some Canadian chamber of commerce type, however. Davin De Kergommeaux is one of the twenty-four Malt Maniacs - the elite group of whisky epicures who help mold and shape the culture and agenda of high end whisky epicurianism world-wide. Thus his whisky connoisseurship is impeccable and well predates his particular career as a blogger of and advocate for Canadian whisky. FYI - his blog http://www.canadianwhisky.org which has been around for a couple of years, is clearly the web's preeminent location for Canadian whisky reviews, news and scholarship. Since 2011 De Kergommeaux's position eminence concerning Canadian whisky was confirmed further by his appointment as Canadian Contributing Editor to Whisky Magazine.
Canadian Whisky is a fairly compact 300 pages. It begins with the elements of grains, water, and wood. Then it moves onto the mechanisms and methods of distillation, blending and aging. Next is flavor science, tasting, and epicurianism covered from glassware to flavor mapping. These sections on how to drink are brief but as solid a treatise on the subject as you'll find. Then De Kergommeaux spends the next hundred pages on "A concise history of Canadian whisky" - which consists of biographies of mercurial geniuses and titans of industry such as Gooderham and Worts, Thomas Molson, Henry Corby, Joseph E. Seagram, Hiram Walker, J.P. Wiser and Sam Bronfman. But this section is far more - it is the history of towns and whisky expressions both booming and long gone. It is a vigorous bit of investigative journalism into a secretive industry that is seldom documented well - if at all. This is the first time that this history has been told with anything like this kind of comprehensive reach and vision. It is a gripping achievement which will appeal to students of history and economics as much as whisky enthusiasts. It reminds me quite a bit of wonderful books of economic history such as Ron Chernow's The House of Morgan. The book concludes with 100 pages profiling the nine distilleries of Canada: Alberta, Black Velvet, Candian Mist, Gimli, Glenora, Highwood, Hiram Walker, Kittling Ridge, and Valleyfield. Yes, all of Canada's titanic output of whisky comes from just those 9 distilleries.
Interspersed among the content, as color block side bars, are brief encapsulated tasting notes. Ultimately, this is the weakest part of the Canadian Whisky. Anyone who wants to read the full treatment of these tasting notes will have to visit http://www.canadianwhisky.org as the full tasting notes do not appear in Canadian Whisky at all. This is really much more of a book about Canadian Whisky's history, production, and industry than a flavor analysis of the particular expressions. Nevertheless, this book has revolutionized my understanding and appreciation of Canadian whisky - not only because I now have a much fuller sense of the full segment and the universe of expressions being made (and that were made in the past). It's the depth of analysis of how Canadian distillers achieve their flavor profiles - and why they labor so hard to achieve them - than has really affected my comprehension and perspective. Most Canadian whiskies are blends. "Base" whiskies, typically distilled via column still at high proof, aged in extensively refilled barrels, and then diluted down to a greater extent than many other whisky traditions, are mixed with rye "flavoring" whiskies. Rye gives the character and the base whiskies bring sweetness and smoothness. Massive averaging and blending traditions assure consistency - but also another layer of smoothing. The incredible smoothness and soft finishes of Canadian whiskies are no accident. They are the achievement of a century of careful tuning to kill the bugaboo of 19th century raw whisky - roughness and the taste of youth.
Bottom line, every whisky drinker or student of any related field needs to read De Kergommeaux's Canadian Whisky - the portable expert. It is a towering achievement in the field of whisky writing and shines a brilliant spotlight into a huge, important, and yet almost totally overlooked subject.