Canadian Whisky gets its due from veteran connoisseur Davin de Kergommeaux

What a difference five years can make … in the world of Canadian whisky. That old Crown Royal bag that held your marbles back in the day has a lot more cache these days.

Global attention was captured when Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye was named the best whisky in the world in 2015. That same year it was not the best whisky in Canada, an award that was given to Lot No. 40, a rye whisky distilled in Windsor, Ontario.

That old rye and ginger that your grandfather liked to knock back is long gone by the wayside. It’s a brand new game and for Ottawa’s Davin de Kergommeaux, that’s pretty sweet.

De Kergommeaux has just released a new edition of his compendium Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert and he is enjoying halcyon days.

“We have always had good Canadian whiskies,” he said. But the award to Crown Royal has helped raise the respect level immensely, he added.

“The brands have really stepped up. They are producing fabulous whiskies and exporting them.”

De Kergommeaux says that the popularity of more robust full-flavoured whiskies has benefited  Canadian distillers. That doesn’t mean these drinks are more potent, he added.

“There is a new generation that says they would rather drink better whisky and drink less. People seem to be willing to spend more for really good whiskies.”

Coupled with the emergence of ‘cocktail’ culture has seen whiskies in general really take off in the last 10 years.

And that too has benefited Canadian rye whisky, he says.

“If you want to make a whisky cocktail you want to use a good whisky that has a lot of rye in it.”

Originally in Canada, whisky was made from wheat, he said. But starting about 150 years ago, rye was introduced into the mix to add flavour.

De Kergommeaux, who is a geneticist by training and knows much about grains, says rye grows well in the worst soil. In fact, the worse the land, the better the rye tastes.

His book was first released in 2012, but there has been a whisky revolution in Canada in the past five years which has seen craft distillers pop up across the country, producing high quality product, he says.

“This is one of the reasons I updated my book. We basically had eight major distilleries when my book came out the first time. Now the map on the inside of the front cover has 49 distilleries on it. Some of them are making very good whisky.

“I’m involved in the annual Canadian whisky awards and some of these smaller distillers are  walking away with the gold medals.”

It has also meant that keeping track of new products is an on-going battle.

“I have whiskies that I just haven’t be able to get to to taste. Collingwood, for example, has just released a wonderful whisky and I keep wanting to write tasting notes about it but I don’t have time.

“Every time I come home from the road, there is just a pile of boxes in the corner full of bottles of whisky that need to be tasted.”

De Kergommeaux was working in the federal government with Canadian International Development Agency when he caught the single malt bug in 1998.

“I was just enjoying (Scotch). I started with Johnnie Walker Red Label. I enjoyed it and I noticed that on the Internet, there wasn’t much happening, so I started a website called Malt Maniacs.

“It grew and pretty soon we picked up a phenomenal amount of traffic would get. Then we started the Maniac Awards and that meant we would get really valuable bottles of whisky to assess.”

There was a lot of early validation, he said, and there was a real sense of camaraderie with other aficionados.

That prompted de Kergommeaux to try to learn more. There wasn’t a course in appreciating whisky so he signed yup for the sommelier course at Algonquin College to learn about “how to smell things, how to taste things and analyse those flavours.” After class the students would have a whisky or two.

De Kergommeaux started to focus on Canadian whisky because the field was wide open.

“I have put in a lot of time now and I am really quite conversant. And I quite enjoy what I am doing.” He’s even picked up a partner who helps with the demands on his time such as writing for magazines.

His approach to assessing a whisky: “You have to be fair minded. There are people out there who are going to take your advice and if they are disappointed they are going to let you know and they are going to let everyone else know.”

He says he has been warned about showing his face around a particular distillery, but that doesn’t deter him.

“You have to be honest in your appraisals. I think it is helpful if you tell people what needs improvement. It means people can rely on me when I say a particular whisky is worth $175.”

He also doesn’t go out of his way to slam a product.

“I have a whisky, I won’t name, that wasn’t worth reviewing. It’s not helpful to say negative things. You can say them directly to the producer but to publish them isn’t good idea.”

The second edition is substantially changed from the first. All the tasting notes are new, he says, as are the chapters on tasting and flavour. And he’s added a chapter on the micro-distillery movement.

With all the changes in the industry, de Kergommeaux was hard at work right up to the date of publication on Oct. 3 to ensure the new edition was as up-to-date as possible. So far so good, he says. But, he added, he expects to produce a third edition in another five years.

For de Kergommeaux, it’s all good.

“There is fulfillment far beyond the monetary compensation,” he says.

The explosion in interest in rye whisky is shedding new light on Canada too, he says.

“When Crown Royal won, the first call I got was from another distiller who was shouting, ‘We won’. Canadian whisky has everybody excited.”

Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert
Davin de Kergommeaux (McClelland & Stewart)

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.