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Distilling a new industry

Veteran and fledgling whisky producers offer traditional flavours and new methods

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whisky barrels

Atlantic Canada is home to plenty of die-hard single-malt scotch drinkers, Bourbon imbibers, and fanatical patriots who only drink Canadian rye. But what these traditionalists may have missed is the growing Atlantic Canadian-whisky sector.

Our modern whisky scene started with Glenora Distillery in Glenville, N.S. in 1990. This industry icon in Cape Breton is a distillery and inn with a popular restaurant and pub.

Glenora released North America’s first single-malt whisky in 2000. Today its product list boasts Glen Breton Rare, in 10-, 14-, and 19-year varieties, the Glen Breton Ice range, aged in Jost ice-wine barrels, and the more affordable six year Fiddler’s Choice, to name but a few. In June, the distillery launched a 13-year-old peated single-malt whisky named Gleann Dubh, The Dark Glen.

The North American small-distillery movement caught on enthusiastically in Atlantic Canada, with various new producers popping up over the years.

Caldera Distilling, in River John, N.S., exemplifies the new wave of North American whisky producers. A pioneer in local distilling, Caldera grows corn, rye and wheat, to distill and age into estate whiskies.

“I am aiming for a truly Canadian style,” says Jarret Stuart, Caldera’s owner. He distills and ages corn, rye, and wheat individually, then blends the spirits before diluting to 40% alcohol for bottling. This allows Caldera to make the most out of corn, a more economical grain to grow and make into a spirit. The resulting products are smooth, delicious, and familiar to lovers of good Canadian rye whisky.

Much of that flavour and smoothness come from barrel aging in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels and Oloroso sherry casks. Bourbon barrels contribute sweet vanilla notes, while sherry casks add a fruity, nutty complexity.

Stuart says barrels are expensive, but necessary for good whisky.

“We have done a fine juggling act of purchasing larger quantities than required,” he says, “but then have to keep them moist until ready to fill. Only by committing to larger orders can we ensure a stream of barrels.”

Farm-to-bottle distilling is new here, but Stuart says “the numbers are there.” Caldera yields about 400 litres of pure alcohol per ton of corn, and grows about 560 tons on-site. “We will never be the ‘great plains’ for production but that is not what we want, either,” he says. “I want to pull through grains grown here in the Maritimes.”

Caldera is expanding, with two large pot stills on order from Scotland, and plans to add a continuous column still in the following year.

“Now that we are exporting to the U.S.A. and Europe, we are getting exposure to how big the Canadian whisky opportunity is in the world,” Stuart says. “I think if we stick to our Maritime tradition of paying extraordinary attention to seemingly ordinary details we will continue to impress the world and open a truly global playing field.”

Another new producer, Distillerie Fils du Roy in Petit-Paquetville in northern New Brunswick, has plans for whisky. Owner Sebastian Roy already makes Gin Thuya, Absinthe, and other spirits, and a line of Acadian-themed beers under the Fils du Roy name.

“I bought equipment to produce whisky in 2014, quickly realizing how complex and expensive was that venture,” he says. “I re-invested in 2016 in a 3,000-litre alembic [a special type of still], and another 500-litre alembic for the second distillation. I started to produce one barrel per week. I just ordered 50 oak barrels to increase my production to three barrels per week.”

Roy’s first release is scheduled for 2018 because Canadian whisky cannot be named thus until it ages at least three years. He plans to name it “The First Commercial New Brunswick Whisky,” due to its historical significance.

He is currently aging 60 barrels of single-malt whisky. “I do not have two barrels that have the same taste,” he says. “I use different yeasts and different techniques all the time.” A taste of his young spirit, which is still a very pale gold, reveals an attractive nose reminiscent of an unpeated Lowland scotch.

East Coast Living