Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a PhD on the effect of oak wood maturation on whisky. And not only am I sitting across from the guy who wrote that thesis, but he's also absolutely schooling me on how much I don't know about Canadian whisky.
His name is Dr. Don Livermore, Master Blender at the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor, Ontario – North America's largest distillery. And he's irritated. He believes Canadian whisky is the world's most underrated and innovative style of whisky.
Yes, he's Canadian, but we'll leave that aside for a moment. Because when this Canadian talks about whisky, you listen.
Livermore started out as a microbiologist with Hiram Walker two decades ago and is now one of only two master blenders in the world to have gained both a Masters and a PhD in Brewing and Distilling from Edinburgh's Herriot Watt University. But one of the irritating aspects of his job has nothing to do with making whisky.
"I find Canadian whisky fascinating. But making people around the world aware of the history and story of our whisky is one of the real challenges of my job," he says.
The fall of Canadian whisky
Why has the story been lost? "Canadians are a humble, almost apologetic people, and while we've rested on our laurels, the story behind the quality and craftsmanship of our whisky has gone untold," Livermore says.
At its peak, the Canadian whisky category was number one in the world. By 1900, it was outselling its Scottish and Irish competition, and the Gooderham & Worts Distillery in Toronto was the largest distillery in the world.
And while the common narrative runs that Prohibition allowed Canadian whisky to flood into the US and cement its place at the top – "That's a complete myth," says Livermore. "People often think that Canadian whisky started with Prohibition in the US. In fact, Prohibition killed the Canadian whisky category."
A similar death befell other whisky producing nations during Prohibition, but most bounced back and are now flourishing in the current dark liquor renaissance we're all drinking our way through. The Canadians, however, have been slow to take advantage of the movement, which is one of the reasons why the J.P Wiser's range is now being released into Australia.
Wise up to Wiser's
The range is a neat encapsulation of Canadian whisky, from the entry level Triple Barrel, which balances a touch of rye-spiciness against a vanillin sweetness imparted from maturation in three different types of barrels: virgin American oak, used bourbon barrels, and used Canadian whisky barrels.
Through to the much spicier and full-bodied Lot 40, my pick of the bunch. It shows the full potential of what the Canadian style can achieve; the peppery, spicy, rye-bread character shines but never becomes dominant.
"How the whisky is distilled is more important in Canada because we ferment, distil and mature each grain separately before blending," Livermore explains. I sheepishly suggest that this is similar to the way a winemaker might operate, blending varietals together to achieve certain flavour profiles. Ten points. "That's exactly it. It allows you to control variation in the quality of grain from year to year, and gives you more freedom to enhance or subdue certain flavours," Livermore says.
Breaking the rules
But the freedom Canadian whisky producers enjoy has won the category both fans and foes. Canadian regulations around the production of whisky are much less restrictive than those of their Scottish and American counterparts. Minimum aging is one main similarity; in fact, Canada was the first country to introduce a minimum aging requirement back in 1890. But that's where the commonalities end.
For instance, Canadian regulations don't stipulate that a particular type of grain must be used, in contrast to single malt, American bourbon and rye producers. There's also no legislation around the types of wood and barrels producers can mature whisky in, as long as they're smaller than 700L. And one of the craziest differences allows additives to be added to the tune of 9.09 per cent of the total volume of the whisky.
The Canadian Alberta Rye Dark Batch whisky exploits this to the fullest by adding 8 per cent American bourbon and 1 per cent oloroso sherry to the blend – many in the boozerati would consider that pure sacrilege.
Making it new
But as Livermore points out, this flexibility has allowed Canadian distillers to be bold, get innovative, and craft some seriously interesting whiskies.
"I like being creative, and as a blender I don't want to be constrained by regulatory issues. I do want important, concrete rules to protect the consumer. But at the end of the day, I want regulations to enhance innovation, that's what makes it exciting. I look at other whisky categories and when they try to innovate they're often just reiterations or microcosms of something that's already there."
This freedom allowed Livermore to create J.P Wiser's Hopped Whisky. The current mania for heavily-hopped ales and IPAs led him to experiment with a range of methods before taking a leaf directly out of the brewer's handbook.
"I went through 158 prototypes to make that whisky before I hit upon dry hopping our whisky post maturation, like some of the best IPA's do. It's not released in Australia just yet. But I'm hoping this hop-style whisky becomes a mainstay across the industry."
Livermore hints at a range of other projects he's working on, from experiments with yeast strains dating back to the 1930s, to whiskies matured in a range of different casks from around the world, and other top secret stuff that will be hitting the market soon. His approach, like the Canadian industry more broadly, is informed by tradition, heightened with analysis, and if you're a curious imbiber, the results are certainly worth investigating.
A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.