Spotlight on Booze: Canadian Whisky

Make no mistake, this is not only your dad’s but also your grandfather’s whiskey. Depending on your age and where your family was during prohibition, it might even be your great-great-grandfather and/or grandmother’s whiskey. Say what you like about Canadian whisky, it’s stood the test of time.

Sometimes referred to, particularly in Canada, as rye despite the fact that it’s primarily made with corn spirits, Canadian whisky, unlike now resurgent American rye whiskey, never threatened to go away. Still, while some uninformed bartenders still think rye is just the name of a type of Jewish bread, it’s the rare bar that doesn’t stock Seagram’s V.O., Canadian Club, Crown Royal and often Black Velvet. Its the even rarer connoisseur or cocktail aficionado who will admit to being excited about them, with some liquor snobs deriding Canadian as “brown vodka.” Following their lead, younger drinkers who have taken to premium brands of bourbon and Scotch, have largely ignored it. That’s not to say unassuming Canadian Whisky has no fans among the cognoscenti. We kind of love it and no less an authority than cocktail historian David Wondrich suggests Canadian Club — a value-priced favorite of ours — as the perfect vehicle for an Old Fashioned, the most purist-friendly whiskey cocktail we know.

In any case, pop culture seems to be slowly becoming more aware of American rye whiskey’s almost-as-retro northern cousin. The 2008 primary elections saw Hillary Clinton swigging a much-discussed shot of Crown Royal, the very smooth Chivas Regal of Canadian. Though the label is angled so that the logo is just slightly out of our view, it’s clear that Canadian Club — first brewed by distilling legend Hiram Walker — is Donald Draper’s poison of choice on “Mad Men.” (In the first episode, newbie secretary Peggy Olson is informed that rye is the same as Canadian, and told it’s what her new boss drinks.) It also sure looks to be Canadian Club that washing up on the Jersey shore in HBO’s bootlegging themed early gangland drama, “Boardwalk Empire.” By law, Canadian whisky must be aged at least three years, though Canadian Club and Seagram’s V.O. are both aged for six

In fact, the popularity of Canadian whisky — which many insist must be spelled sans “e” — in the U.S. goes back to those dark days for everyone but gangsters between 1920 and 1933 when the sale and manufacture of liquor was illegal in the land of free and home of the brave, but thoroughly legal up north. Jewish-Canadian entrepreneur and liquor distributor Samuel Bronfman became wealthy and powerful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams by staying more or less on the right side of the law while doing business with the likes of Al Capone. He purchased Joseph E. Seagram’s and Sons and launched what became, for a time, a massive commercial and media empire. (It’s worth noting that the line’s flagship brand, Seagram’s 7 Crown, best known as the non-7-Up ingredient in a “7 and 7,” is not technically Canadian whisky. The U.S. version, at least, is bottled in Indiana and marketed as “an American whiskey,” whatever that is.)

Since it’s primarily blended and is generally not a very complex kind of a whiskey, it’s likely that Canadian will never have the cachet of bourbon, rye, or Scotch, but its hipness quotient may be improving slightly. Canadian Club has shrewdly played on its history with a series of attention-grabbing print ads with the slogan “Damn right, your dad drank it.” The ads alluded to the allegedly racy lifestyles of fathers of yore and used actual family photographs from Canadian Club employees.

As for cocktail and liquor aficionados, New York Times writer Robert Simonson blogged some time ago that his contacts in the gourmet and mixology worlds became obviously bored at the mere mention of Canadian whisky. However, Simonson’s April 2011 article details how there are real changes brewing in the world of Canadian booze. He specifically cites the highly acclaimed Forty Creek distillery and also attempts by better known makers of Canadian whiskey to brew blends that will appeal to drinkers used to the more complex flavors of today’s premium whiskeys.

Forty Creek does appear to be the most prevalent of the “new style” Canadian whisky manufacturers and we were able to pick up a bottle on sale at out local big-box beverage emporium. Our reaction was a bit mixed; we still think Canadian Club is more tasty and given its extremely low price, difficult to beat. Even so, we anxiously await the arrival of more and better Canadian whiskys. It’s time to see if our polite and funny friends to our north can create some premium whiskeys that will give some real competition to Kentucky and Tennessee, not to mention Scotland and Ireland.

  

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Drink of the Week: Highballs

Because it’s the start of the Memorial Day Weekend, traditionally a big time for picnics and barbecues, we’re going to keep it extra simple this week. So simple a “recipe” in the usual sense isn’t even required.

highball gin and tonicHighballs are not any one particular drink but any cocktail comprised of an alcoholic base and a much larger proportion of some non-alcoholic beverage. Ordinarily, we wouldn’t bother with a lot of highballs because there’s not much point in giving you a recipe for, say, rum and coke or a 7 and 7 (just in case you’re extremely new to booze, that’s 7-Up and Seagram’s 7 whiskey).  Your basic highball is 1-2 ounces of booze, a mixer to taste — about five or six ounces, maybe, and some ice. You can throw in a garnish of your preference, like a lime or lemon wedge, if you want to get fancy.

We’re making an exception this weekend because highballs really are the easiest cocktails to make if you’re going to be outdoors and away from the conveniences of home. Yes, it’s possible to drag your cocktail shaker, measuring shot glass, plenty of ice cubes (which you’ll be quickly tossing), assorted bitters, garnishes, and — most tricky of all– the appropriate type of glasses with you on a picnic. However, we’ve tried it and had fun with it, but it was no picnic. Yes, you can use plastic champagne glasses in place of martini glasses and it won’t be bad, but it’s still a lot of work, those plastic champagne glasses cost a few bucks, and they will never be the same as an actual chilled glass right out of  your freezer.

Of course, cocktail snobs look a bit downward on many of the most popular highballs — you’ll never see James Bond ordering a Jack Daniels and Coke, but then again you’ll never see him gnoshing on a Hoffy’s or Hebrew National at a picnic, either. Nevertheless, there are many beverages in the highball family with a degree of nobility that Bond and even snootier folks have been known to favor. For starters, no one should look down on you for your Scotch or bourbon and soda. (Depending on liquor laws and enforcement in your community, however, police officers may feel otherwise.)

If you really want to kick it old-old-old school, try taking some ginger ale along with the usual cola and lemon lime sodas. Dry ginger ale (not too heavy on the ginger) was the mixer of choice during prohibition, when most liquor was not of high quality; it still works very nicely. Canada Dry and Canadian whiskey was our grandmother’s beverage of choice and we think the old lady kind of knew what she was doing. (We love heavier, more gingeriffic, ginger ales like Vernor’s and ginger beers, and they are frequent cocktail ingredients, but they might not be as reliable mixers in a simple picnic setting.)

Better yet, the immortal gin and tonic is one highball you can knock back with pride, and not just because it’s a favorite of English aristocracy, as seen on “Masterpiece Theater.” Even back when we were young and foolish and appreciated neither gin nor tonic water, somehow the combination of the two of them made one of the delightful warm weather alcoholic beverages we’d fall back on, and we still love them. An especially good version of this uses Hendrick’s Gin, a terrific mid-priced premium gin made in Scotland — most gins are strictly English — that uses a cucumber infusion. As for garnishes, the usual lime wedge will work just fine, but a slice of cucumber stolen from whoever’s making salad really kicks this drink to life. Vodka and tonic is obviously another popular choice here.

Screwdrivers — orange juice and vodka or gin — are impossible to mess up — unless you put in more than 1-2 ounces of  booze, in which you case you probably don’t really care what it tastes like anyway. And while a gin or vodka and tonic won’t actually cure malaria with the tiny amount of quinine that it contains, we are fairly certain the vitamin C in the orange juice will be sufficient to ward off scurvy. Trust us, nothing can ruin a picnic faster than a bad case of scurvy.

  

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