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: The Sazerac

Sazerac It might seem a bit odd, but it was current MSNBC political goddess and past Air America star Rachel Maddow whose radio “cocktail moments” largely propelled your loyal scribe’s fledgling interest in classic cocktails during the Bush II administration. Moreover, with an epic brohaha in Washington going on at the moment over the debt ceiling, it seems as good a time as any to pay tribute to her with this personal favorite.

The sazerac is the official drink of New Orleans — though we didn’t hear of it on three trips to that wondrous city. That’s likely because, though beloved by serious cocktail buffs, the great drink’s pop cultural fame is next to nil, though we understand a sazerac was recently thrown in the face of food critic Alan Richmond on an episode of “Treme.” We are therefore happy to try and correct this great drink’s relative obscurity; properly prepared it’s an ice cold sipping beverage that’s tasty as anything else produced in the great city of New Orleans. It’s preparation is a little complicated to explain but, trust us, it’s not hard once you get the steps straight in your head. It’s really just a slightly more elaborate variation on the old fashioned.

The Sazerac

2 ounces rye whiskey or brandy/cognac
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 ounce of water
3 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters
1 teaspoon absinthe or Herbsaint
Lemon twist

Start by chilling an old fashioned, aka a “rocks” glass, either by filling it with ice or leaving in the freezer or, ideally, both. Meanwhile, purists insist on muddling a sugar cube, but it’s much more efficient to simply dissolve the superfine sugar by stirring it in a cocktail shaker or room temperature rocks glass with unchilled water, whiskey, and bitters. Once the sugar is dissolved, add plentiful ice.

Then, take the pre-chilled glass — if you’ve got ice in it and want to conserve precious water, consider adding it to the cocktail shaker/rocks glass with all the other ingredients — and add a teaspoonful of now legal but expensive absinthe or much cheaper Herbsaint (a very sweet but strongly anise flavored liqueur). Swirl the entire glass, coating it with the absinthe or Herbsaint. Then, turn the glass upside down over a sink, dumping out any remaining liquid.

Now, return to the shaker or rocks glass. If you’re an absolute purist who fetishizes clear beverages, simply stir and strain it into the chilled and coated rocks glass. If you’re a borderline barbarian like us, you may shake like crazy and then add it to the glass which will be a lovely, frothy shade of pinkish orange or orangish pink.

Then, take your lemon twist and coat the edge of the glass and twist the lemon peel over the beverage to magically deliver lemon oil to the drink. Some insist you must discard it without actually placing it in the drink. We and most others, however, drop it in. Sip immediately and toast the brave people of New Orleans, the great American city that just might have invented the cocktail.

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A couple of words about ingredients. First of all, note that the sazerac — named for the brand of cognac it was originally made from — primarily uses Peychaud’s bitters. This brand may be the oldest type of bitters still on the market and it has a much lighter different flavor than the bitters you may know. Many sazerac makers, Rachel Maddow included, like to throw in a single dash of the better known and stronger tasting Angostura bitters to “open up” the flavor of the drink. On the other hand, especially if you’re making this with one of the stronger types of rye whisky — particularly a 100 proof brand like Rittenhouse Rye — it’s already one potent little beverage. It is, nevertheless, considered mandatory to use rye specifically if you’re making the whiskey version of the sazerac. You could make it with bourbon, we suppose, but it’s generally not done, possibly for a reason.

While rye whiskey remains by far the most popular main ingredient, we have to say a good word for going super-old school and using cognac or even an inexpensive brandy; we’ve had great luck with an very inexpensive brand called Raynal, technically not cognac but entirely sufficient — which is carried by Bev-Mo and Trader Joe’s in California and perhaps elsewhere. It’s a more accessible version of the drink that goes down surprisingly well with cocktail newbies while being more than complicated enough for more experienced drinkers.

  

Drink of the week: The Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned As the name implies, this drink is perhaps the very oldest classic cocktail extant and, as with the Martini, it carries with it as much controversy and variation as you can possibly imagine. It’s staying power is no mystery in that it’s based on the fact that whiskey has some natural sweetness to it and, as Julie Andrews and the Sherman Brothers remind us, just a very literal spoonful of sugar really does help that medicine go down

Oddly enough, for such a simple drink, it’s one that only the best bartenders we’ve met seem to have mastered. On the other hand, as “Mad Men” viewers will remember from one particular episode, Don Draper has, too.

The Old Fashioned

2 ounces of whiskey (bourbon, rye, or Canadian)
1 teaspoon of superfine sugar and 1/2 ounce water, or 1/2 ounce of simple syrup
Angostura or Regan’s Orange Bitters
Orange wedge and/or maraschino cheery (very optional)

Dissolve superfine sugar — regular table sugar or cubes will also work but are harder to dissolve — in water or pour 1/2 ounce of simple syrup (i.e., sugar water) into an wide mouth Old Fashioned glass. If you like, muddle (smash) an orange slice in the bottom of the glass. Add ice cubes, whiskey and bitters — again, we personally prefer Angostura for bourbon or rye or Regan’s Orange for Canadian, but it’s your call. Stir vigorously with a swizzle stick or club spoon. If you like it a bit diluted, feel free to add just a bit of water, though purists will disagree wildly.

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Now, as I alluded to above, there are a great many controversies about the Old Fashioned and what works best in one. Don Draper and I are quite partial to the muddled orange slice and/or marischino cherry, particularly if it’s one of the very expensive gourmet cherries you’ll find at some excellent high-end bars. Famed politics and cocktail maven Rachel Maddow finds all that sweetness to be of the sickly variety and offers only a slice of lemon zest in a move that’s similar to the traditional recipe for the sazerac, a drink we’ll be covering later. She also uses a sugar cube and a muddler rather than my preferred choice of using superfine sugar or simple syrup for an easier sugar distribution, as well as soda water. Esquire‘s resident cocktail historian, David Wondrich, is of a similar mind.

I will say that I haven’t tried using soda water in the tiny quantities that Ms. Maddow does, nor have I tried one with as little ice, but I will be givingĀ  the Maddow/Wondrich historical version a shot soon enough. It might be a bit strong for most people, but since Wondrich and Maddow suggest two of my favorite products — Canadian Club and Rittenhouse Rye (100 proof — yes, sir!) — I’m optimistic that this originalist take might just work as well.

On the the other hand, while I’ve been known to (gasp!) water my Old Fashioneds with just an additional splash or two, using a significant amount of soda water for this purpose is a big no-no, though it’s standard practice at many bars. Moreover, do not use maraschino “juice” in place of sugar/simple syrup, also standard practice at a lot of watering holes. To be scientific about it, it comes out way icky that way. I think me, Maddow, Wondrich, and even Draper would agree about that.

  

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