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Why It’s Time to Give Canadian Whisky a Chance

Canadian whisky’s reputation within the U.S. needed a facelift, and Hiram Walker’s Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore is making house calls.

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Shutterstock/Shulevskyy Volodymyr

Dr. Don Livermore has been called "the Mad Scientist of Whisky" by some and the "new face of Canadian whisky" by others. But most of the spirits industry know him simply as "Dr. Don."

Regardless of his title, Livermorewho serves as Master Blender at Canadian liquor brand Hiram Walker & Sons Limited (owned by Pernod Ricard), also the largest distillery in North Americais celebrated for his innovations in the lab with infrared sensors and new strains of yeast and grain varietals that have pushed the boundaries of Canadian whisky.

Canadian whisky doesn’t have the best reputation within the U.S.or in Canada. For many consumers, the style conjures up memories of bottom shelf, underaged whisky. According to Shawn Soole, bar director at OLO restaurant in Victoria, BC, "people associate Canadian whisky with that sort of light brown vodka style. Now, it’s much more complex." He continues, "There [are] bars in Vancouver that won’t stock Canadian whisky" despite the fact that the spirit "has definitely changed [yet] people don’t give it enough of a chance."

Which is why Livermore hosted 128 whisky tastings in the U.S. last year and advocated the category at talks all over the world. "Probably half of my job will be public relations," he says. "It’s going out there, teaching people and educating people about the quality and about Canadian whisky and what it’s all about."

Outside Hiram Walker Distillery, Windsor, Ontario, Canada. [Photo courtesy of Hiram Walker]

While the legal restrictions on making whisky in Canada vary by province, few aspects of production are regulated by national law. "Canadian whisky has to be made of grain. It has to be fermented, aged, and distilled in Canada. It has to be aged in wooden barrels of less than 700L for a minimum of three years. We have to bottle at a minimum of 40 percent alcohol," explains Livermore. "They give us latitude in what we can do."

He continues, "I truly believe that the Canadian whisky category is innovative. We’re not restricted by a mash bill or the strength at which it comes off the still. I don’t have to use column stills, I don’t have to use pot stills. That’s what makes it wonderful."

While the legal restrictions on making whisky in Canada vary by province, few aspects of production are regulated by national law.

Approximately 75 percent of the whisky made in Canada is sold in the U.S., states Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. "America has been the primary market for Canadian whisky since 1865. We really sell more whisky in the states than everywhere else combined by a factor of three."

The spirit’s popularity within the U.S. stems from several factors. First, the U.S. shares a border with Canada. But its population is approximately ten times larger than its northern neighbor, which, per de Kergommeaux, makes it "the most important market." Second, Canadian whisky’s traditionally light, drinkable flavor profile and widespread availability has attracted many lifelong devotees.

Many believe that Canadian whiskey gained popularity in the U.S. during Prohibition. Not true, counters de Kergommeaux. During the Civil War, fighting disrupted American whiskey production so much that Canadian whisky was imported. From 1865 to 2010, it was the best-selling whisky in the U.S., and is still the top seller in North America.

In fact, the Noble Experiment didn’t boost Canadian whisky much. Although it did help ingrain Americans’ affinity for the style, "it almost killed the Canadian whisky category," says Livermore. "We were the number one whisky in the world prior to Prohibition, and today we’re number four."

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Stills at Hiram Walker. [Photo courtesy of Hiram Walker]

After Prohibition, few things changed. "They just kept making whisky, and a lot of the time without that marketing and telling that story behind it," he continues. "I think the other whisky categories in the world got a jump on us and started telling those stories. Consumers became interested, and we rested [on our laurels]."

But about 20 years ago, things started changing, says de Kergommeaux. At this point, about a year before Don Livermore started his first job at Hiram Walker, circa 1995, a few innovative blenders were beginning to test the waters by releasing small quantities of limited edition, high end whisky. One of those pioneers was John Hall, master blender at Ontario’s Forty Creek Whisky. After selling Forty Creek to Campari America for $120.5 million in 2014, the accomplished whiskey producer (and winemaker) took home eight medals at the 2015 Canadian Whisky Awards for both his whisky and his lifetime contributions to the category.

... Canadian whisky’s traditionally light, drinkable flavor profile and widespread availability has attracted many lifelong devotees.

Hall was also one of the first apostles of the Canadian whisky gospel. "I remember when John Hall came into my bar for the first time. He was very transparent about what he was doing," says Soole. "He talked about [his process], that every grain was individually distilled and then blended together after the aging process."

Once Livermore was promoted to Master Blender in 2012, he too began spreading the good word: "It’s about educating people, telling the story. It’s a real grassroots effort. It’s really pounding the pavement, trying to create that story and that buzz."

In addition to serving as a champion and educator of Canadian whisky, Livermore is also best known for experimenting with new technologies to improve spirit quality. For one, infrared sensors became his area of expertise. He was one of the first to shine a beam onto a sample of grain or a previously used barrel and measure the amount of light reflected, to deduce starch levels in grains or flavor compounds present inside barrels.

Aside from technology, Livermore has also honed whiskey production on a more basic level through research and testing with different strains of yeast and heirloom grain varietals. He adds that he even has "some of original yeast strains that some of the [Canadian] whisky barons used." And, like many others in the sprits world, he's also playing around with aging whiskey in different types of previously used wine barrels.

In de Kergommeaux’s words, "Don has kind of lead the new charge on Canadian whisky. I think that his career is rising at the same time that Canadian whisky is rising, but I think to some degree, his innovations are pushing Canadian whisky forward."

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