Canadians love rye and scotch, but bourbon has a new breed of drinkers
At a recent bourbon-tasting on Toronto’s west side, attendees were greeted by David Brown, a Canadian contemporary artist who paints with encaustic wax. With Maker’s Mark in the spotlight — sporting its signature red-wax-capped bottleneck — it was certainly apropos.
“Maker’s Mark is a handcrafted, small-scale bourbon whisky,” says Distillery Diplomat Ron Oliver, who travels the world educating the industry about the Maker’s brand and its distinctly sweet, caramel, vanilla, burnt-orange flavour. “As a category, whisky is back in the public consciousness,” he says.
“Three years ago, the female audience at a whisky show would account for about five per cent. Today, it’s 20 per cent, and they often come in groups without men.”
All bourbon is whisky, but not all whisky is bourbon. Importantly, bourbon must be American made and it’s always aged in new barrels. Maker’s ($45 for 750 ml) is made from wheat, not corn (like many other bourbons), in 19-barrel batches, and it’s aged for six years. “Vodka gets made in an afternoon,” quips Oliver, adding that some bourbon is aged for 23 years, but you’d never see one 25 or older like with scotch. “At some point, the oak has done its job.”
At bars and restaurants across the country, customers are ordering premium bourbons by name. Maker’s, Woodford Reserve, Knob Creek, Bulleit — they’re calling them at the bar and they want it neat or on the rocks, though you can always stock the rail with cheap classics like Jim Beam and Wild Turkey. “Cocktail culture is back,” says Oliver. “Everyone’s ordering old fashioneds and manhattans.”
“A manhattan should never be made with bourbon,” stresses Dave Mitton, co-owner of Toronto’s The Harbord Room and the Double Deuce Saloon (and former owner of Chehoski). He mixes his with whisky, but Mitton says he moves a lot of Woodford Reserve, mainly because the old fashioned is his bestselling cocktail. “I muddle an orange over house-made, maple-brandied cherries, a little bit of simple syrup and I add some orange bitters, because the classic recipes call for it. But you can’t get orange bitters in Canada, so I ship it here from the states.” No worries, he includes it in the $13 price tag.
When Mitton created a classic cocktail menu at Chehoski two years earlier, he says it was quickly discarded, but customers at The Harbord Room love his traditional tipples. “I didn’t know this because I don’t have a TV, but there’s a popular show called Mad Men that everyone’s watching. Apparently on the show, the guys drink a lot of old fashioneds.”
The fact that Canadians’ cocktail preferences are being inspired by a TV show isn’t new — Smirnoff and Cointreau can thank Sex and the City for the rise in cosmopolitan orders. But while it doesn’t speak highly of our individuality, bar owners aren’t complaining. Good thing SCTV means nothing to a generation of new drinkers — Molson Canadian stubbies are hard to come by.