Canadian whisky: It's called 'brown vodka' for a reason

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By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 4:01 PM

The persistence of memory is strong. But in my own mind, the persistence of VO and ginger ale might be even stronger.

By VO, of course, I mean Seagram's VO Canadian whisky. During my childhood, the phrase "VO and ginger" meant "go play with your Atari because the adults are going to have some sophisticated fun." My mother, in particular, was partial to VO. She drank it because that's what her father-in-law drank, and when my mom left home at 19 to marry my father, she decided that would be her first adult cocktail.

As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I enjoyed it when my parents threw parties. Many of their friends also drank Canadian whisky in some form: VO old-fashioneds, VO Manhattans, Seven-and-Sevens (Seagram's 7 and 7-Up). There was a pool table in our basement, and my brother and I would occasionally target one of the men who'd had a little too much VO, then hustle him for a few bucks over a game of stripes and solids.

Now that I'm a little more educated about whiskey, my fond nostalgia for VO came crashing against the rocks of reality a few weeks ago. Here's what I now know: Most Canadian whisky (which like Scotch is spelled without the "e") is just awful.

I confirmed that last week, when I did a tasting of the usual Canadian whisky suspects, several purchased in cheap pint-size flasks. I sipped through VO, Canadian Club 6-year-old, Canadian Club 12-year-old, Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, Windsor and the standard Crown Royal (which of course comes in the nifty purple velvet bag).

First of all, can someone tell me who names the whisky in Canada? Dudley Do-Right? As for the tasting, I wouldn't recommend any of them. Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on Crown Royal. If I ran out of every bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey in my cabinet, I'd be willing to drink standard Crown Royal, which still feels a little pricey at $25. Crown Royal Black, at around $40, is admirable but also pricey for what you get. Even better, I tasted the special Crown Royal Cask No. 16, aged in cognac barrels. It's an excellent whisky. It also sells for $80 to $100 a bottle.

As for the other old standards, including my mom's VO, they tasted thin, dull and out of balance, and with a nose that's too marshmallow-sweet. These whiskies clearly are going for the adjective "smooth" at the expense of everything else: complexity, flavor, richness. They showed why Canadian whisky is referred to as "brown vodka," which I might add is somewhat insulting to vodka. If you mix it with 7-Up or ginger ale, what you'll taste is mostly 7-Up or ginger ale.

Part of the problem is how Canadian whisky is made. Unlike with bourbon, the base spirit is often distilled at a very high 180 proof, which creates a more neutral spirit that lacks flavor. It's then blended with smaller amounts of lower-proof whiskies, and the distillers are allowed to add 9.09 percent of just about anything: rum, brandy, neutral spirits, caramel, or other types of flavoring. Finally, it's usually bottled at 80 proof, which makes it taste watered-down.

How did these whiskies become so popular? Canadian whisky came to prominence during Prohibition, when American distilleries were shut down and bootleggers smuggled it across the border to supply a whiskey-starved nation. Once Prohibition ended, companies such as Seagram's had huge reserves ready to sell on the American market, which was one of the major reasons for Canadian whisky's prominence throughout the mid-20th century.

Canadian whisky became known as rye (not to be confused with American rye whiskey, which has become so popular lately). When Don Draper orders rye on "Mad Men," he's actually ordering Canadian whisky.

I revisited the category because I attended an interesting panel called "The Many Faces of Canadian Whisky" at the Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans a few weeks ago. It was sponsored by Buffalo Trace Distillery, which makes some of the finest American whiskeys, including bourbons such as Eagle Rare, Pappy Van Winkle and Blanton's.

The big news was that Buffalo Trace recently acquired 200,000 barrels of whisky from a defunct Canadian distillery. Drew Mayville, a 30-year veteran of Seagram's and now master blender at Buffalo Trace, has been experimenting with new blends in hopes of redefining the Canadian whisky category. "It really is a misunderstood spirit," Mayville said. Okay, I thought, if I had a dollar for every time I've heard that. . . . Yet because I am a huge fan of Buffalo Trace and its experiments, I decided to keep an open mind.

We tasted two brands that were launched this past spring, Royal Canadian (which retails for $25) and Caribou Crossing ($50). Both were much more complex, spicier and creamier than the average Canadian whisky. Nice enough, but still too light and too straightforward for me. I couldn't see giving up, say, Buffalo Trace to drink them.

"We're starting the trend," Mayville said. "We think this category is unlimited. This is going to be an explosive category for us." The panel was sparsely attended, a fact that became a running joke, especially when the lights in the ballroom went out halfway through the presentation.

"Canadian whisky drinkers have two defining characteristics: One, they're men. Two, they have gray hair," said Lew Bryson, a Malt Advocate critic who sat on the panel.

In my mother's day, of course, that was not the case. But even she hasn't had a VO and ginger in years. The other night we were sipping tasty Manhattans made with high-proof rye whiskey. "VO really didn't taste like much at all, did it?" she said. "Well, I guess it was perfect for a young girl who'd never had anything to drink before."

Follow Wilson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.


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