Thankfully for fans of brown liquor worldwide, there are gentlemen like the esteemed Dr. Don Livermore, Master Blender for J.P. Wiser’s, a literal expert in whiskey-making and aging with a Bachelor’s in microbiology — as well as an MS and Ph.D in Brewing and Distilling from Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University. I’ve met Dr. Don a couple of times, and my personal knowledge of the brown elixir I love so much has increased significantly in his presence.
There is a difference in talking to a whiskey expert and a whiskey doctor. A big one. Allow me to share some of the sweet, sweet whiskey knowledge I acquired during a series of lessons at the Windsor, Ontario distillery. Livermore’s specific expertise is Canadian whisky (he’s Canadian after all), but knowing everything about one style really means knowing a great deal about all styles. How convenient! I had a great deal of questions beyond “how do you add toffee notes to whiskey?” I’m talking barrels, Prohibition and what precisely holding a doctoral degree in the distillation and aging of whiskey means for the future of brown liquor fans worldwide.
On a side note: Canadian, Scotch and Japanese are spelled “whisky” while bourbon, rye and Irish are spelled “whiskey,” so put your red correcting pen away, good sir, because both spellings are technically correct when referring to whiskey in a non-specific manner.
You’re one of two Master Blenders in the world with a Ph.D in the craft. Can you explain what your doctorate entailed, and how you apply it?
My Ph.D involved measuring the quality of casks. Canadian, Irish, Scotch and several American whisky categories can purchase and reuse barrels. The issue when purchasing is the unknown quality, the number of uses and what was in them prior to filling. I developed a technique using infrared sensors that measures the inside surface of the barrel and quantifies the wood extracts. Essentially, in a matter of 30 seconds, I can determine what three years of aging in that cask will do to the spirit. I could only get it to work in a laboratory setting though, so we would need to partner with an engineering firm to make it a reality in the production environment.
That is extremely cool. As a proud Canuck, you specialize in the Canadian variety. What sets it apart?
This is a lengthy answer. Canadian whisky is a blend which can change with the cask, grain or type of distillation. We largely use rye to give a spice to our whiskies. Irish whisky is similar, but they use barley instead of rye for a nutty character. Blended Scotch uses peated barley. Single malt is a peated barley that is the “flavor” to blended Scotches. Similarly, we (Hiram Walker/J.P Wisers) make a single rye (Lot 40) which is essentially the same thing.
You utilize double column stills. Why is that something you want?
The early Canadian whisky barons — J.P. Wiser, Hiram Walker, Henry Corby and Gooderham & Worts — were competing against moonshiners, and moonshine can be harsh and unpalatable. The barons developed the art of double distillation through two-column stills, which removes the harsh congeners. It makes a light — or as the whisky barons liked to call it — a “pure” whisky. This is what the consumers wanted in the mid to late 1800s. Those whisky barons that adopted this technique grew their businesses so much that by the year 1900, the Gooderham & Worts distillery was the largest in the world. We have researched the strength of spirit that comes off our still, and we still get the same strength as they did in 1906, which is the earliest data we have.
Let’s talk about barrels! What are some of the different barrels you might use (eg: new white oak, once-used bourbon barrels, port barrels, etc.), and why would you use one over another?
I believe that the Canadian whisky category is set up to be the most innovative whisky category in the world in this regard. There are just a few (but important) rules to follow: we have to be a minimum of 40% ABV, made of grain that’s fermented, distilled and aged in Canada for a minimum of 3 years in wood barrels less than 700 liters in capacity; that’s all. This gives us latitude as Canadians on changing the type of grain, distillation or cask. It is similar to a painter’s palette. It allows us to work with more color. This leaves the interpretation to the Master Blender as to what style of whisky he or she wants to make. It is a lot of fun. So one of the things I like to play with is the type of barrel.
As I discovered in my Ph.D studies, virgin oak barrels will give you 4-5 times the amount of vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than a once-used American bourbon barrel. In fact, in 60 days of aging in new wood will get more vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than 18 years of ageing in a used barrel. Quality of wood is more important than aging. Sometimes people do not like a wood-forward whisky but a grain-forward whisky, so in Canada we use our barrels over and over again. Barrels act like a sponge. What was in the barrel beforehand will come out into the next whisky. Likewise, port barrels will add a nice fruity texture. All these differences are very cool to play with, and the Canadian whisky category allows for creativity. I often say my job is the guy before the bartender.
Tell me a little about more about what happens to the flavor profile as a whisky ages. How does it interact from some of the heavier flavors that might come from a brand-new barrel?
I use this analogy with new barrels. Let’s pretend we have a glass coated with sugar on the inside of it. We put water it in it, then throw the water away. Add more water–throw away. Keep repeating this. Eventually all the sugar dissolves. Same thing with the whisky barrel extracts (vanilla, caramel, toffee aromas, tannins). The very first time, you are going to have 4-5 times the amount of wood extracts than a second-use barrel, and so on. Remember, not all consumers like the taste of wood characters, and that is the wonderful part about Canadian whisky. The rules give us latitude to make products for all types of consumers. So in blending, it is all about balancing wood extracts with grain character, aged character (ethyl acetate), yeast character (congeners), or with once-used barrel characters. We can enhance one or the other by changing recipes around.
Does it bug you when people inquire about the grain ratios in Canadian whisky?
When people ask this question, they’ve assumed we make whisky like the bourbon category where all the grains are put together at the start according to a specific ratio or recipe. In Canada, we ferment the grains separately, distill them separately, age them separately and put them together at the end (although we don’t have to, but generally this is the style of Canadian whisky). We can distill in such a manner that we can concentrate the taste of rye if we choose, so when we talk ratios or percentages it’s not fair to compare one distillery to the next. On the flip side we can make a 100% rye whisky, but if we double-distill it through 2 column stills it strips out the character of rye. One has to be careful when recipes are discussed, because we are brewers as well as distillers.
A lot of people think of Prohibition as being the beginning of Canadian whisky; do you mind telling them why they’re wrong?
The beginning of Canadian whisky starts with a number of events, chiefly, Scottish Highland clearances (1750–1850) and the American Revolution in 1776. Immigrants came to Canada to learn how to make moonshine. By the 1830s, there were over 250 registered distillers in Canada – most of them moonshiners. The number one event that demonstrated the largest percentage of growth of Canadian whisky was the American Civil War (1861–1865). The American North had their whisky supply cut off from the South, and the Canadian Whisky barons took advantage. By the 1870s there were around 15 distillers left using the double-distillation through column stills. By 1900, the G&W distillery in Toronto was the largest in the world, making 2 million gallons of whisky annually.
When Prohibition started in 1920, only a few people could distribute whisky to the US – one of them was a man by the name Harry Hatch, a bar owner and salesman from the Corby Distillery. All of the fishermen on Lake Ontario attended his bar and agreed to ship the Corby products to the US. Essentially, Harry controlled the distribution network. He managed to be so successful that he ended up buying 4 of the largest distilleries in Canada within 8 years (Hiram Walker, Corby, G&W, J.P. Wisers). He ended up buying the Hiram Walker Distillery for $14 million when they had $14 million of whisky inventory alone – the Hiram Walker grandsons had trouble moving their product. The site was valued at 28 million.
What’s your favorite random fact about whiskies?
Canadian whisky was the first whisky category to mandate aging in 1890. Up until that point, most whiskies would have been aged for a matter of weeks. The purpose of the barrel was for transportation, not mellowing flavors. Canadians realized the significance of the barrel, so they mandated themselves to age the product.
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