Being Canadian but living in the UK, my fiancée Brenda has to alternate her Christmases - spending one with me and my family, and the next back in Canada with hers, so this year it was time to go back to Canada, and I had promised to go with her. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d been to Canada, but it would be my first Canadian Christmas, and my first visit since becoming a booze tourist.
On my first visit I’d made sure to bring back a bottle of Wild Turkey, because I wanted to feel like Hunter S. Thompson (some say he drank Chivas Regal, but from reading his books, I remember a lot of Wild Turkey…), but as I said; I wasn’t a booze tourist then.
Canada is a good place to be a booze tourist. They have lots of different varieties of beer, and they are well situated geographically to take advantage of imports of bourbon and Tennessee whiskies from the USA as well as tequila from Mexico and rum from the Caribbean. I like all of those varieties of liquor, but they wouldn’t be on my shopping list this time. I had already decided that I’d be sourcing some Canadian whisky, and I made sure I was fully prepared with some pre-trip internet research.
I’d just like to namecheck a couple of websites here that I found useful. The first is http://www.canadianwhisky.org/. It focuses exclusively on Canadian Whisky and is filled with in depth reviews utilising a simple 5 star scoring system. The second is http://therumhowlerblog.wordpress.com/. This site contains tons of reviews of different kinds of gin, rum, vodka, tequila and of course whisky, as well as having a list of cocktails, and serving suggestions for each spirit reviewed. I have no idea how this guy has had enough time to try all these drinks, but it’s quite a collection, and I can only assume he doesn’t have a wife telling him that he drinks too much. He has a much more complicated rating system than canadianwhisky.org, but it certainly proved very useful for me.
Both these sites are valuable resources if you’re researching purchases for your next trip to Canada, and you’ll probably find the information on them far more useful than anything you’ll find on my blog, so go and check them out once you’ve finished reading this post.
I had tried some Canadian whiskies before, including Highwood and a couple of varieties of Canadian Club (thanks, Brenda!), but this time I was determined to be a bit more choosey. Visiting a liquor store was pretty much the only thing on my to do list for the trip, and I actually visited three or four before we left Calgary. They tended to stock (pretty much) the same stuff, so it was just a matter of finding the most competitive prices.
So where should you be focusing your attention when making purchases during a booze tourism adventure? Set your own rules here (because remember; there are no rules), but I like to look for something local, authentic/traditional, and something I can’t get at home.
I did quite well with my purchases on all those scores, though neither of my choices were local to Alberta (which is where Brenda’s family lives, and where my booze shopping took place) they are specifically Canadian.
Crown Royal is one of the most popular Canadian whiskies, so I decided to go for the Crown Royal Black, with is 5% stronger and a few dollars more expensive (but significantly cheaper than at www.thewhiskyexchange.com) . It is darker in colour than the standard, and the flavour is similar, but a little richer – I know because the future mother-in-law bought me a bottle of the standard Crown Royal for Christmas. That’s a nice whisky too, and probably the pick of all the bottles I have available at the time of writing. Crown Royal also comes in a nifty cloth bag, that I suppose serves to protect your liquor from sunlight if you haven’t got a cupboard to keep it in.
I’d decided to buy a second bottle to bring home with me, and for that one I went with Gibson’s Finest 12 Year Old. Again, this is the next step up from the normal Gibson’s, and it’s only available in Canada – I read that they can’t produce enough of it to export for some reason – maybe the Canadians drink a lot of it. This one has a very mild flavour compared to the Crown Royal. It’s sweet and pleasant, but not full-flavoured enough to dilute with ice.
The Crown Royal comes in a weird crown-shaped bottle, while the Gibson’s comes in a portly one, not dissimilar to the Bailey’s Irish Cream bottle in shape, though it is transparent so you can see how much is left – unlike Bailey’s where you’re always asking, “have I got enough left to make this cocktail?”
There is one drawback with the Gibson’s – it has a screwcap with such a smooth action that it is almost impossible to resist spinning it off at high velocity. This almost always results in a series of fumbled catches leading to a frenzied chase around the kitchen floor – and if you’re extremely unlucky a foray into the furry depths beneath the fridge, or even having to pull the fridge out. Be warned; go easy on that cap.
Now, you’re only allowed to bring one 1.14l bottle of hard liquor back from Canada – that’s a good deal larger than a standard bottle, but not as big as two bottles, so if you do want to stick to your limits and you want to bring more than one variety home with you, you’re going to need a friend. I bought 75cl bottles. Brenda kindly offered to carry one for me. That still left me with two, but I was able to polish off the Crown Royal Black by New Year’s Day, thanks to a late night cigar/whisky-share deal I was able to arrange with someone we met at the Toronto wedding we’d been invited to on New Year’s Eve – though he was calling it ‘scotch’ for some reason. It seemed inappropriate to correct him.
I’d opened it a week or so before so that Brenda’s brother Brian could try it (he was familiar with the standard Crown Royal, but likes to mix it with coke – still, it’s nice to share… and have an excuse to open a new bottle) and then I was able to dip into it from time to time in the evenings.
So given that the remaining bottles were 75cl that left us a little under the limit, even with the little Bruichladdich Rocks bottle (20cl) that Brian gave me. So it was a most successful trip. Not that anyone ever checks at Customs, but maybe they will one day.
I finished the Bruichladdich Rocks a couple of months after returning home, having been hanging on to the last drop for a while. I didn’t want to fritter it away willy-nilly because, even though it’s a blend of young single malts (6-8 years old), it had a complex flavour, and was one of the most interesting whiskies I’ve tried so far. It did tend to cause a slight burn on my tongue though, which is something I don’t notice very often, and is supposed to be the reason that real whisky experts add a drop or two of water. I still haven’t tried that, but I have heard that you can tell how aged a whisky is by where on your tongue it burns – young ones at the front, older further to the back.
I tried the standard Bruichladdich 10 year old recently on a recent visit to the Lake District and, while it was nice, I actually prefer the Rocks so far. It can take a few more drinks to really know what to think about a whisky though, and I only had one double. I think I’ll be investing in a full bottle the next time I’m in the market for a single malt - it’s among the contenders, anyway.
Canadian whisky is in nature very different to scotch. In my layman’s terms I’d say it tends to be sweeter and less complex but still enjoyable and worth getting your hands on.
I had been tempted to pick up some ice wine before returning home, but it’s fairly expensive, and my budget was worryingly stretched by that point, so I didn’t even pick up anything else in Duty Free. We get paid early in December, and my November wages was all gone on gifts, so December’s had to last 6 weeks. I don’t usually have to fit a two week holiday (and the necessary booze tourism that comes with it) into that equation, so I had to forego the ice wine.
Ice wine is made by leaving the grapes on the vine until sometime after the first frost, so that they freeze. Then they are pressed, making a sweet, syrupy wine that is very pleasant for sipping. The bottles are only half the size of normal wine bottles, but I recommend you give it a try - they were doing a nice German one in Aldi at a reasonable price a while ago, so there’s no excuse for not seeking one out - unless you’re ashamed to be seen in Aldi.
In Canada they have a huge fondness for beer. I’ve found that people will offer you a beer the moment you arrive at their house – even if it’s 10 in the morning. It seems that the general rule is: if beer is available, then it is acceptable to drink it. Most times 10am is even a little early for me, but it certainly is encouraging – especially when it’s your future mother-in-law. She stocked up on some cans for our stay – some Coors Lite (which isn’t light in alcohol compared to most British lager) and a selection of beers from the local Big Rock brewery, which we’d actually toured during our last visit. That had been the first time I’d ever visited a brewery, and I have to say: I don’t find information about how beer is made very interesting. Just get me to the tasting part, and the part where you can choose any six varieties to take home.
In general your Canadian beer is like a cross between lager and ale, so it’s perfectly drinkable and comes in a staggering number of varieties. It was nice to have my own private stash that I was expected to polish off during my stay – and the quantity was sufficient, so there wasn’t any awkwardness about drinking too much - which is ideal, because I wasn’t drinking too much. Good.
Frankly, to give a full impression of the drinking culture in Canada, I’d probably have to write a PhD, so that ain’t happening. I can tell you we had a pretty terrific time – without going into too many details about what we did (stick to the booze, stick to the booze) and I hope I’ve given you at least a little useful information should you be planning a trip there. Be sure to check out those websites if you do. I’m sure they’ll help you make the most of your Canadian booze tourism experience.
I’ll see you next time for some more general ruminations on booze and booze related products.