Inventing the whisky generation

In Features /

By Jamie McLeod

If you walked into an LCBO, or through Dundas station, or any number of other places during the month of October, you probably saw the Whisky Generation campaign. It consisted of pictures of cool-looking urbanites mostly under 30, with “The Whisky Generation” beside their faces.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, I went hunting for this elusive animal. I showed up at the LCBO at Yonge and Summerhill looking for that twenty-something, whisky-swilling hipster. The bait was set: a whisky tasting, but five minutes before it was scheduled to begin, the only people around were middle-aged, pushing shopping carts full of wine.

The tasting began two hours late.

Cindy, 20, (she wouldn’t tell me her last name) conducted the whole affair with cheerful good humour despite showing up late and not being able to force the top off the martini shaker. The tasting consisted of Crown Royal mixed with root beer and Canadian Club Premium mixed with Sourz and pineapple juice. One fellow with a grey beard who wandered into the tasting area mumbled something about “A goddamn waste of Crown Royal.”

No one under 30 showed up.

Where were they? Well, it was early afternoon on a Saturday. Perhaps they were all just sleeping off last night’s whisky induced adventure. Or maybe, just maybe, the whisky generation is a myth.

I was feeling legitimately concerned about the future of whisky. As the original whisky generation ages and dies, will whisky die with it? That being said, if this was the best that whisky had to offer, I’ll stick to beer.

When I tried to talk to Cindy about this, she snapped. “Don’t talk to me, I don’t know anything about whisky.”

 

Log onto the LCBO website last month, and you were greeted by twangy piano and guitar music (sort of a Western Saloon chic). “Get ready to discover your ideal whisky match,” it read. “All you have to do is define yourself.”

It then asked you a series of abstract questions. For example, “What’s playing on your stereo? A) Something hard and heavy, or B) A jazzy repetoire mixed with classic beats.”

After you answer three of these questions, the site labels you as either a Maverick (drink Jack Daniel’s and Coke) or an Aficionado (drink Glenfiddich, always straight up). I am, apparently, the Aficionado.

The music climaxes, and text floats across the screen declaring, “You’re in The Whisky Generation.”

Which brings me back to Yonge and Summerhill on Nov. 4. Along with some suggestions as to how to hold your own whisky party, and a few whisky based mix drink recipes, the site told me that the LCBO would be holding a whisky tasting — a chance to try some whiskies and learn a bit more about the drink. Plus, while supplies lasted, the people who showed up would get a deck of “whisky generation” playing cards.

I was desperately hoping to meet some of my peers in the new whisky generation, and I was hoping to try some of this Glenfiddich they think my well-attuned, aficionado tastes would enjoy.

There is no single reason why I didn’t find anyone my age. University students’ palates aren’t as mature and their reasons for drinking are traditionally different. Plenty of university students drink Jack Daniel’s, but they’re not looking for its subtle flavours any more than they are in a Smirnoff Ice.

As a means to an end, it works well enough but vodka works better, and beer is a more easily acquired taste — they both tend to be cheaper too.

I left Yonge and Summerhill without trying Glenfiddich. There were no playing cards.

 

I sat down with Ed Patrick, the president of the Companions of the Quaich (pronounced Quake) Toronto chapter, who brought along a “good lad from Scotland,” James Cowan, sales director for the Dewar Rattray bottling company. (In the world of elite scotch whisky, there is a good business in buying casks of scotch from distilleries and aging them yourself until they’re perfect. The scotch is then bottled and sold to high-end buyers.)

Patrick and Cowan explained in strong Scottish accents how whisky is made, and what makes it so unique in the world of alcohol.

Connoisseurs like to tell you that whisky is a simple drink of grain, water and yeast. This is half true; whisky has only these ingredients, but the process of making them into whisky is in no way simple.

The first step in producing malt whisky is to soak barley in water and then lay it out on the floor, allowing it to germinate slightly — sprouts grow to about 3/8 of an inch. The growth is stopped using heat, traditionally peat fires in Scotland, but in modern distilleries the process is somewhat more sophisticated. The malted barely is then mashed, mixed with water, and allowed to ferment. At this stage, the product is pretty much beer. From there, the beer is boiled, and because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, it rises first, and this process purifies it into something with a higher alcohol content and a more distinct flavour. By law, to be called scotch, it must then be aged in white oak barrels for at least three years (it must also be made in Scotland.)

Patrick said that in the process of aging, a small amount bleeds out of the barrel and evaporates; they call this “angel’s share.”

“That’s why the angels are so happy, and Scots get into heaven,” Patrick told me.

For blended whiskies — anything that isn’t single malt — the process is similar, except that most of it is made with non-malted corn. In the case of Canadian whisky, malted corn is mixed with quantities of malted rye whisky and then aged in white oak in Canada.

American whisky isn’t malted at all, just mashed, fermented and distilled, which is why most of the mainstream brands have a harsher flavour and most discerning whisky drinkers don’t touch the stuff.

The reason the process is so complex and delicate is that minute changes to the source of heat or the stills’ shape can effect how the whisky tastes. The process is more about art and tradition than science.

The word “whisky” is derived from Gaelic, meaning “water of life” and Cowan told me that his grandmother, who is more than 90 years old, hates the chlorine taste in tap water, and so she will always puts a tiny bit of scotch into her water before she drinks it. Cowan told me that the “water of life” is why his grandmother is still in such good health.

Talking about fine single malt scotch — the Cadillac of whisky — Patrick and Cowan often compared it to wine. When I asked them why they drink Scotch and not wine, they both said the same thing: “It’s magic.”

Another connoisseur told me that the best way to understand fine scotch is that it’s “wine with balls.” It has all the subtlety of flavour and smell, while remaining strong and distinctive.

Patrick insisted I come to the next Quaich tasting, held on Nov. 16: dinner and four whiskies. Dinner was quail stuffed with wild rice. Two of the whiskies were older than I am, and one was distilled the year I was born. Patrick conducted the whole thing elegantly in a formal kilt, with the help of the bottler from Scotland, who had provided the whiskies. Most of the members of the Quaich are 50 or older, but I find Steve Smolinski, 35, one of the youngest drinkers there. He says that he thought the LCBO’s Whisky Generation campaign was a joke.

“(Whisky) is not like vodka where you have one, and then you have one that’s virtually the same, and another that’s virtually the same,” he says.

He says that the important thing is to wait for younger drinkers to mature into whisky drinkers. “And it’s about wallets maturing into scotch and whisky.

“There’s a community of some kind here,” Smolinski says, looking around the room. “I don’t know what the community is. It’s not just Scots. I’m Polish, for God’s sake, but there’s definitely a community. There will definitely be a handoff of generations at some point,” he continues. “But it won’t be by the LCBO.”

The final whisky of the night is one of the last distillings from a distillery that closed in 1983 and was turned into an apartment building. The distillery was called Port Ellen, on the island of Islay, off the west coast of Scotland.

Islay (pronounced eye-la) is the Mecca of scotch whisky, and is known for its smoky, peaty flavours, with seaweed and iodine tones.

Stewart Laing, the bottler, told the tasters that during prohibition in the United States, the only alcohol that was legally imported was one brand of Islay Scotch whisky, which the customs officials claimed had medicinal uses because of the iodine flavours.

When you take a sip of the Port Ellen and hold it in your mouth, it feels like you have a warm, smoky peat fire on your tongue. It burns gently down your throat, leaving a clean, smoky aftertaste.

My palate is still immature and I am inexperienced, but holding the Port Ellen in my mouth, it tasted like magic.

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