Going with the grain More Canadians getting into the spirit of becoming whisky connoisseurs
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The Winnipeg Whisky Festival returns to the Fairmont Winnipeg this weekend for two days of decadent drams from all over the world as well as a wide range of other spirits.
Winnipeg Whisky Festival
● March 3 and 4, Fairmont Winnipeg, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
● Tickets from $239 at winnipegwhiskyfestival.com
“This year, we’re looking at about 250 products, including 110 new products — so a wide range of different products for people to experience,” says Liquor Marts product ambassador Jamie Jette.
“And it’s not just whisky, even though the event is obviously whisky-themed. There are flavoured spirits, cognacs, brandies, tequilas, rums as well as whiskies from all over the world — from Australia, Mexico, Taiwan, Canada, the U.S. and beyond.”
A full list of products being poured — including around 30 tequilas — is available at the Winnipeg Whisky Festival website.
While all 400 tickets for Friday’s tasting are sold out, a handful of tickets remain for Saturday’s event. Proceeds from the 11th annual festival support the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
In addition to the chance to try all manner of spirits straight-up, guests can visit three different cocktail stations, enjoy a range of buffet stations and will go home with a $10 taxi voucher and a souvenir Glencairn glass. All of which makes the $239 entry fee all the more palatable — particularly when taking into account some whiskies being poured, often by the distillers themselves or global brand ambassadors, sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle.
“It’s a great opportunity to try a lot of products that are new to the market, as well as some existing products that you’ve maybe been curious about tasting,” Jette says. Those products will be available for purchase at the festival’s on-site store.
Trend-wise, Jette sees a number of categories beginning to garner more interest in Manitoba. “The whole idea of flavoured whiskies, both Canadian and American, seems to be catching on, and we’re certainly seeing more releases in that category from different producers,” he says. “That’s something unique which refreshes the category and brings something new to the table.”
“The whole idea of flavoured whiskies, both Canadian and American, seems to be catching on, and we’re certainly seeing more releases in that category from different producers.”–Jamie Jette
Another trend Jette has seen is whisky drinkers willing to buy Canadian — and not just the entry-level category. “There are a lot of new Canadian whiskies that are being released, which are certainly very well made. And they’ve captured the attention of people not only in Manitoba, but right across Canada,” he says.
When it comes to Canadian whiskies, there are few distillers garnering more acclaim than Dr. Don Livermore, master blender for Hiram Walker and Sons, based in Walkerville, Ont. near Windsor. Livermore, who has a PhD in brewing and distilling, will be visiting Winnipeg to pour products from J.P. Wiser’s, Lot No. 40 and more.
Livermore agrees with Jette that consumers in this country are taking more of a detailed interest in products made in Canada beyond the old standards.
“I think the category of whisky connoisseur in Canada is still small in comparison to other places in the world, but I think it’s changing,” he says. “You’re now seeing interest in highly aged whiskies, what kind of barrel finishes are being used, what types of grains are being used.”
Livermore has been experimenting with a range of types of wood-aging including hickory, Japanese oak, maple, black walnut and more, all of which, for better or worse, impart different flavours.
Another trend Livermore is seeing in other markets is the use of wheat in whiskies, something he’s worked with in the past when producing the J.P. Wiser’s Wheatfield Gold, a whisky made in honour of Manitoba’s 150th anniversary in 2020 and which he’ll be pouring at the festival. “Manitoba might have been a little bit ahead of its time with the Wheatfield Gold,” he says.
One product Livermore is excited to get in front of Manitoba whisky lovers is the Lot 40 Dark Oak, a 100 per cent rye whisky pot distilled and then aged in new oak barrels with a higher degree of char, with an alcohol level of 48 per cent (versus the regular Lot 40, which clocks in at 43 per cent).
In 2021, the Dark Oak took top rye whisky at the World Whisky Awards. (For those who want to learn more about the flavours brought by each component that goes into whisky, Livermore has created the Canadian Whisky Flavour Wheel, which can be downloaded or viewed here.
Livermore is as excited about pouring his whiskies for the public — including the J.P. Wiser’s 10-year-old Canadian whisky, which is new to the province — as he is to sneak around and try products other producers are making. “I’m not doing my job if I’m not making a habit of seeing what other people are doing,” he says. “I like to get a chance to talk to my counterparts and see what they’re working on.”
“You can’t taste everything… So figure out what you’d want to taste and kind of zero in on those taste profiles.”–Jamie Jette
Both Jette and Livermore suggest festival-goers plan their attack beforehand. “You can’t taste everything,” Jette says. “So figure out what you’d want to taste and kind of zero in on those taste profiles.”
Generally speaking it’s best to start with lighter spirits; if aggressive, peaty whiskies are also of interest, save them to the end so your palate isn’t immediately overwhelmed.
Most importantly, with so many high-alcohol spirits being poured, Jette stresses folks should make sure they have a safe way to get home.
“Plan for the end of the evening,” says Jette. “Make sure you have a cab ride, or somebody to come pick them up. We want everybody to get home safe.”
Literary editor, drinks writer
Ben Sigurdson edits the Free Press books section, and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.