Toronto Distillery Company Challenges Canadian Whisky Traditions

It would dramatic to say that there's a battle over the definition of Canadian whisky, but one small distillery is taking a stand against a Canadian regulation that has been in existence since 1887. Toronto Distillery Co, the city's first distillery since 1933, released a whisky aged under the minimum three years required for a spirit to be recognized as a whisky. 

Spirits are, by simplest definition, a distilled alcohol product. Vodka, gin, whisky, brandy, and tequila are all examples of spirits. For a spirit to be qualified as a whisky, it needs to meet the requirements of the country that spirit was made in. In the United States, a product that "touches" new oak can technically be called a bourbon (a type of whisky). 

In Canada, a spirit needs to mature in oak barrels for a minimum of three years before it can be called whisky.Toronto Distillery Company, however, is calling their newest product a whisky despite it being a whisky younger than three years.

In the simplest argument, Toronto Distillery Company released a barrel-matured Canadian spirit. At dispute, is their use of whisky on the bottle. Will this contradiction be challenged? That is the next question on everyone's mind.

The History of Minimum Whisky Maturation in Canada

Canada is the first country to set mandatory age limits on whisky. This happened back in 1887 when the Canadian government received a majority of their text dollars from alcohol producing distilleries. The government had no way to accurately verify how much whisky distilleries were making, and so they set a minimum maturation limit of one year. This gave government officials enough time to inspect warehouses and count inventory so they could tax production more accurately. While originally that minimum time spent in barrels was one year, it eventually went to two years, and in the seventies the minimum time spent in barrels was raised to three years. 

Moving the minimum age to three years hurts new distilleries, because of the wait required before they can start selling whisky. Distilleries often sell vodka, gin, and other unnamed spirits to help keep the cashflow while they wait for their whisky to age. 

American whisky does not have an age requirement. Sub-categories of American whisky does, such as straight bourbon, Bottled-in-Bond, and straight ryes. A bourbon (contrasting straight bourbon) needs only to touch oak. In all cases (bourbon, straight bourbon, rye, straight rye, bottled-in-bond), the whisky needs to be aged in new oak.

This is important, because new oak imparts the majority of the flavor people love about bourbon. When barrels are re-used, there's less flavor to offer. Less flavour isn't necessarily a bad thing. Most scotch is aged in re-used barrels. Most scotches are also aged for longer than a typical bourbon—bourbons are often aged for four years, while most scotches are aged for over eight years. The more time spent in the barrel, the more flavors are obtained from the oak.

Whether whisky is aged in new oak or reused oak also matters. One isn't better than the other—scotch has been doing great on re-used oak barrels—but it matters in the type of flavours one can expect. It certainly matters with young whiskies.

There's no perfect answer to how long a whisky should be aged for. This is where the craft of making whisky comes into play. However, a whisky aged for three years in frequently reused barrels is not going to have the same flavor as a younger whisky aged in brand new oak barrels. There's both a science and an art to making whisky. Much of the color of a whisky is achieved in the first six months of barrel maturation (in new oak), but the flavor component is far more difficult to explain.

Toronto Distillery Company isn't the first distillery to use brand new oak, not by far. However, they are the first to use new oak and ignore the minimum three years of barrel maturation requirement. This whisky has been aged from between two and twenty-six months. It's technically a Canadian spirit.

The American Micro-Distillery Advantage

Young distilleries rarely have the capital to let whisky sit around for three or more years. In the United States, with the looser definition of bourbon, micro-distilleries will sell bourbon as old as just one month. These one month old bourbons are typically aged in smaller barrels. Larger micro-distilleries will release one and two year old bourbons and straight ryes. 

These advantages don't just end there. As a general statement, American regulations make it far easier for distilleries to open, and taxation and exporting are less of an issue. A few provinces have made it easier for distilleries to compete (New Brunswick and British Columbia come to mind). From speaking with micro-distillers in Ontario, however, the challenges are many. 

Straight Canadian Whisky

There's no legal definition of a straight Canadian whisky. Up until 2011, there was no definition of a Tennessee whiskey either (beyond it needing to be made in Tennessee). However, in speaking with Charles from Toronto Distillery Company, they'd like to create this new category of whisky.

Loosely borrowing the term straight from the United States, its definition on the label means it's a whisky without added coloring or flavoring, and it's aged in new oak barrels. While First Barrels is a mixture of Barrels from two to twenty-six months, Charles hints that they'll adopt a minimum two-year age statement for future whiskies using that Straight Canadian Whisky label. 

As I said, it's purely self-defined. There's no legal definition for the use of the label.

So Is This a Canadian Whisky? 

The short answer is no, and it would not be recognized as a whisky outside of Ontario or anywhere else in the world. The long answer... 

Not as defined by Canada. However, the use of whisky on the label might be perfectly legal so long as the product isn't sold outside of the province it's made in. That might be an odd regulatory loophole, but Charles Benoit from Toronto Distillery Company tells me Federal definitions of whisky only apply when products are shipped across provincial borders. In a phone interview, he told me they worked closely with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to ensure that their product meets their requirements. 

The product goes on sale October 15th 2016, and there is a limited number of under fifteen-hundred bottles. Each bottle will have a disclaimer stating that whisky does not meet the three-year minimum age statement for Canada. 

The Ontario Liquor Board (LCBO) already sells whisky aged for under three years in Ontario. Stillhouse Bourbon is just one such example. We have young whisky being sold in the province; it just happens that none of it has been made inside the province up until this point. 

Like with many legal matters, this is not likely to be resolved unless challenged. This distillery isn't a stranger to the court system. There are plenty of implications here, though, that require further consideration. 

Ethical Dilemma

When discussing this situation, I liken it to Uber's entrance into most markets. Uber did not lobby for legal acceptance into most markets before entering. Instead, Uber went into many markets without asking for permission perfectly aware that their service weren't technically legal (though not necessarily illegal). By doing so, Uber hoped to win over consumers that would eventually influence politicians. Some cities bowed to pro-Uber public pressure and legalized Uber, other cities rejected Uber and kicked them out. 

Toronto Distillery Company is using a regulatory loophole to sell a whisky under three years of age because the regulation that defines that age statement only applies to products moving between provinces. Coinciding with this, current laws do not allow whisky to be shipped directly to customers outside of Ontario. Toronto Distillery Company’s stance is simple: as long as they fully disclose the information behind the product, and restrict sales to Ontario-only, they can call First Barrels a whisky.

Some see this as a search for loopholes, and others will see this as the small distillery attempting to compete against well established Canadian distilleries. Charles Benoit and Jesse Razaqpur, the owners behind the distillery, have plenty to say about Canadian whisky

Okay, So What About the Taste? 

First Barrels is aged for between two to twenty-six months in barrels, and it's a mixture of 40% rye, 40% wheat, and 20% corn. The younger whisky is said to be there to provide more grain-forward flavor. All grains are organic, and distillation occurred between 2012 and 2014. All barrels used were new charred barrels. 70% of the barrels used are of Canadian oak, giving this whisky a distinct flavor component not common in bourbons or even many Canadian whiskies (Canadian distilleries tends to use American oak as well).

Note: At the time of writing these notes, I have a cold, so I'll provide only basic tasting notes. 

Nose: Distant campfire, melting chocolate in the next room, spilt wine down in the cellar. No particular note is too intense, but it all combines to the notes of a charred wine barrel. Shoe polish tells of the whisky's youth, but not as intense as I would have expected. Still, for a traditional bourbon drinker, there will be a youthful off-putting note common in all young whiskies. To enjoy the whisky, take the barest of breath and let the heavier notes come to you.

Palate: Caramel, chocolate, slightly burnt butter, and a spread of raspberry jam. The charred, heavy caramel notes really flatten out on the palate. Rye, black peppery spice picks up toward the middle and finish.

Conclusion: I've come to hate to use the word "craft" when describing whisky. It's a poorly borrowed term from the beer industry, often used to describe a small distillery. All (most?) whisky making is a craft. I will say, though, that this is the whisky that will appeal to craft whisky drinkers. Rough, but balanced. Sharp, but with purpose. Youthful, but with time served. Make of that what you will.

Disclosure: This bottle was provided by Toronto Distillery Company. This had no influence on my review or write-up. 

It goes on sale October 15th at the Toronto Distillery Company