Babylon, P.Q.: Whisky business

Whisky business

Master distiller Ian Millar

As a late teen, I got my hands on a used whisky cask some doofus told me I could still get whisky out of, if I filled it with water and left it in the sun, and if I played my cards right. I faithfully tended my booze barrel, rotating it a quarter turn each day for two months, hoping to get something drinkable, or at the very least mixable, out of it. When I finally popped it open, I was greeted with something foul and fetid and rank.

"If you leave barrels in the sun, they will start to sweat, and the residual alcohol that’s in the wood will sweat out. So in the summer months you could empty some of this residual alcohol through the bung hole, but not by putting water in. But there’s also an inherent danger because wood alcohols can blind you, so it’s a dangerous game."

I’m sitting with Glenfiddich global ambassador and master distiller Ian Millar at a whisky tasting in the absurdly swank Mount Stephen private club on Drummond Street, feeling like a fish – no, not a fish, a fish is too highly evolved, more like a pre-Cambrian sea sponge – out of water. But Millar’s wearing a plaid party dress, what I believe the Scots call a kilt, and that makes me a touch more comfortable.

Scotland’s Glenfiddich whiskies are of international renown, and for many remain the standard-bearer of accessible, higher-end matured brown liquor. I know dick-all about whisky drinking – I’m the other kind of Irish, the boorish beer-ish kind – but what I do know is that Glenfiddich is in town to let it be known that Quebec has been awarded one of only two Canadian-allotted bottles of their highly prized 50-year-old single malt whisky, to be sold here in December (there are only 500 in existence, and they run a cool $26,000 apiece). And, also, I know a good thing when I see it.

We’re served a bottle of 18-year-old whisky, and Millar takes me to school.

"This is a nice one, and what we haven’t done is warm the glass up," he says, slowly swirling the lowball glass and its contents. "If you warm the glass up, you’ll get more aroma and much more flavour from it as well.

"And I should have told you about these glasses," he says, nodding at the squat lowball. "These are great. Those tall glasses?" he says, pointing at a wine-type glass on the table. "They’re easy to knock over. These other ones?" he says, putting his lowball on the table and giving it a provocative shove. "They don’t fall over – even when you push ‘em, they stay there. This is a sumo wrestler, and the other ones are called ballerinas. We always put our whiskey into sumo wrestlers because they look after our whiskies."

He raises his glass and clinks it off mine. "Eighteen-year-old."

Does it ever happen that you get a younger, cheaper bottle that tastes better than an older, more expensive bottle? "Oh yeah," he says assuredly. "Throughout the tastings [in Montreal] over the last 24 hours, I think everybody would say that their favourite whisky is the 15, so 15′s been out-shouting the 18, the 21 and the 30."

For those keeping track, the 15-year-old Glenfiddich retails for around $64 and the 30 goes for $326.25 at the SAQ. "But a 30-year-old is a different drinking situation altogether. The drinking occasion for 30-year-old is like a celebratory, once-a-year thing. Or if you’re rich enough to have that as your everyday, well," he laughs, "then good on ya."

When you set about making a 30-year-old whisky, how do you know that it’s going to be any good in 30 years? "We’re just good at what we do," he says confidently, standing up, bidding adieu to some of our table guests. "Be good! Stay away from men in skirts – unless it’s me!"

A bottle of 30-year-old lands on the table in front of us, and I’m quite conscious of the fact that this is definitely the first, and very likely the last, time I’ll ever have the opportunity to indulge in a 30-year-old. In a glass, that is.

"You never know," he says, before launching into explanation. "It’s very dark – you get dark, bitter chocolate, dried figs and also get lots of hints of sherry. It’s extremely complex whisky, quite bitter too, and you’ll taste that in the flavour… Sláinte!"

All I taste is my earthly embodiment sloughing to the floor and my feet leaving the ground. Hi God, hadn’t noticed you at the table, my apologies.

I’ve got comedian Mike Myers – "If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!" – in the back of my brain when I ask Millar if Canada makes, well, any good whisky. "Yes, Canada makes lots of good whisky. We’re talking about Crown Royal, which is the best-selling whisky in Texas."

Okay. Does that mean it’s good whisky? "Well, Texans like it," he says dryly. "I’ve tasted it. We taste a lot of whiskies just to know why they’re a success, and we tasted it and we thought, ‘This is pretty easy, it’s silky smooth.’ You should try it – it’s your whisky after all."

Would a Scotsman ever drink a Canadian whisky in Scotland?

"Why would we do that?" he says, looking at me like I’m daft. "It’s kind of like sacrilege. I mean, if you’ve got a great Canadian whisky, why would you buy Scotch whisky?"

But we do.

"Bless you."

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