Winning the award for best whisky in Canada was a breeze for Sons of Vancouver.
Palm Trees and Tropical Breeze to be exact. The North Vancouver distillery took home top prize at the Canadian Whisky Awards, for the company’s all-rye spirit that gets its tropical vibes from resting in rum casks from the Virgin Islands.
It’s the first time in the 13-year history of the awards that a craft outfit has come out on top.
Last year, Crown Royal won. The year before that, it was a 43-year-old Canadian Club.
While larger producers have to focus on consistently putting out thousands of barrels a month, Sons of Vancouver’s smaller size allows them to blend new batches every time.
Co-founder James Lester said his distillery is trying to make really aromatic and flavourful whisky. There are whiskies coming out of Ireland that are very apple forward, and whiskies out of Scotland that are banana forward. But that style hasn’t really been done before in Canada.
With Palm Trees, “when you picked it up and you smelled, it was like you knew you were getting something that was different,” he said. “That’s what really made it stand out.”
Lester said it’s an incredible honour and surprise to be included in the Canadian Whisky Awards.
“I’m told that the judging wasn’t even close,” he said, adding that the whiskies are tasted blind.
Getting the big flavours in Palm Trees took years of aging in barrels and careful blending to bring out the flavours the team wanted.
“The magic of whisky really comes from the barrel,” Lester said. “It comes from a tree, but it could come from the bottom, the middle, the top of an oak tree that was cut down in the fall or the spring, the winter or the summer – and then there’s 50 pieces of wood that make up those barrels.”
The next step in the whisky magic is blending. That’s the most important part, Lester said. And having more barrels means more tools at the distiller’s disposal.
“We went through 100 barrels. We tried to find our fruitiest ones and we pulled those out and separated them from the rest,” he said.
If all this description has you salivating for a sip of this lauded liquid, unfortunately you’re out of luck. Only 275 bottles were made and they sold out months ago.
Same goes for Marshmallows Over a Campfire, of which 190 bottles were produced. That batch won silver at the same award show. It was also Lester’s personal favourite, borrowing flavours from scotch barrels of “campfire, wood and burnt telephone pole.”
Definitions gone a rye
If you’re among the many who remain bamboozled by all the naming conventions in the alcohol industry, you might have wondered why Canadian whisky is called rye.
You might assume that it contains its eponymous grain. Not so.
In Canada, you can call legally label whisky a rye, even if it’s 100 per cent corn, Lester explained.
“This goes back to the 1860s when Canadian whisky was defined. There was always a small percentage of rye in it, so they just called it rye whisky,” he said.
But Sons of Vancouver has turned that tradition on its head by highlighting the underdog crop. Beforehand, the distillery had made whiskies in the 90-per-cent range, and Palm Trees was 100 per cent rye.
The whisky made by the craft producer is also barrel proof, meaning it hasn’t been diluted to have lower alcohol content. The amber liquid made by Sons of Vancouver is usually in the 55 to 65 alcohol-by-volume range.
“The lower the alcohol percentage, the more bottles you get, the more customers you can reach,” Lester said. “It’s a great reason to lower the ABV.”
“For us, I don’t want people to look at it and think about it as there’s more alcohol … think about it as more flavour,” he continued. “It’s a whisky that’s meant to stand out on its own in a class, or in a cocktail. And the higher alcohol percentage really means the more flavour you’re getting.”
If all this talk of flavourful whisky has piqued your palate, Lester said a new batch is on the way next month. You can sign up for a whisky mailing list on the Sons of Vancouver website.