Made-in-Canada Single Malt

There’s a little piece of highland heaven hidden on Canada’s east coast. Tucked away in Glenville, County of Inverness, along Cape Breton’s Ceilidh Trail, is an area sufficiently isolated for most of its history that it has maintained a great many of its Celtic customs.

It’s an area where the kids are as likely to learn fiddling and highland dancing as hockey.  Where caleighs (the anglicized version of the Celtic word for gathering is pronounced kay-lee) are held in homes and halls on a near daily basis. And where everyone admits to an uncle or family friend who kept “stills in the hills.”

It’s that last tradition, the distilling of spirits, which brought my husband and I to the area. While vacationing in PEI last summer, we decided to visit the only Canadian distillery making single malt whisky – an alcohol that would, if made in Scotland, be called Scotch. If nothing else, we could bring home their cask-strength (a 12-year-old, when we were there, with 64.1 percent alcohol) whisky. What we found was a reminder of the distilleries we’d enjoyed while touring Scotland the year before, without the time and expense of overseas travel.

The Glenora Inn and Distillery blends the traditions of Scotch making with Cape Breton culture and environment, offering a uniquely east coast experience. Glenora was North America’s only single malt producer when it opened in 1990, the vision of local businessman Bruce Jardins.

“He looked at the community around us and how much of it was influenced by the Scots – be it in the cooking traditions, the farming traditions, the Gaelic language, the music – and he soon realized that something was missing,” says Donnie Campbell, who has the enviable position of Whisky Ambassador for Glenora. “He soon realized that there was an opportunity and that lay in single malt whisky.”

Jardins considered more than 200 water sources before deciding MacLellan’s Brook in Glenville offered the best option in terms of quality and quantity. “This water, as we look at the sun shining off of it, you can see it’s pretty clear,” says Campbell, standing on a footbridge spanning the brook. “It’s hard to imagine it not producing a good product, even if it’s a cup of tea.”

But Glenora isn’t about tea; it’s about single malt whisky. And while it can’t be called Scotch, it’s hard to discuss the 250,000 litres produced annually without the comparison. The equipment was imported from Scotland and Glenora hired a retired master Scotch distiller to consult on the distilling process. Even the barley, which along with water and yeast is all that’s needed to make single malt, is imported.

“Even though Canada and the US produce great quality barley,” explains Campbell, Jardins “wanted to import something that was tried and true.”

But the water – like the environment around Glenora – is pure Cape Breton highlands.

Glenora owns 900 acres along the watershed feeding MacLellan’s Brook, allowing the distillery to protect its key ingredient. Hardwood trees, especially maple, dominate the area, with a bit of spruce and pine. Apple orchards abound and those elements help define the whisky’s character.

“MacLellan’s Brook runs down from the Mabou Highlands,” explains Campbell. “And as it runs down from the highlands, it’s running over the roots of the apple trees, it’s running over the granite rock, the roots of the maples trees, the birch trees. And as it travels down the brook, it’s picking up its own unique flavour and quality.”

The whisky continues to absorb the influences of its surrounding during the years it spends fermenting in barrel warehouses. “We have an earth floor; no wood, no concrete. That influences, giving an earthy smell,” says Daniel Maclean, Glenora’s master distiller. “We have a lot of flowers, so that influences. Everything, every little bit, everything around us influences.”

The result is Glen Breton Rare, which Glenora accurately describes as follows. Colour: golden amber. Nose: butterscotch, heather, honey and ginger. Taste: creamy with a good flow of toasty wood, almond and caramel. Finish: rounded, lingering, faintly sweet, with a mere whisper of peat.

Glenora is experimenting with finishes, storing its whisky for a matter of months in barrels that once held other spirits. “If you just forget about it and take it out after a year’s time, you won’t even taste your own product,” says Maclean. “When I say we did a rum barrel, we had it in our barrel for the first 10 years. Same with our ice wine. We had it in our barrel for 10 years, poured into the ice wine barrels and tasted often.”

But Glenora is about more than just the whisky it produces. If that were the only goal, it could just sell product in liquor stores across Canada and, increasingly, around the world. A 750-ml bottle of Glen Breton Rare can usually be found in Waterloo Region for $89.10, with other releases harder to find and priced accordingly. But Glenora is about fully enjoying the whisky and its inn adds to the experience.

Glenora has become a tourist destination, featured and praised in Cape Breton’s efforts to market the area. Some people stop by while in the area to enjoy the natural beauty, beaches and golf courses of the Cape Breton highlands, or activities that include deep-sea fishing and whale watching. Glenora draws others.

It attracts the stereotypical single malt drinker – think retired lawyer in a wingback chair – but also appeals to a widening range of people. “Young people are enjoying single malt whiskies,” says Campbell. “The more health conscious person is consuming single malt whisky, as opposed to other drinks, because it is what it is. You’re not mixing it with juices or sugar.”

As a result, visitors include mom, dad and the kids, possibly in a motor home, and “this is mom or dad’s stop. So they’ve done the stops for the kids, but now they want to do a tour and tasting, maybe enjoy the pub or fine dining, before heading back out on the road again.”

Sandra MacLean, who runs Glendora’s inn, wants to offer guests “something just a little extraordinary.” A place where visitors can arrive dressed as they are and enjoy five-star service. “Casual elegance,” she offers. “Just somewhere that’s peaceful. So that when they walk in, as soon as they walk in, I want them to say ‘oh’. Just that. Then they come across the bridge and another ‘oh’. And when they get in the room, same thing.”

It’s a result they’ve achieved.

The view of Glenora as you approach from the south is breathtaking. The distillery is a small dot of white, all but lost against a background of green, as you crest a hill before descending into the glen. Then it largely disappears, hidden as you turn off the road and pass under a pillared arch, until a bend in the driveway brings the distillery building into view.

MacLellan’s Brook divides Glenora into two neat sections. On one side stand the gift shop, with a registration desk and stairs leading up to a whisky interpretive centre. A second-floor walkway leads visitors into the distillery proper.

The distillery was built under the watchful eye of Morrison Bowman, a family business over 200 years old with distilleries in Scotland, and Glenora’s facilities and operations reflect its Scottish roots. The long narrow building which houses the distillery, like most of the other buildings, are made of post-and-beam construction with whitewashed walls. Massive floor-to-ceiling windows let light in at one end of the distillery.

Inside, malted barley and water from MacLellan’s Brook are combined to make mash in giant steel tanks called mash tuns. The resulting liquid is mixed with yeast in two-storey vats, known as wash backs, and allowed to ferment for two to three days.

But the real magic occurs in two massive copper pot stills, which bring to mind oversized onions or teakettles. The spirit is heated in one still, with the vapors removed and condensed into a more concentrated liquid. Repeating the process a second time produces a lighter and purer whiskey. A spirit safe, a glass box traditionally locked by Customs and Excise officials in Scotland, allows the stillman to judge the quality of the distillates.

The 25-minute tour ends with a whiskey sample, for those old enough to drink.

Back outside, the inn portion of Glenora lies across the brook. Nine rooms on two floors fill the left side of the main path, while six cabins offer additional accommodations half way up the glen. A pub and formal dining room lie ahead of the path and stretch to the right. Far to the right is the original barrel warehouse, since replaced with larger buildings that house the whisky barrels during their long years in storage.

But the courtyard itself is what most often gets MacLean her sought-after oh. It’s divided into several areas. The banks on both sides of the brook are left relatively untended, or so it appears, creating a feeling that visitors are out enjoying untouched nature. Two bridges span the brook. While crossing one late at night, my husband Steve and I note a stuffed owl on a branch no more than eight feet away. It strikes us as a clever detail and, as we lean in closer, the very real owl slowly turns its head our way.

Glenora’s two gardeners exquisitely maintain the rest of the courtyard, like much of the property. Green and the white of the walls dominate, with dashes of red adding vibrancy. A red brick patio next to the pub can accommodate 16 people under four bright red umbrellas. An organic garden grows to the right, providing herbs for the kitchen. The odd wooden bench has been placed in isolation here and on the other side of the nine rooms, offering isolated seating areas in which to rest or read. Flowerpots, made from barrels and holding bright red flowers, dot the courtyard and other areas.

Glenora has put the same level of care into its menu. “The one thing I always wanted to take in here was the best food,” explains MacLean. “I made sure that the chefs I hired were the best I could get.”

Those chefs ultimately turned out to be the husband and wife team of John Haines and Tracy Wallace. Each contributes eight of the 16 items that form the basis of the seasonal menus – beginning with an Asian theme in the spring and ending with fall harvest – ostensibly to limit conflicts. While they have very different approaches and styles, both insist on using as many local, natural ingredients as possible.

 “I love indigenous products,” offers Wallace

“Just on that hill we have blackberries, raspberries, chanterelles and fiddle heads,” continues Haines, pointing nearby. “Then we have an apple orchard.”

What they must buy, they buy organic. A local farm now grows produce to meet the needs of Glenora’s demanding kitchen.

But while personal passions drive the cooking, both are aware of two realities. First, they must cater to local tastes, which include such traditional East Coast dishes as a lobster sandwich. “There were some pretty freaky items on the menu the first two years,” offers Wallace, prompting from Haines: “This year we really put our egos aside and said ‘Okay, let’s give them what they want.” 

Second, the menu must feature Glenora’s whisky. “The company wanted that, and it was a challenge to utilize it and not have it overdone on the menu,” explains Haines. “The Glen Breton Silver, we tried that and went ‘woe’, but a shot of that with Cape Breton oysters seems to be working.”

In fact, they’ve made it work with all courses. When Steve and I visited last August, the appetizers included a cold smoked salmon with Glen Breton Rare. Entrees included an 8-ounce strip loin of beef prepared with 14-year-old Glen Breton Rare caramelized onion comfit; a Glen Breton lawyer, described as a recreation of a traditional Irish dish, combined Nova Scotia lobster and assorted vegetables with the 14-year-old whisky; and a double-smoked pork loin chop served with an apple butter made with ice wine whisky. The Glen Breton whipped cream proved delicious with a warm maple bread pudding made with apples from the orchard.

If featuring the product is a goal of the kitchen, it is the raison-d’etre of the pub. Glenora hosts two daily ceilidhs (in Gaelic) or caleighs (in English), one in the afternoon and another in the evening. The word refers to any sort of gathering, but it would not be considered a true gathering in Cape Breton without music.

Glenora hires eight or nine locals to sing, dance or play an instrument. They include students earning money for university and well-known islanders who are earning a living. The night we visit, one of two players is local legend Pius MacIsaac. “Pius was born and raised in the area,” says MacLean, “and he just finally did a cd. He plays the fiddle, mandolin and the piano, and he dances. He is just amazing and he does it all by ear.”

His partner for the evening is 19-year-old Katie MacLeod, in her fifth year playing the fiddle and dancing at the distillery. Like her grand uncle before her, she plays a left-handed fiddle and is now one of only three or four islanders who do. “I play my grand uncle’s fiddle. He was a fiddler,” she explains. “He was a fiddler and so was my grandfather, and my father played a bit. So I guess that’s how I got started.”

When she’s not playing, MacLeod waits tables. And like all Glenora serving staff, she’s required to have an extensive understanding of the whisky. Campbell, who developed a taste for fine spirits while working his way up from bartender to food and beverage supervisor at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, trains the staff on the particulars of Glenora products. All can discuss the differences that distinguish Glen Breton from others and can recommend a whisky suitable for every meal or mood.

During a tasting in the pub, Campbell introduces us to four Glenora products, the first an eight-year-old from the first bottling in 2000, with an alcohol level of 40 percent. A tasting actually starts with ‘nosing’ and Campbell encourages us to inhale deeply

There are 300 possible aromas and tastes in a whisky, and each person experiences them differently. But we agree that the smell is of hazelnut or almonds, with a subtler hint of flowers or heather. The first sip, more to cleanse the palette, tastes a bit burnt. The second tastes a little of ginger.

Campbell explains that three things can influence the experience at this point: water, temperature and the shape of the glass. A good whisky can, some say must, be enjoyed with a teardrop of water. Not so much as to dilute the taste; more to break the surface of the alcohol and release the aroma and flavours. 

Temperature also impacts the experience. “Ice will slow down the molecules,” he explains. “Where as if you warm it up, it speeds up the molecules and creates more aroma. It’s nice to warm it up in a bath of warm water – just float the glass in it, and you can do it when the glass is empty or full – and it’s amazing what it will produce.”

A proper Scotch glass is seldom seen in North American, where such spirits are served in an American whisky glass. Those found in Scotland have a rounded bottom and the neck narrows near the top. “So it creates a nice chimney, if you will, for nosing. Some are almost shaped like a still, which is good for the aromas coming up.

“But I like a brandy snifter, because you drink single malt whiskies like you would a cognac, and that being in a glass that you warm in your hands.”

Our second whisky is of 10-year-old with 43-percent alcohol. Steve and I describe it as being ‘more’ – more mellow, more spicy, more complex, more developed, even more apple-y.

“The taste is more developed and mellow,” Campbell explains, “and because of that we are able to have it higher in alcohol. Where as if those tastes were not unified, then we would want to cut back on the alcohol.”

Campbell also notes a hint of chocolate.

The third whisky is Campbell’s favourite: the 12-year-old cask strength. Unfiltered and unblended before bottling, there could be little bits of charcoal. The biggest difference between it and the others, other than strength, is a strong hint of toffee.

Our fourth sample is a 15-year-old finished in ice wine barrels. It proves to be very different than the others – smoother. Along with a hint of raspberry, we note a greater sweetness, which Campbell attributes to the grapes.

Glenora’s products are getting noticed. Glen Breton Ice won a silver medal at the 2007 World Spirits Competition in San Francisco and Glenora was twice mentioned in the Icon’s of Whisky issue of Whisky Magazine. But not all of the attention is welcome.

The Scotch Whisky Association, said to represent 95 percent of the Scotch industry, opposed the use of the word glen – as in Glen Breton Rare – claiming it would confuse consumers familiar with such Scottish spirits as Glenfiddich or Glenlivet. In January 2007 the Canadian Trademark Opposition Board ruled against the association, saying the word glen could not be considered exclusively Scottish.

Campbell expects the association will challenge the ruling, and Glenora will continue to fight any attempt to force a name change. “I will defend efforts by the Scotch Whisky Association to safeguard use of the word Scotch,” says Campbell, but not a word that reflects the area’s Celtic culture and physical geography.

“Glenora distillers did not name the community or village we are in,” he continues. “It’s called Glenville. So when it comes to naming the whisky, Glen Breton Rare makes sense. Glen, for where we are. Breton for Cape Breton. And Rare, because it’s a small distillery.”

For a single malt distillery in Cape Breton, he says, “it’s only natural.”

IF YOU GO

Distillery tours and rooms – May to October

Restaurant and pub – June to October

Tour Times – 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., starting on the hour

Tour Length – 25 minutes

Tour Cost – $7 per person; children are free; large tours and bus groups, by appointment

Room Rates – between $120 for a standard room and $295 for a three-bedroom chalet

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