When my trip to Canada
had been set up weeks before by the good folks at Brown-Forman
, I was sent an itinerary and offered a choice of entertainments after our visit to the Canadian Mist distillery. Our options including cross-country skiing, "snow golf," and a session in the spa with a massage.
I was flummoxed. Cross-country skiing is too much like work, and all that effort really puts a hitch in your drinking. Snow golf? I don't even like golf golf, and the idea
of spending the waning hours of the afternoon looking for a little white ball in 400 yards of snow ... well, screw that. As for massage and the spa, no one touches my nekkid flesh but my wife, and then only on selected feast days. Look at me out there on the Canadian tundra: would you entrust all that frigid, whisky-nourished man-flesh to an anonymous masseuse?
Well, maybe you would.
The start of the day itself was a struggle. After that really late night at Canoe
... had I mentioned that it was Fat Tuesday? Ohhh ... I dragged my poor white Catholic butt out of the comfortable hotel bed, showered, put on the warmest clothes I had, and went to 7 o'clock Mass at St. Michael's Cathedral with Brown-Forman's Mike Haering. It was wicked cold, around 12 degrees (F), and it was a windy walk back from Mass as the sun came up and Toronto got to work. Man, did I ever feel like I had paid for the previous day's excess!
We got on the van with the rest of the writers – Terry Sullivan, a wise-ass Chicagoan I'd palled around with before; Rick Lyke, another beer writer; and Bill Dowd, a regular newspaper journalist who finds his way onto the good junkets – and headed north. Way north, it seemed, and what had been a light and spotty layer of snow became a damned thick white quilt. The towns we drove through were quiet in the cold, bright sunlight, not much moving. I really wish I could have grabbed some snooze, but it just wasn't comfy enough.
We got to Collingwood, Ontario, around 10:30, and there wasn't much there, a middling-sized town by a thick-frozen slab of Nottawasaga Bay. We drove through town to the Canadian Mist distillery, and it is one big mother, an industrial-size plant. Through the gate and up to the offices, where we got out of the van and noticed the fine fall of snow in the bright, cloudless sky. It snows like this all the time at Canadian Mist; it's the steam off the big column still hitting the cold, dry air and turning into fine ice crystals. They drift down and form a light, cottony layer on the snow: whisky powder.
We trooped into the building and met master distiller Harold Ferguson. Harold's a real normal guy, like most distillers – actually, that's not true. There's a fair number of screwy distillers out there, and Harold was a breath of fresh air.
None of us were very familiar with Canadian whisky, it seemed, being more bourbon
and single malt guys. "It's all whisky," said Harold. "But there are different ways to skin the cat." In this case, it comes down to Canadian whisky being blended, mostly from two different whiskies, which they call the base and the flavor whisky. For Canadian Mist, the base whisky is essentially triple-distilled white lightning, a 189 proof distillate made from 99.5 percent corn and 0.5 percent malt. The flavor whisky is more conventional, mashed from rye, corn and malt.
That's most of it, and we saw that being made in the stillhouse. But Canadian whisky is also blended for flavor from other fermented and distilled liquids, up to 9.09 percent, by Canadian law. So they can blend in things like locally produced sherry and port, rye whisky
, bourbon or what have you. And that's what Harold set up for us, a blending kit of all kinds of booze with chemistry-set stuff like graduated cylinders and pipettes and squeezy bottles of de-ionized water. We started mixing up stuff ("I'm doing all rye whisky – bet it won't taste Canadian!" "More sherry!"), and scarfing down lunch while we "worked."
One thing I did learn while messing about like this. Harold had thoughtfully printed out the relevant Canadian laws about whisky, and one of them was very interesting. This product, made to rather broad specs, can be labeled either "Canadian Whisky," "Canadian Rye Whisky," or "Rye Whisky" – and it doesn't matter which one, and it doesn't matter if there's any rye in it or not. Harold was pretty tight-lipped about their actual blend at Canadian Mist, but allowed that there was rye in it, which was kind of a relief.
After the abortive blending session (Harold was brutal, folks), we called it a day and hopped in the van. We were headed to The Briars Resort
in Jackson's Point, on Lake Simcoe. Why? Because that's where Brown-Forman, God bless them, had decided to entertain and stuff us after the distillery tour. As I mentioned, cross-country skiing and snow golf seemed like too much work for a man of my tastes.
Looked like I was out of luck, but it never hurts to ask...
"Do you have anything with firearms? Skeet, sporting clays?"
Canadians may be a bit too huggy-lovey when it comes to foreign relations, but they're all over blood sports: hunting, fishing, clubbing the crap out of baby seals. The answer comes back: no firearms around. How about ice fishing? Hmmm... Sitting on my ass, ignoring a hole in the ice, and drinking whisky from a nice warm flask? I'm in!
After a two-hour drive around Lake Simcoe (the sucker's big; check it out
), we got to the little resort town of Jackson's Point and cruised along the frozen lake shore. Cold. Windy. Dotted with little shacks. Look! That one might be mine!
We checked into the resort, found that they had wisely stuffed us all in a back wing, and – also wisely – hit the bar for a quick one. We hadn't had a drink all day! There was a limited beer menu, but I was able to grab a fat brown bottle of Creemore Springs
– not what you'd call an exciting beer, but a seriously nice throat-washer – and choke that down before it was time to leave. Pleasant surprise: at the last minute, my whisky-writing buddy John Hansell
came to his senses and ditched his spa appointment to come fishing. Thank God. I was worried about him!
Our ice fishing guide Mike Heyink
was waiting for us at the front door with his Cherokee; our host Mike Haering from Brown-Forman was waiting with a fresh bottle of Jack Daniel's and some plastic cups. This ice fishing stuff was looking better and better.
The fishing Mike got us down to the lake, and we got out and stamped around a bit while he went into his dad's office-shack to get the gear. We looked out across the wind-swept ice and goggled a bit as a guy drove his Blazer down to the ice and just kept going, out to the breakwater and a slow, wide left out into the middle of a county-sized lake.
Mike came out of the shack, and we boarded the bright red Bombardier snow-bus
(seen here with Mike). Imagine the illicit offspring of a VW Bug – an old-school Bug – and one of those World War II half-tracks, but noisier and flimsier. The fish-reeking, spartan interior had a pair of lightly padded benches down the sides, a small one in the back in front of the roaring engine compartment, and one seat up front, where Mike gear-jammed the buggy with a stock steering wheel and a three-on-the-tree manual shift. I took a look around the vehicle, looked waaaaaay out on the lake, and put a lip-lock on the Jack. We'd tossed the plastic cups a ways back.
We followed a line of pine trees stuck into the snow on the ice, a tree every 15 yards or so (it was probably every 12 meters, eh?). "Nice Christmas decorations," I said. Oh, no, Mike tossed back, that's for when it starts to blow. If the snow gets blowing, you'd never find your way back without the trees. Great. Gimme that Jack.
We finally reached our hut, two miles out on the ice. I've been in larger bathrooms. But there was room for the four of us, a propane heater, and one large hole cut in the 16-inch thick ice – and the bottle. Good old bottle.
"That ice'll hold a truck, eh?" Mike said. He really did say "eh?" Honest. "But the season's over on March 15th." The water was clear, and it caught the light of the setting sun filtering through the ice and snow outside. Mike baited the rigs with minnows and dropped them all the way down to the bottom of the lake, 70 feet down. He told us if the lines moved at all, yank 'em, because the fish – lake trout and whitefish – were slow and stupid in the cold.
And then he left. And we looked down into the water and passed around the bottle. We talked about kids and fish – it turned out John Hansell had actually taken a shot at the bass tournament circuit at one point – and passed around the bottle. It got a little warm in there, so I stepped outside. Wow, was it ever cold and white out there. Beautiful sunset. No whiskey, though. I stepped back inside.
We were about halfway through the bottle when Mike stopped by with another customer. The guy had a big-ass lake trout, they were guessing about 15 pounds. Gorgeous fish, and we thought, hell, we could catch one of them! About then, Mike's line started jinking, and we didn't know if it was fish or minnows, so he yanked it. And John's line moved, and he yanked it – and Mike's line moved. Uh-oh. They reeled 'em in, and sure enough, the lines were tangled. How we'd managed this we didn't know – pass the bottle again – but we were damned if we were going to call it quits. We still had six minnows in the water, and whiskey in the jar.
Eventually Mike came along around sunset, and it was time to head back. We admitted the tangle, he was real nice about it ("Happens to everyone, eh?"), and we all climbed in the Bombardier and roared home at about 20 miles per hour. I think. Because there were no functioning instruments on the dashboard. Mike thought it was a 1973 model. Doing well for its age!
When we got back, we were by far the happiest campers. I felt so darned dapper in my brush khakis and boots that I left them on and tramped down to the Hospitality Suite, where we finished off the Jack and opened up a beautiful bottle of Old Forester Birthday Bourbon
. The OF Birthday is a neat little idea: a limited-release bourbon that's different every year, chosen to illustrate nuances of the distiller's art. Most times, I'm properly appreciative, but when you're wearing boots and outdoors gear and acting as a living Jack Daniel's container, nuances go out the window, and the Birthday Bourbon wound up in a plastic cup over ice. Still damned good whiskey.
Harold and his wife rejoined us for dinner. The evening was getting a bit blurry, but I do remember that I screwed up my Ash Wednesday fast and had a smoked duck appetizer. I can't resist duck, and I'm sure God understands that. I had a big honking piece of salmon for dinner, and we had quite a few glasses of Ontario icewine for dessert, one version of grape-squeezin's I highly recommend to you. After a couple more Creemores in the bar, I called it a day and got horizontal.
Might have to start watching hockey if this crap keeps up.