Malt and Moose at Canada's Glenora Distillery
All photos by Keith Allison.
They were an exceedingly fit, good looking couple of border guards, and in typically Canadian fashion, terribly sorry about the wait. I suspected that crossing the border by car at Calais/Saint Stephen, laden with camping gear and the sundry accoutrements of a long road trip, would require a little extra time. I didn’t anticipate still more time being added when an eighteen-years-past record of an arrest complicated the process and necessitated a little extra attention being paid to my vehicle. Nor did I anticipate the discovery of contraband weaponry in my car in the form of a stun gun that had been abandoned and forgotten for years, sans power source, under one of the seats. It was a Christmas stocking stuffer from my mother, I explained, who had decided my outdoor hobbies put me at risk of being mauled by a bear.
As the customs agents mulled over my sad sack of a story, I had time to do work that probably should have already been done to plan this drive -- as well as contemplate the alternatives should they turn me away at the border or haul me off to whatever it is they do with hardened criminals. (What is it? Like, three weeks hard labor on a maple syrup farm?) Though I figured my case at the border would be better served by highlighting my interest in the natural wonders of Canada and the rich history of Nova Scotia, my end goal was actually what it usually is when I set out on a trip - whiskey.
One of the most unique whiskies being made in Canada is distilled at the northern tip of Nova Scotia, in the tiny town of Mabou - Glenora Distillery. Only the whole of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the graces of a couple of suspicious border guards stood between me and a drive up the coast to the distillery. Founded in 1989 by local businessman Bruce Jardine, the goal at Glenora was to celebrate the close cultural ties between Scotland and “New Scotland,” Nova Scotia. The distillery was even built in Inverness County. Jardine sought guidance from the distillers and managers at the Islay distillery of Bowmore and, armed with Scottish equipment and instruction, set out to make Canada’s first single malt whiskey.
Unfortunately, Jardine learned firsthand what many young distilleries have since learned: the overhead for making whiskey -- good, aged whiskey -- is massive, and it can be nearly a decade before you start to see any return on the investment. Glenora first brought on Nova Scotian businessman Gary Widmeyer, then later another local businessman, Lauchie MacLean, to keep the distillery operational. Complicating the financial issues was the wrath of Scotland’s Scotch Whisky Association, the body that enforces international trade agreements and standards. The SWA took umbrage at Glenora’s use of the word “glen” in their name, which the SWA considered to be Scottish property despite its widespread use. In the end, Glenora prevailed in an extended legal battle, and in 2000, Glen Breton Rare became North America’s first single malt whiskey. Sadly, Bruce Jardine was not there to see the culmination of the dream for which he fought so long and so hard. He passed away in 1999, leaving the distillery in the capable hands of Bob Scott.
When I learned about them while trying to decide on a summer road trip, my destination quickly solidified. Despite the special attention of border guards and my inadvertent new career as a weapons smuggler, we eventually successfully made the long drive from New York City to the northernmost tip of Nova Scotia, where on the outskirts of the majestic and awe inspiring Cape Breton Highlands sits modest little Glenora.
It is an exceedingly “Canadian” experience, not just because an up-close encounter with a wandering moose is practically guaranteed. Arriving in mid-June, I found the distillery and its on-site inn scrambling to prepare for a sudden visit. Lesson learned -- tourist season in northern Nova Scotia really doesn’t start until July. After checking into a clean, non-descript room (the on-premises restaurant was not yet open for the season), I was given a tour of the distillery itself -- a tour which consisted of a groundskeeper/distiller opening the door to the tiny stillhouse (which was not producing that day), then leaving me to my own devices, asking me to please close the door and lock up when I was finished. That included a tasting, self-serve and similarly lacking in a chaperone. That casual trust continued later in the night, when the last employee left for the evening and gave us a number to call in case we needed anything -- leaving me alone with a distillery and an open warehouse full of quietly aging Canadian single malt whiskey. I suppose they count heavily on honesty and, failing that, the difficulty of anyone stealing a 500 pound barrel of whiskey.
While the distillery “tour” may be slightly lacking, the whiskey itself is quite nice. Since launching their flagship single malt, Glenora has released several other products, including a cask strength version and an expression of their single malt finished in barrels previously used to age icewine. Glen Breton Rare, aged 10 years and at an ABV of 43% stands, perhaps not surprisingly, somewhere between the light, sweet character of more traditional Canadian whiskey and the maltier, more substantial character of a Speyside Scotch. The nose is light, a bit floral, and dominated by oatmeal, honey, and cream. The taste boasts an initial attack of floral, grassy notes that slowly open to red fruit, crème brûlée, sour cherries and bread pudding. Through it all, it remains light, with a short, but pleasant finish. Early reviews complained of a soapy quality to the whiskey, but that has since been tamed and eliminated, leaving a thoroughly enjoyable -- if somewhat expensive -- dram.
In a way, the distillery’s whiskey can almost become secondary to the surroundings, the impetus that launches rather an amazing trip. Its location is an excellent launching point for an exploration of the wild Canadian north. Hikes through the Cape Breton Highlands National Park afford sweeping views of surrounding hills, valleys, and moors and the deep blue of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A longer drive takes you down gravel roads to the isolated town of Meat Cove. Nearby amenities are minimal, but Glenora is there to offer a truly adventurous, remote notch in the belt of any whiskey traveler. It may not be the most educational or immersive whiskey experience, but one would be hard-pressed to find one more striking, remote, and memorable.
Just leave the stun guns at home.