Mix old Scottish tradition with the lush Canadian countryside and you get one of the best, and one of the only, single-malt whiskeys made in North America.
It is not even 10 p.m. on this Wednesday night, but the two couples from Canada’s most populous province are already comfortably numb (schnockered? Dean Martoonied? Fruit Looped?) when they stumble into the pub at the Glenora Inn & Distillery, a Nova Scotia–based locale that proclaims itself to be North America’s first single-malt whiskey distillery. The Ontarians’ arrival is somewhat abrupt, but it’s not unappreciated by my imbibing companion and me . We’ve been in the pub -- a cozy, dimly lit space with buttercream walls and hardwood floors -- for an hour and are tasting our way through all of Glenora’s offerings. These include a rare 15-year-old single malt and a whiskey that spent its final months before bottling in an ice-wine cask. The whiskeys are good. Some, especially the ice-wine whiskey, are excellent. But the pours are small and the prices large. Twenty Canadian dollars for one ounce? I’ve paid less for the legendary Johnnie Walker Blue. What’s worse, the pub has been a wee bit quiet during our stay. Canadians can be nice to a fault at times, and most of the pub-goers are speaking only in polite whispers.
So when a father-and-son team starts playing ceilidh music (pronounced kay-lee) -- a fiddle-based, barn-dance Celtic sound that’s popular in Atlantic Canada but whose roots are in Scotland and Ireland -- and the Ontarians start swinging their partners do-si-do, well, the Scotch starts to go down all the easier.
Scratch that. It’s not Scotch -- not legally, anyway. The Scotch Whisky Association has actually sued to ensure that Scotch can come only from its namesake place. In the same way that Champagne from anywhere except Champagne, France, is just sparkling wine, Scotch from anywhere outside of Scotland is just whiskey. Or whisky, depending. But never Scotch whisk(e)y.
Never. Not even if Glenora is located in Nova Scotia, a.k.a. New Scotland. Not even if Glenora’s gleaming white distillery and accompanying chalet lodges are in Inverness County, which takes its name from Inverness, Scotland. Not even if Inverness, Scotland, is near the famed Glen Ord single-malt Scotch distillery or if Glenora sells its whiskeys under the name Glen Breton. And not even if Glenora’s main distiller is a man named Daniel MacLean, who although a native Cape Bretoner, speaks with a distinctly Scottish twang -- he sounds very much like The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie when he pronounces bottle as “bahul.” No, in spite of all that, Glenora cannot claim to be making single-malt Scotch.
Still, you can see where someone might misunderstand. After all, on Cape Breton Island, Scottish heritage is everywhere -- some road signs are even in Gaelic -- and the landscape of rolling hills and craggy beaches can look strikingly like Scotland’s. So you’d be forgiven if you tasted a dram of the Scottish Highlands in a glass of Glen Breton and then happened to call any of the Glen Breton line of whiskeys Scotch. Especially because that’s what the locals do. “The local community calls our whiskeys Scotch because they’re allowed to,” MacLean says. “I mean, who’s going to sue them?”