Which is not to say Cape Breton Island doesn’t have its advantages. Perched like a big thumbs-up in the northeastern part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, it is, in warm weather, a true paradise. Rated one of the world’s 10 best islands by National Geographic Traveler, it is lushly green, looking comically like a giant Christmastree farm in the areas where it doesn’t look exactly like Scotland. With fewer than 150,000 people living on its 4,000 square miles, Cape Breton remains mostly undeveloped and feels remote, although it is anything but. Glenora Distillery is just a three-hour drive north from Halifax, which, in turn, is just a short flight from the northeastern United States.
But if Cape Breton is a paradise, it is a little too much like the Garden of Eden -- beautiful, but the natives don’t get to stay. At least, not if they’re young and want a job. The population there has been in decline for 20 years, and unemployment has been in the double digits for even longer. Cod fishing, the industry that first brought Scottish, Irish, and Acadian settlers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dried up when refrigeration spoiled the demand for salted fish. The mining jobs that replaced the fishing ones have also now dwindled, as has employment with the logging companies, which turn those Christmas trees into armoires.
All of that helps explain why Glenora is so important to Cape Breton. Not only is it a source of seasonal and some year-round jobs -- the chalets and other rooms at the inn are open in the spring, summer, and fall, while the distillery makes whiskey during the long and brutal winters -- it’s also a source of community pride. And this is a community that could use a shot of self-esteem.
Donnie Campbell, Glenora’s self-titled whiskey ambassador, and I are discussing just that when we meet one evening in Glenora’s pub. Campbell is, of course, of Scottish heritage. His family came over in 1802. During a trip to Scotland to study the country’s spirits, a subject he’s long had a passion for, he visited the very spot from which his ancestor Donald Campbell departed.
“I’m a Campbell, and I’m very proud of my heritage,” he says over the soft strains of ceilidh music. “I think most people from around here feel the same way. People are proud of their culture, their language, their music. The Gaelic language is everywhere here. And you could knock on any third door in this community and find a professional musician playing the style of music we’re listening to now. So a good, quality single-malt whiskey fits into that picture.
“But with the inn, we don’t try to sell people a Scottish vacation. We sell them a Nova Scotia vacation. And with the whiskey, we aren’t making Scotch. We put a big red maple leaf on our label and on our box, and it says ‘Canadian Single Malt Whisky.’ We’re proud of that.”
There’s more than just pride at work here. There’s also truth in advertising. Glen Breton whiskeys are distinct. They are similar to Scotch, for sure. But they’re not at all like the aggressively peaty Scotches of Islay such as Laphroaig and Lagavulin. They are more subtle, with only hints of peat, more like the Scotch whiskys (no e in this case) of the Highlands but with a vaguely Canadian Club–styled, blended whiskey flavor too. The end result is that the flavors are complex but light -- simultaneously sippable and quaffable. In other words: They’re something Cape Bretoners can be proud of having made.
The funny thing, though, is that Cape Bretoners don’t seem like the types who’d go for $20 shots of single malt. On the island, you’re far more likely to encounter a guy with a bushy red beard who is wearing overalls -- I mean this literally -- than you are to see someone wearing an Armani suit. Or any suit, for that matter. And, indeed, when Glenora first opened in 1990 (it has gone out of business twice since then and is now owned by Lauchie MacLean, who hit on the right marketing mix in 2000), you’d have been even harder pressed to find a local nosing a glass of single malt in one of the island’s groggeries.
Despite the strong Scottish and Irish roots on Cape Breton, Atlantic Canada actually draws its imbibing traditions from its connections to the sea. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum and all that. “Nova Scotia is known as a rum-drinking, or a beer-drinking, culture,” Daniel MacLean says. “Especially Cape Breton Island. You never used to see singlemalt whiskeys or Scotch in people’s houses. But now, since we’ve been on the market, we run across more people who are drinking single malt.”
That is, with one notable exception. “My father won’t drink it,” MacLean says of the Glen Breton whiskeys he makes. “My father’s generation was insane about the rum, and he’s still a rummy. I told him to take a bottle out of my cupboard. He said, ‘Nope. It’ll just go to waste.’ ”