When most people think of Canadian whisky, their minds go to blends or rye (whether the whisky contains any rye spirit or not). Rarely do people associate Canada with single malts, although there are a number of distilleries producing them today with the craft distilling boom hitting the Great White North. But before that boom, while brown spirits were giving way to white spirits in North America, there was one Canadian distillery going against the grain and creating Scottish style single malts in the Cape Breton Highlands: Glenora Distillery.
My wife and I had the opportunity to visit Glenora this fall, where Inn Manager Bertha took us around to see the operation, the barrel warehouse, and led a tasting for us in their restaurant. Bertha has been with the distillery for years, and has worked in every area of the operation. This was evident in her descriptions of the production process, her visible elation while opening up the warehouse and drawing a sample from the barrel, and her passion for the whisky. Bertha started the tour with a history of Glenora, which begins with its founder, Bruce.
Bruce Jardine was a man who went against the grain, and many thought he was a little crazy starting a distillery in rural Nova Scotia, at a time when many other distilleries were closing worldwide. Unafraid of those trends, Bruce built his inn and distillery in 1990 near Glenora Falls along the Ceilidh Trail on Cape Breton Island. It was the first single malt distillery in North America. The location is like something out of a movie, with rolling green hills on all sides and MacLellan’s Brook (from which the distillery draws its water) running through the property.
Bruce imported Scottish-made pot stills and mash tuns, and received training from the master distiller of Bowmore. He had washbacks built from BC Douglas Fir. He strove to create high quality, traditional whisky that was authentic to strict Scottish standards. All of the whisky would contain just three ingredients: water, barley and yeast. He distilled the spirit to a maximum of 75% ABV, barreled them at 63% ABV, and planned to bottle at 43% ABV. He aged all of the spirits in ex-bourbon barrels, and set a goal of aging them for a minimum of 10 years before bottling. The stills are beautiful, and walking through the production areas, it truly feels like you’ve been transported to Scotland.
Without immediate whisky sales to get a return on his investment, and costs continuing to pile up, Bruce couldn’t afford to keep the distillery operating. He sold the business in 1994 to investors with Scottish heritage and roots in Cape Breton, to keep his dream alive. Sadly, Bruce died in 1999 of heart problems and didn’t live to see the first 10 year old bottling of his whisky. In 2015, Glenora honoured Bruce with a limited edition bottling of Glen Breton 25 Year Jardine Reserve. It was bottled from some of the last remaining barrels produced by Bruce in 1990.
Another way Glenora honours Bruce’s legacy and memory is with Barrel #1. This is the very first barrel Bruce ever filled, and it has sat un-touched in the warehouse, and has never been opened or sampled. Bertha said that barrel will remain unopened allowing the angels to have it all as it evaporates, likely with Bruce enjoying it alongside them.
For years after the change in ownership, Bruce’s death, and the start of whisky sales, Glenora was still known as an inn first, distillery second.
Then the Scotch Whisky Association sued Glenora over their use of the word ‘Glen,’ claiming people might be confused and believe Glen Breton to be a scotch. Of course, Glen means a valley in Gaelic, and Breton refers to the Island, so Glenora defended their right to their branding. The lawsuit lasted 9 years and put serious financial strain on the business – in fact, they had to pay their lawyer with whisky barrels at times, as they had no cash. It had the fortuitous effect of putting Glenora on the map with whisky drinkers. Locals and whisky fans across Canada saw the SWA’s lawsuit as a bully move, and began to support Glenora’s David vs Goliath fight. When the courts finally ruled in Glenora’s favour in 2009, they were no longer an inn with some whisky making on the side; they were now the heroes of small distilleries and Canadian whisky lovers alike, having stared down the industry giant and emerging victorious. To celebrate the occasion, Glenora released a 15 year single malt, cheekily naming it “Battle of the Glen.”
Today, the owners and staff at Glenora continue Bruce’s legacy by only producing malt whisky and using ex-bourbon casks for aging, most typically from Jack Daniels. They distill between November and February, producing approximately 150 barrels per year, with about 5000 barrels currently in storage in the warehouses. Glenora only uses their barrels once, and then sell them to other distilleries, breweries and wineries in the area. They try the barrels every year and bottle them when they hit their peak, which is why they have so many different ages covered in their range.
They have innovated as well, leading to the release of interesting and unique offerings including the first single malts finished in ex-icewine casks and a malt peated with Canadian peat from Saskatchewan. We had the opportunity to try many of these which are described below. The restaurant is beautiful and the food is divine, with the added bonus of live local music twice daily. While we were there, the Campbell sisters trio from Mabou delighted us with lilting Gaelic classics, and again, it felt like we’d been transported across the pond.
Bertha invited us to try a number of bottlings, and we chose some we hadn’t had before, which excluded the 10 Rare, Battle of the Glen 15, and 12 Ice, previously reviewed here.
After lunch and the tasting were done, we went to the gift shop and decided to buy one of the drams, the Glenora 13yr Peated Cask Strength, and got to pour our own bottle straight from the cask! You can read the review of it at the link above.
Our sincere thanks to Bertha for the incredible tour and tasting experience. Having only drank a couple of expressions from Glenora in the past, it was a delight to try a wider range of what the distillery has released. Any fans of scotch and/or Canadian whisky should make the trip, take the tour and try a flight. Glenora is also currently shipping online orders across the country, so if any of the whiskies described here pique your interest, you don’t need to go to Nova Scotia to get them! (but really, you should still go!).