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A sip seven years in the making

Making whisky is all about the long game. It's been about seven years since the folks at Yukon Brewing expanded their operation beyond beer.

Making whisky is all about the long game.

It’s been about seven years since the folks at Yukon Brewing expanded their operation beyond beer.

That’s when the first batch of alcohol was poured into oak barrels before being stored away in a corner of the back of the new distillery. If you want whisky, you have to be patient.

So it’s understandable that the build-up to last Saturday’s big launch was enough to make co-owner Bob Baxter a little nervous.

“It’s kind of like walking out naked one morning. Here I am!”

Yukon Brewing unveiled the first release of its single malt whisky, Two Brewers, this weekend.

It turns out Baxter had nothing to worry about. Whisky-loving Yukoners were lined up long before the doors even opened on Saturday morning.

Before the day was over all of the limited-edition bottles had been sold.

Baxter said the goal of the whisky is similar to Yukon Brewings beer - to be unique and complex.

“When we make beer we don’t try to make a Budweiser or a Canadian, they do a great job of that and they’re light and they’re clean,” he said.

“What we do well is lots of flavours and different flavours and different ingredients and so on.

“The equivalent in the spirit world is whisky.”

In its earliest incarnation, whisky is basically beer without the hops, Baxter explained.

Water, malted grain and yeast is placed in huge metal tanks for fermenting.

“Beer we ferment very slowly because a lot of the flavour that’s in beer comes from that long fermentation,” Baxter said.

“For whisky all we’re looking for is alcohol, really. A little bit of flavour, but mainly it’s alcohol that we’re creating.”

The fermented alcohol gets distilled and placed in the barrels.

Starting with 10,000 litres of “beer” will land you with about eight barrels of whisky. Each barrel holds enough for about 400 750-ml whisky bottles.

Unlike beer, which depends on the fermentation process for its flavour, whisky gets its taste from the type and age of the barrel it’s in, the type of grain that’s used, and the amount of time it’s left in the barrel.

Baxter described the process while standing in front of a stack of about 300 barrels. Each one is labelled with a code so those in charge know the age and history of what they’ll find inside.

The barrels in Yukon Brewing’s cache are almost all made out of American oak, though there are a few European oak sherry barrels in the mix. Some are brand new, some have been used a few times.

“Different barrels, different ingredients, for different lengths of time, gives us a real stream of ingredients, or a stream of flavours that we can then mix together,” Baxter said.

The first release under the Two Brewers label is a mix of different ages of whiskies from different barrels.

“What we try to do is take a bit of this, a bit of this, put them together until we go ‘wow, that’s got a lot of complexity to it.”

The first release’s label describes the taste as “a complex bright nose with fresh melons, honey and cream overlay deeper malt tones mingled with ample astringent oak character.”

A common misconception is that a single malt whisky means it comes from a single barrel. What it actually means is that all of the whisky came from the same distillery.

Each new release by Two Brewers will be small and unique. Release one was only 850 bottles at $95 a pop.

They learned early on that they’ll never be able to achieve consistency doing thousands and thousands of barrels, Baxter said.

“You can take the same batch of barrels, put them in the same spot in the corner, pull a sample out of them a couple of years later, and you’ll never guess they were the same batch in the same area and so on,” he said.

“They just taste remarkably different.”

Larger distilleries will sometimes add flavour and colouring to their whisky to make the larger batches consistent, he said, but that’s not something he’s interested in.

“So if you like release two, buy two bottles instead of one because you may never see it again,” he said.

Waiting this long to have a whisky on the shelves wasn’t the original plan.

To call something whisky in Canada the alcohol has to be three years old or older.

“Our initial intent was, ‘Great, in three years we can sell some whisky,’” Baxter said.

“We tasted our three-year-old whisky and said, ‘This is probably on the right road but it’s really simple, it’s really shallow, it’s really one dimensional.’”

He’s much happier with the product that extra time has helped create.

“What we’ve been able to develop over time and with our blending program is some really complex flavours, real layers, real differences in what you’re perceiving in your mouth from your very first sip to your very last swallow.”

After the success of the first release, Two Brewers is planning to start selling its second release in a few weeks. It will be available in Yukon and Alberta.

Here’s how its label describes it: “Stone fruit and spice support a complex array of flavours, developed by carefully selecting our distinctive malts, aged in bourbon and virgin oak barrels, and marrying in PX Sherry casks.”

This time they’re filling 1,650 bottles.

Contact Ashley Joannou at