Ask Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition’s founder Alex Hamer what separates a spirits enthusiast from your average craft beer fan, and he chuckles a little. “I’ve actually thought about this a lot. It’s definitely a different demographic, probably one that leans a little older. That’s mostly due to economics. When you’re in your twenties, it can be difficult to spring for that $50 bottle of gin.”
The Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition (CASC), which announces its results on February 5 of this year, is a little different from comparable competitions. Just like the demographic it serves, it is somewhat rarefied, comfortably set apart from the pack.
For one thing, CASC celebrates truly small producers; Canada’s spirits industry is gaining major momentum, but it remains exceptionally young. “Whisky takes three years to age,” explains Alex. “Probably only about a quarter of the whisky distilleries that exist in Canada now are old enough to have produced a three-year-old whisky, for example.”
“Competitions which include larger producers definitely have a financial advantage,” Alex continues. “To help celebrate these small but very deserving distilleries we obviously rely a lot on support from businesses like Great Little Box Company.”
CASC’s uniqueness doesn’t end with size and economics. Even the logistics of judging spirits, as Alex discovered, must deviate a little from the norm.
“With these competitions, judges sometimes sit in one place together and taste 30 to 40 products a day. With [the higher alcohol content in] spirits, that makes it more challenging,” Alex explains. “All of my judges were given two months to taste all of the spirits we send them.”
Alex estimates that around a third of the qualified distilleries across the country participate in the competition, impressive for something that’s only in its second year of operation. His hope is that the festival’s reach will continue to spread rapidly, driving awareness of what he calls “awesome local distilleries.”
In that event, many more spirits drinkers will be exposed to the industry trends that have connoisseurs like Alex feeling excited. In addition to the deluge of artisanal whiskies coming down the pipeline, “experimentation and quality is increasing” at a number of Canadian distilleries.
For example, Alex describes the way the Okanagan-based Dubh Glas is collaborating with a local brewery. Dubh Glas sends some of its used whisky barrels to a local brewery in Oliver, which ages stout in it before sending the barrel back to the distillery to be used for whisky again.
Indeed, current expressions of creativity and innovation in the spirits industry are intriguing. Gin manufacturers produce singular results when they add unexpected botanicals—think: rhubarb, seaweed, lemongrass—to their products. Or consider the Nova Scotian distillery that is aging their rum in casks on a boat.
Alex is passionate about sharing all of this and more with spirits fans. He knows that it’s a thrilling time to start investigating Canada’s rising spirits artisans.
“A few years ago, if you simply started a small batch distillery, people took interest. But now the quality really needs to be there. And it is.”
GLBC is a proud sponsor of the Canadian Artisan Spirit Competition. To learn more, visit their website