The “straight” goods: Toronto Distillery Co.’s First Barrels Whisky


The first new distillery in Toronto since 1933 has just launched the city’s first 100% organic whisky, and in addition to bringing about “the rebirth of whisky distilling in one of the historically great whisky cities of the world,” its makers are hoping the bottle and its contents might start a conversation about whisky standards in Canada.

Launched in 2013 by Charles Benoit and Jess Razaqpur, the Toronto Distillery Co. was borne of two high school buddies’ shared passion for whisky. Given the requirement for whisky to age, the start-up company located in the Junction (directly next door to Junction Craft Brewing) has, like most new distillers, largely been selling organic gin and “new make” grain spirits, an unaged whisky that you might know by the less refined moniker “moonshine.”

Until now.

Made with a mash bill comprising 40% organic rye, 40% organic wheat, and 20% organic corn grown in the Humber River headlands of York County and harvested back in 2012, TDC’s aptly-named First Barrels Straight Whisky was aged in “fresh char” oak barrels, meaning the never-before-used-barrels from Prince Edward County’s Carriage House Cooperage and Niagara’s Canada Oak were literally charred with fire before being filled with liquid to age.

The result is a whisky that is remarkably smooth and complex given its age (the oldest whisky used in the spirit’s blend was aged just 26 months).

The nose features rich caramel and butterscotch aromas that will appeal to fans of good bourbon as well as subtle, bright fruit and restrained oak notes and a hint of a sort of nail polish remover alcohol vapour.

While the oak is more pronounced and almost sharp on the palate, the young whisky features grassy cereal flavours with an underlying caramel sweetness again reminiscent of American bourbon. The finish features vanilla and honey and a touch of peppery spice likely imparted from the rye. It is quick and pleasant with perhaps the only thing to betray the spirit’s age is that it also finishes with a touch of alcohol heat.

For a first outing, this is a more than impressive whisky.

Of course, as has been the case previously with TDC, there is more going on here than what’s in the bottle.

The duo is known for trying to bring attention to what they see as problems in their industry—their lawsuit, alleging that the LCBO collects taxes from distillers that are unconstitutional, is currently in the Ontario Court of Appeals—and the label and contents of their first whisky is fairly consistent with their shit-disturbing philosophy.

Boasting not only a 100% organic mash bill, First Barrels’ label also certifies that this is a “Straight Whisky.” In the United States this is a meaningful distinction. Per the U.S federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits, in order to be labelled “straight whisky,” your product must be aged in charred new oak barrels and must be put into the barrels for aging at a concentration not exceeding 62.5% ABV. When bottled, the only allowable additive for US straight whisky is water to reduce proof.

Canadian whisky has no such standards for labelling and so, by slapping the words Straight Whisky on their bottle, TDC is, in some sense, hoping to set such a standard. They have used the term roughly in accordance with the US definition and certify that the contents of their bottles are made without any artificial flavouring or colouring, a practice they say that, without these standards in place, is all too common. “You can fill a barrel with vodka,” Benoit says, “add some artificial flavouring and colouring to doctor-it-up, and in three years call it Canadian Whisky. This is a national shame.”

Indeed, Benoit explains, under Canadian law, as much as 9.09% of a bottle of whisky can be virtually any liquid at all—brandy, rum, colouring, caramel—and so Benoit and Razaqpur have slapped a “No 9.09” logo on the back of their bottle to not only show, as Benoit says, “there are no tricks here” but also to raise awareness about issues of whisky quality and to show how much better they think “honestly made” whisky can taste.

But perhaps the most controversial thing about this whisky (if nerding out about whisky standards can ever be deemed “controversial”) is that they even called it whisky at all. Per Section B.02.020 [S]. (1) (ii) of Canada’s Food and Drugs Act, Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky must “be aged in small wood for not less than three years.” (*snicker* “small wood”). Accordingly, First Barrels, which is no older than 26 months, can’t be whisky. Can it?

Charles Benoit (who also happens to be a lawyer) thinks it can. “Legally, the standards of identity don’t apply intra-provincially, only when it crosses a provincial line,” he says, citing section 6 of the Food and Drugs Act). “So legally,” if they’re never going to export to other provinces, he says, “we’re ok.”

Toronto Distillery Co. claims they’re not trying to be contrite by working an obscure loophole, rather  they are hoping to point out that the arbitrary requirement to age spirits three years before they can be called “whisky” actually hurts small whisky-makers, would-be whisky-makers, and consumers. The need to procure ingredients, space, a still, and barrels etc. and then sit on your product for three years before you can ever actually sell any of it means that launching a whisky distillery is a preposterously expensive endeavour. And so it’s the reason small spirit makers end up making vodka or some other, less-regulated spirit: They have to pay the bills. It might also arguably lead these whisky makers to make products via the most cost-effective (and thus not highest quality) methods. Ultimately, the duo seems to be hoping to show that, by paying attention to quality ingredients and not cutting corners with colourings, dyes, and additives, you can still make a quality whisky–even one that has not been aged three years.

And as of yesterday, you can find out for yourself if the proof is in the proverbial pudding. Toronto Distillery Co.’s First Barrels Straight Canadian Whiskey is now available for sale in a limited run of 1,452 bottles available directly from the distillery for $49.95.

This blog post began its life as a fairly short Toronto Life item that ran on Friday. A bunch of more technical aspects were edited out of that piece for the sake of brevity, so I thought I’d expand on it a bit here since I felt I had some more to say.

2 thoughts on “The “straight” goods: Toronto Distillery Co.’s First Barrels Whisky

  1. Yes, the 9.09% rule does allow for adding non-whisky to Canadian whisky, but enough with the misinformation already. The added spirit has to be aged in oak for a minimum 2 years, and can hardly be “any liquid at all.” The 9.09% rule is not ideal, but I’m not sure why people keep insisting on spreading outright lies about it. Here’s some more accurate reading about it:

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