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Canada’s speaker now has an official Canadian rye whisky

‘This is Canadian Parliament, and we should have Canadian whisky,’ says speaker Anthony Rota on ending a 20 year tradition of Scotch

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OTTAWA – Canada’s speaker Peter Milliken raised the glass to his lips and smelled the light notes of oak and tasted the hints of honey and fruit.

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The year is 2001, and Milliken is sitting with his British counterpart Michael Martin in London drinking his first dram of the U.K. speaker’s Scotch, a special edition 10-year-old Macallan.

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Milliken was impressed with the idea, and upon his return to Canada decided he should also have a Speaker’s Scotch of his own, a tradition his successors have all continued.

But by definition, Scotch needs to be flavoured with Scottish malted barley, distilled and barrelled in a Scottish town, drawn from Scottish water, without a hint of Canada inside.

That didn’t sit quite right with current speaker Anthony Rota.

Though Scotsmen might turn down their nose at Canadian rye whisky, this country’s brown liquor has a rich heritage all its own. In the 1860’s, Toronto’s Gooderham and Worts distillery was the largest whisky producer in the world, and Crown Royal (and its notable purple pouch) is one of the most recognizable whisky brands.

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So, twenty years after Milliken made his fateful trip to London, Rota walked into speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s Westminster office in November and handed him a soft green pouch made of similar velvet that covers MPs’ chairs in the House of Commons.

Inside was the first ever bottle of the new Speaker’s Canadian rye whisky, a rebranded bottle of “Rocking R” from Rig Hand, a craft distillery near Edmonton, Alta.

“This is Canadian Parliament, and we should have Canadian whisky,” Rota said in an interview.

House of Commons speaker Anthony Rota, right, gifts the first ever bottle of the new speaker’s Canadian whisky to his U.K. counterpart Sir Lindsay Hoyle during a visit to Westminster on Nov. 7, 2022.
House of Commons speaker Anthony Rota, right, gifts the first ever bottle of the new speaker’s Canadian whisky to his U.K. counterpart Sir Lindsay Hoyle during a visit to Westminster on Nov. 7, 2022. Photo by Courtesy of Anthony Rota’s office

Finding out that his small craft distillery that is less than a decade old was chosen as the first ever speaker’s Canadian whisky was exhilarating as it was surprising to Rig Hand owner and distiller Geoff Stewart.

A bottle that wasn’t yet sold outside of the prairies and Northwest Territories would soon be handed out as a gift by MPs across the country and the world.

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“I was shocked, absolutely shocked, and so very proud and happy that we were able to get some representation in Ottawa from out West,” Stewart said in an interview.

As exclusive as it may sound, the speaker’s Canadian whisky is the same liquid available to the public, but rebranded with an ornate new label featuring the speakers’ name, crest, and a picture of parliament in the background. It comes in a sleek black box featuring Rota’s signature and crest. It operates on a cost-recovery basis, and MPs as well as Rota have to pay for their bottles they intend to use as gifts to friends and constituents.

For MPs, it makes a fantastic gift to constituents. For Rota, it will replace his speaker’s Scotch as a staple in his roster of diplomatic gifts he doles out regularly to visiting dignitaries or when he goes on missions abroad.

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With the new bottle, Rota was also responding to stinging critiques from Canadian distillers and whisky advocates who lambasted then-speaker Geoff Regan and MPs for choosing another Scotch, a 12-year-old Aberlour, as the speaker’s beverage in 2016.

“What would be the reaction to the National Assembly of France choosing a California Cabernet as the country’s official wine, or of Mexico choosing a Russian vodka as that country’s official Spirit? Yet, a Scotch Whisky has once again been anointed as the Parliament of Canada’s official Whisky,” Spirits Canada president Jan Westcott wrote in an open letter to MPs at the time (he now says he’s very happy the speaker has a Canadian whisky).

Over the years, MPs — particularly those with distilleries in their ridings — kept asking the speaker if there would one day be a Canadian whisky bottled with the speaker’s label. But whenever came time to choose a new Parliamentary whisky during a blind tasting, MPs kept choosing a Scotch.

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Rota, who also has a Speaker’s Scotch bearing his name, said he’d hoped to kick off the new Canadian whisky tradition shortly after being elected speaker in 2019. But like for so many things, the COVID-19 pandemic threw a well-charred ex-bourbon barrel at those plans.

It was only in the spring of 2022, when international booze supply chains had nearly ground to a halt and getting the speaker’s Scotch, the cask strength sherry bomb Aberlour A’bunadh, became a slog that Rota’s team saw an opportunity for a Canadian whisky launch.

“I would have liked to have done right from the beginning, but tradition was Scotch, and I thought, well, we’ll stick with it and keep it going. But once supply started being a problem with COVID… that’s when we decided, ‘ok let’s do Canadian rye whisky’, where supply is not impeded,” Rota said.

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A bottle of House of Commons Speaker Rota’s Canadian Whisky.
A bottle of House of Commons Speaker Rota’s Canadian Whisky. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON/Postmedia

By June, Rota’s director of events Anthony Carricato had round up six Canadian rye whiskies from different provinces. He assigned each bottle a letter from A to F, printed out stacks of ballots and Rota’s team poured out hundreds of samples in the speaker’s lounge on the second floor of West Block.

Then, hundreds of MPs from all parties came by, tasted, and voted during a “reception style” event where any lingering animosity from the House of Commons just meters away was left at the door.

The result was “definitive”, Rota said. With its floral nose, sweet, fruity and slightly peppery flavour with the traditional spicy rye finish, Rocking R won by a landslide.

Stewart describes it as “Alberta in a bottle” and says his product couldn’t be a better representation of the local industry.

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The distillery gets its grain from a family-owned farm just 15 minutes away and many of their bottles are shaped as a replica of the Leduc No. 1 drilling rig, which was key in the province’s search for crude oil in 1947.

Winning the parliamentary blind tasting was probably the easiest step for Stewart and Rota though. Getting 1,000 bottles to Ottawa in time before the Christmas break, when MPs love to buy as many bottles as their luggage can hold to bring back and distribute in their ridings, was anything but smooth thanks to Canada’s archaic and protectionist interprovincial liquor laws.

Because the bottle is sold through the parliamentary restaurant, it needs to be approved and “listed” by the government-run Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). Before Rocking R was chosen by the MPs’ tasting panel, Stewart said an LCBO tasting panel had already rejected it “three or four times” over the years.

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Then, three weeks after it won the parliamentary vote, the LCBO rejected Rocking R again. Rota and MPs started getting impatient towards the liquor board.

“We tried calling and saying, ‘what the hell is going on?’,” Rota said.

Rig Hand applied again, and thanks to some serious legwork by their local broker Metabolic Media, the product was approved in the fall to be sold in Ontario, Stewart said.

“They literally went over once this process was done and picked the product up (in Toronto) in their truck and drove it to Ottawa so that we’d be there in time before the Christmas break,” he said with a laugh.

Stewart is thrilled that Rocking R is now one step closer to finding its way onto LCBO shelves, but he also admits its more likely foreigners get their hands on a bottle before Ontarians do.

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“Unfortunately, it seems easier for me to get to international markets than it does to get to other markets within Canada, because there are so many internal barriers in Canada,” he said.

“We’re looking to the Texas market, we’re looking to the Asian market, we’re looking to the European market. And for us to be viable long term, we need to develop those markets anyway,” he added. “But it would be better if we could ship it to British Columbia… or to Quebec without a whole bunch of problems.”

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