Cape Breton, day 2: Songsmiths and whiskey in Mabou

Donny from the Glenora Distillery

I visited Cape Breton on a blogging trip from October 11th to 13th for Extreme Group and Destination Cape Breton. They gave me a couple ideas of what to see and full editorial control – so what you’ll read here is no-holds-barred travel blogging fun.

The Glenora Inn and Distillery has been through a lot: two past owners, a couple lawsuits from Scottish distilleries who seem unsympathetic to these New World pioneers, and all the challenges of making a first-rate whiskey in a place that has no history or experience in distilling the maddeningly complex single malts that the Glen Breton is now known for. Challenge overcome, I say.

When we arrive at the main entrance, Donny greets us. We find out that he’ll be giving us the tour – which I’ve handily compressed into video and point form for you:

  • There’s a distillery and a malting house on premise – though the malting house is used as a museum. The barley is grown in Saskatchewan and malted in Quebec.
  • They put out about 50,000 litres a year; this could be quadrupled easily enough, but they prefer to focus on tourism during the summer months, as Glen Breton has an incredible restaurant and inn on-site.
  • Call it a single malt whiskey, not a single malt scotch: that’s a title reserved for the whiskeys coming from Scotland.
  • What can you expect to taste in the Glen Breton single malt? Apple and maple – flavours that the surrounding forest imparts into the elixir through the porous oak barrels that the whiskey is aged in. They also do a few really cool ultra-specialty products, including a $300 cask-aged whiskey and the world’s first ice wine-finished single malt, but their basic whiskey starts at $50 – and believe me, basic is not the right term to describe it at all.

Post-tasting, we headed to Mabou for The Song & the Songsmith event: five of the east coast’s foremost folk musicians would come together to play their tunes and talk about how they made them. Everyone on that stage was obviously happy to be there, and you could see the respect they had for one another. If they liked a song, they would sing harmony or strum along in accompaniment.

This is the sort of setting that really makes the cultural diversity of the area apparent: songs were sung in English, French, and Gaelic – really, the only voice missing was that of the Mi’kmaw people. Possibly the best part about driving anywhere in Cape Breton is that you’ll see road signs in each of these four languages too.

I’m from Saskatchewan, as I’ve pointed out before, and it kind of inured me to the effect that Ron Hynes had on the audience as he sang Sonny’s Dreams. I’d never heard it before! Beautiful song, though – and the whole audience sang along. It was amazing, though it gave me a sense for what being “from away” really means.

What did speak to me was what Old Man Luedecke performed. He’s not old – the youngest on stage by fifteen years at least – but he’s as diverse and talented as any one of his peers, and more relevant to me than any of them. His 2011 Juno win speaks to that, sure, but it’s hard to get a sense for how well he nails it without hearing one of his songs:

As far as protest songs go, this is astonishingly good. He’s gratuitous in a good way: in a visceral, mean, butt-kicking way that makes you think that you could follow a banjo into battle. The refrain makes sorrow concrete and uplifting – not an easy task, and especially not for something so multi-faceted and diffuse as the frustration that the Occupy Wall Street movement has tried to capitalized on. Keep an eye on this dude – which you can do quite easily on Twitter.

I drove a bit north of Mabou to stay at the Macleod Inn. For $85 a night, I got the most spacious and comfortable suite I’ve seen in a very, very long time. It’s not often that I’m comfortable enough to unwind while on the road, and this is the special sort of place that lets it happen. Props to the friendly owners – they make a mean fruit salad for breakfast.

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