The Whisky Lassie: The Alter-Ego Of Johanne McInnis

It’s 2:00pm, the appointed time to meet with our next interview subject, and my photographer is not at all where I’ve left him. He does this sometimes: wandering off after shiny objects; the glint of a window pane, or a strong silhouette can leave him helpless to his more artistic urges. His cell phone rings again, and again. Finally, he picks up on the third attempt. “Where are you?” I ask.

“We’re here!” he answers through fits of laughter.
“Here?” I ask.
“Here.”
It was the most shocking answers he could have given me; as surprising as if he had announced a decision to spend the rest of his days as a post box. I’ve known John for three years now, and the exact coinciding of him being in both the correct place, concurrently with the correct time, means I am missing something good. I sprint the last two blocks to Prince William Street’s Bourbon Quarter to find John already drinking his second beer amidst a mirthful crowd, and at the center of it: Johanne McInnis.

“You have to try this; it’s delicious,” she says, already signalling the waitress. This is why Johanne McInnis is so dangerous.

By day, or at least until noon, Johanne is a mom, an avid reader, and a career project manager, but by night she transforms into her alter-ego, Whiskylassie, a whisky aficionado whose enthusiasm for (almost) all things fermented is infectious. “Around the office, they just know me as Johanne McInnis, and they don’t understand that whole alter-ego Whiskylassie, and vice versa, my Whiskylassie friends, they’ve never once asked me what I do for a living. The two never meet. When Johanne is around Whiskylassie isn’t around, and when Whiskylassie is on stage, Johanne’s not there. It’s really this double-life, Jekyll-and-Hyde, existence.”

Johanne’s appreciation of whisky developed at an early age, “Probably way too young,” as she puts it; clandestinely liberating a bottle of Gibson’s 12 Year Whiskey from her parents’ liquor cabinet on a dare, and sneaking it into a dance. She was less successful in sneaking it back, “I got severely punished, because I was a stupid teenager, and stole the only bottle that my parents would have seen. Some people can remember that very first whisky bottle, like I do, because there’s an emotional attachment to it. It was something naughty that I had done that I got really badly punished for. I’ll forever remember that as my first whisky.” No doubt some hard lessons were learned, but a more lasting impression was made in the experience of the whisky itself, “I can remember thinking how nice it smelled, versus how it tasted. I didn’t drink a lot of it, I just spent a lot of time kind of smelling it, whereas everyone else got smashed on vodkas and gins. That taught me two things right from the get-go; I realised how much I could smell with my nose, and that I didn’t need to drink a lot in order to enjoy it.”

The Gibson’s has stuck with her, a staple amongst her collection of more than two hundred different whiskies. “I took it beyond something I just sipped at, and really started learning a lot more about it; getting educated, visiting distilleries, talking to people, and writing about it. That’s when it took off as a passionate hobby, or a second career almost.” A full third of her whisky collection is Canadian, something she’s been a strong proponent of, and having been mentored by leading Canadian whisky expert, Davin de Kergommeaux, Johanne has become an expert in her own right.

“I actually send people Canadian whisky as gifts. For me, it’s about educating.”

These days, she can be found educating others on her favourite topic, hosting tasting events, teaching master classes, and generally talking about whisky at every opportunity. “It’s grown to the point that I’m standing in front of the class that I used to sit at ten years ago. We become obsessed with passion about it, because unlike vodkas or gins, whisky has so many parameters; so many things can happen to it from the time it’s distilled, to the time it’s aged and put into a bottle. It’s truly a form of alchemy; one year you can have the worst weather in the world, and it will affect the way the whisky tastes ten years later.”

Johanne explains that the world of advanced whisky appreciation attempts to be more inviting than its grapier brethren, but still possesses its share of stodgier stewards, “We all start out thinking that it’s not subjective; people will tell you how to drink whiskies, and that it’s faux pas to use ice, or don’t twirl your glass. You learn by what you hear, and by what you experience, but once you’ve been at it for a while, you start to realise how subjective it is. When you’ve had ten years of discussions with people who say, ‘But I like ice in my eighteen year old!’ you see how subjective it is.” Her own views on enjoying whisky are more welcoming, and open-minded, with perhaps the exception of those who feel that drinking from a straw is acceptable. “I personally don’t like being called an expert. I think I’ll forever be learning about everything that’s going on around me with whisky. I let people experience it whatever way they want to experience it, and I try not to judge too much. I still have parameters, but I wouldn’t judge anyone.”

In 2010, for the sake of furthering the art and sciences of whisky appreciation, both personal, and at large, she and her husband, Graham, founded the Saint John Whisky Tasting Society, “When Graham and I decided we were doing this, we looked around the table, and everybody looked to us, that’s when Graham and I went, ‘I think we’re going to be doing all the presentations’. That’s when we really immersed ourselves.” Initially a group of 25 members,  the society proved immensely popular, and leaped to 35 members in their third year, and 42 in their fourth, and maintains a well populated waiting list to join. The society currently rests at that cap largely due to the prohibitive (pun intended) cost of purchasing some of the rarer whiskies, like Port Ellen of Islay, last distilled in 1982, and available at $1100 a bottle. Fortunately for the rest of us, Johanne will often offer public classes and tasting events. She’s also regularly involved with the Fredericton Spirits Festival.

Johanne is currently judging the Canadian Whisky Awards, her third, and likely, final year doing so. It’s a month-long process that means blind taste-testing 61 different 50ml bottles of whisky. “Scoring anywhere from 0-100. I’ve never scored anything lower than a 60, or higher than 93. The really interesting part is finding out you’ve scored a Crown Royal Black a 90, and your favourite whisky a 78.”

As for those interested in trying whisky for the first time, she has a process that feels not entirely dissimilar to having your fortune told, “There are the standards: Macallan, Glen Livet, Jameson. No matter what bar you go to you’ll see them behind the bar. I much rather prefer to start people based on what they tell me about themselves.” After a few questions, she tells me, “You would like that salty Maritime-ish, what I would call ‘Bay-of-Fundy’ in a glass. You would probably enjoy Ledaig 10 year old, or a Springbank 15.”

She was right about the beer; Hammond River Brewing’s Vanilla Porter won over our taste buds, and immediately confirmed Johanne’s good taste. We’re very much inclined to take her word about the whisky.

Editors Note: Far too much ice. (John England/The East)
Editors Note: Far too much ice. (John England/The East)

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