Sarnia’s whisky king is real and not a bourbon legend

Whisky enthusiast Bill Franks gives two thumbs up to the Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. Submitted Photo

Cathy Dobson

Sarnia’s Bill Franks is taking his best shot at educating the world about whisky.

For research purposes, he has tasted whisky at no fewer than 21 Scottish distilleries, sampled 122 more shots on Ireland’s ‘Whiskey Trail,’ and completed extensive fieldwork at Southwestern Ontario’s growing distillery and whisky-bar scene.

But Franks does more than hang out in tasting rooms. He is also the Chancellor, Chairman and ‘Grand Poobah’ of the Canadian College of Whisky Knowledge.

The whimsical but very real online college (www.ccwkn.com/whisky-tutorial/) is where students can earn degrees in whisky appreciation and log a “life list” to track enjoyed brands.

“I call myself an enthusiast,” says Franks, who worked as a dietician at Bluewater Health before retiring. “There are guys out there who are experts and make their living from this. I am just excited about whisky.”

Franks grew up in a household where special occasions were celebrated with a shot or two of whisky.

“My father always had some in the house,” he said. “I got to appreciate a good sipping whisky and was never really much of a beer guy.”

The world’s renewed interest in whisky transcends gender and age stereotypes, he said. He witnessed that himself in pre-pandemic Sarnia when he hosted a number of whisky tastings, including a sold-out evening in 2016 held to honour Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye.

Made in Gimli, Manitoba, the Canadian spirit had just been named World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible.

Franks travelled to Scotland In 2012 for the sole purpose of trying as many scotches as possible not available in Ontario. It was a ‘bucket-list’ trip to broaden his knowledge, and there is a lot to know about whisky making, whisky drinking and whisky appreciation, he said.

“I can talk whisky all night long. If you haven’t tried whisky or you don’t think you like it, for Pete’s sake try a few and see how it goes.

“Whisky is a big thing now. There is such a variety of flavours and expressions that start with the same basic ingredients – malted barley, water and yeast. It just depends on how they are barrelled, how they’re stored and for how long.”

He recommends an Irish whisky for a lighter, more flavourful drink, and a Scottish dram for those who like a smoky or heavier peat taste.

“My wife prefers the Canadian Crown Royal Northern Harvest for its mild flavour, with no peat at all.”

Of all the makers he has visited, the Edradour Distillery near Perth, Scotland was his best experience, he said. Not only was the whisky tasty and very aromatic, that’s where the Canadian College of Whisky Knowledge was born.

He was in line and talking to a father and son who asked why Franks was travelling on his own.

“I said I was taking my Master’s degree in Whisky Appreciation from the Canadian College of Whisky Knowledge, you know, making it up as I went along,” he said with a laugh.

The seed planted that day evolved into the current website on everything to do with whisky.

Last year, with time on his hands during the pandemic, Franks sifted through his notes and photos from the Scottish distillery tour and wrote an eBook called “One Canadian, One Whisky, One Beer!” It’s available on Amazon as a Kindle edition for $2.99. The Kindle app can be downloaded for free onto any device.

“I’m having a lot of fun with the book,” Franks said. “And once COVID settles, I’m hoping people will ask me again to do whisky tastings and tutorials.

“I love an evening with a theme and I can’t think of a better one than whisky.”