A few weeks ago I was in the Tasting Tower at Summerhill liquor store in Toronto, an excellent place to give oneself an education in whiskey and wine (and to help pass the time, but don’t cause no accidents – after two samples, it’s “Baby, step back” with a light foot). I was rather amused, and my curiosity was piqued, at the sight of a bottle of Irish whiskey named O’Kanagan.

Oh! Come again? The name on the bottle is in all caps, too (see http://www.vinexx.com/Vinexx/Toorank_Distilleries.html), so the visual connection is immediate for most Canadians (especially western Canadians): Okanagan. As in the Okanagan valley in British Columbia.

Now, Okanagan sounds like “oak a noggin,” and since a noggin is (aside from being one’s head, in a usage parallel to mug for the same) a small cup or a small amount of alcoholic beverage, and since whiskey is often aged in oak (I believe O’Kanagan is, but I’d have to go back and taste it again to say for sure), this may seem appropriate enough. But, on the other hand, make it O’Kanagan and you’re most likely to shift the accent – to make the rhythm like that of “O Canada.”

But, hey, that’s the name, right? There’s an Irish family named O’Kanagan, so…

No, actually, it doesn’t seem there is. O’Kanagan Irish Whiskey is made in Ireland, true, but made for and branded by a Dutch company, Toorank. And it seems to be targeted at the Canadian market. And I can’t find any evidence of any actual Irish family named O’Kanagan.

It would be a funny coincidence if there were, anyway. Okanagan is not an Irish word. It’s from the First Nation (aboriginal, American Indian) people who were there first (and still are there, along with lots of other people by now). There’s some debate over its etymology, but it seems that (like oak a noggin, by coincidence) the source word contains a root meaning “head” – or “top end”. It may be “looking towards the upper end”, “seeing the top”, “transport towards the top end”, or something like that. It could refer to a local mountain, but it could also refer to the point on the Okanagan river, just below Okanagan Falls, that is the farthest up the river that salmon go when spawning.

Anyway, the current word is somewhat altered from the source (and the spelling Okanagan was set to differentiate it from the American place names spelled Okanogan). But its original sense and form are immaterial to most people who go there now. The word is agreeable as it is (OK and then some, a real AAA piece of work), with its opening O! like Oklahoma and the tongue then doing a double back-front touch, and it brings clear images to the minds of those who know it. Going up to the Okanagan is a retreat to a sunny vacationland with beautiful scenery, watersports, and lots of luscious things.

I mean fruits and berries. When I was a kid, it was a place for peaches (there’s even a town called Peachland) and similar succulents. It still is, but, as Wikipedia somewhat bitterly misphrases it, one of the fastest-growing industries in the Okanagan is “the ripping up of orchards and their replacement by wineries and vinyards” (I’m fairly sure that ripping out the orchards is not itself the fast-growing industry). Yes, if you’re having an oaky noggin in the Okanagan, it will most likely be a taste of one of the region’s many wines (not whiskeys), some of which are outstanding and most of which are at least quite good.

Indeed, not only wine production but wine touring as well is a staple of the economy there. And ever since I showed my wife Aina the region a few years ago, she’s been saying, “Oh, can we go again?” But gladly. So we made sure to stop through there on our latest trip west and visit a few more wineries. (See http://www.flickr.com/photos/sesquiotic/sets/72157626748240883/.)

But you do have to be careful – the wine can go right to your head! (And you might knock your noggin.)

5 responses to “Okanagan

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  5. Actually the word Okanagan came from a different word. The settlers met them and asked who they were and so they told them in their language the word messenger… which was their profession… which they mispronounced as Okanagan. The people are actually the Syilx people (which sounds like seal with a throat sound at the end. The area became known as the okanagan from a misunderstanding.

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