Welcome to this week’s edition of Whiskies of the World; the series that teaches you about different nations’ whiskies and how they came to be. Last week, we talked about American Bourbon. Now, in this edition, we’re going North of the border and delving into the world of Canadian whisky.
The history of Canadian whisky is fascinating, with its rise in international standing tied directly into American prohibition and the proximity of some key distilleries to the American border. In this edition, we’ll find out how they came to pass, as well as how Canadian whisky legitimized itself to American consumers in the post-prohibition years.
As well as this, we’ll explore the rules that define Canadian whisky, and how they differ in one key aspect compared to many other international whisky varieties. We’ll also be talking about the flavor characteristics of Canadian whisky, how Canadian spirits are sometimes overlooked, and how some of Canada’s best whisky options sometimes stay in Canada.
So, get your sippin’ glasses at the ready and let’s dive in!
Canadian whisky history begins in 1769, when John Molson opened the first Canadian distillery in Quebec. By the mid-1800s, the Canadian whisky industry was booming, with over 200 distilleries actively producing the spirit across the country.
While Canadian whisky was well established domestically by the end of the 19th century, it was the introduction of prohibition in America in 1920 that pushed the Canadian spirit onto the international stage. The nationwide ban on the sale of all liquor across the US, which went on until 1933, led to a boom in illegal spirit imports, and Canadian distilleries, just across the border, were primed to take advantage of this. Take the Hiram Walker distillery in Ontario, for example. Just across the river from Detroit, it became a prime site for bootleggers smuggling hooch throughout the ‘20s.
It’s not known exactly how much Canadian whisky was smuggled into the US during this period (you wouldn’t exactly expect the bootleggers to keep records of their very illegal activities!), but it’s fair to say that American prohibition bolstered Canadian whisky’s international standing. Canadian Club, for example, were shipping out 1000 cases of whisky per day during the era. They also introduced the curved “gate” bottle during this period, designed to fit in small places, specifically the high boots that smugglers used to conceal whisky (wonder no more where the name bootlegger came from!).
Following the end of prohibition in 1933, Canadian whisky boomed once again, thanks to the Federal Alcohol Administration deciding that the spirit was similar to Tylenol – a widely used American cure-all and pain reliever at the time. As a result, the FAA imported over 3 million gallons of Canadian whisky into the US, for allocation everywhere from medical clinics, hospitals and pharmacies to public buildings like libraries (which, looking back on things from a 21st century perspective, seems kind of crazy!). It was this that really set the stage for Canadian whisky’s recognition outside of Canada.