Whiskies of the World: Canadian Whisky
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.
What makes Canadian Whisky?
Like pretty much every country, Canada has regulations for whisky making. But, as we’ll come onto, these regulations are broader than those in Scotland, Ireland or America, allowing for some notable flavor distinctions.
Similar to Scotch and Irish whiskies, all Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels no greater than 700 liters in capacity and the final product must contain at least 70% ABV. There’s no distinction made between the quality of the barrels and they can be new, used, charred or uncharred.
Where Canadian whiskey regulations differ from their other international counterparts is in addition of other liquids. Canadian whisky makers are allowed to mix their spirit with a variety of other spirits, including bourbon, sherry and brandy. This extends to non-alcoholic liquids as well, and additions such as caramel coloring and flavoring are allowed to increase the drink’s marketability.
Canadian whisky flavor characteristics and notable examples
Canadian whiskey is often referred to a “rye whiskey,” but that name is misleading to anyone familiar with American rye. It’s true that Canadian whiskies are often made with larger proportions of rye – unsurprisingly given that rye tends to do well in colder climates – but there aren’t any laws dictating minimum contents of rye in Canadian whisky and, in fact, most contemporary Canadian whiskies are made with a corn heavy mash bill.
Many Canadian whiskies are made from blending high-proof grain whisky with lower-proof rye-grain. Then, the whiskies are flavored by the addition of Canadian made “bourbon-style” corn whisky, or occasionally barley whisky.
Canadian whisky has a reputation for being similar to Ireland’s blended whiskies – light palatable, smooth and mellow. As such, it’s often thought of as a mixer, or a spirit for use in cocktails.
But, that’s a conception that belies the complexities of flavor, which can range from bourbon-like, with vanilla, caramel and toffee hints, to fruitier and spicier varieties, richer in rye.
One of the reasons for this misconnection – and a major issue for international would-be whisky connoisseurs that want to sample Canada’s finest spirits offerings – is that many of the country’s best bottles don’t make it across the border. As Kara Newman noted for Bloomberg back in 2015, examples like Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye, with its complex apricot and dry chocolate notes, don’t make it across the border.
But, there are still a number of delightful Canadian whiskies on the market for non-natives. Royal Canadian Small Batch Canadian whisky, for example, is dry, restrained with hints of coffee, tobacco and oak. Caribou Crossing has an appealing caramel smoothness, while Forty Creek’s double barrel reserve is a spicy, toasty and pecan flavored.
That’s it for this week’s edition. Be sure to check back next time, when we’ll be exploring more whiskies of the world. And, if this article has you clamoring for more whisky knowledge, check out the previous entries in this series on Irish Whisky and American Bourbon.