Canadian whisky does not often spring to mind when thinking about the brands that dominate the North America – bourbon and rye are the usual suspects. This, in spite of the fact that over a span of nearly 150 years (1865 to 2010), the highest selling whiskies in the US market were
Canadian. As a matter of fact, though bourbon has taken over as the top grosser within the US since 2011, Canadian whiskies still enjoy the highest sales in North America overall.
Contrary to the perception that Canada produces run of the mill, generic whiskeys that co-exist in the US market, there are distinctive characteristics that make the Canadian products stand apart from their US counterparts in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Canada certainly continues
their strong pattern of export southwards – 70% of Canada’s production is sold in the US.
Interestingly, Canadian whisky is spelled without the “e” that adorns the Irish and American version of the name (“whiskey”). This may seem an anomaly, since whisky brewing in Canada – at least the modern version – and the sales of the final product were both strongly influenced
by Northern Irish expats, who were both producers and consumers of the libation(s) in the US mainland. Canada has maintained the classic Scottish spelling of the name, however, rather than follow the American tradition. There is a reason for it.
History of Whisky Production in Canada
There was always an abundance of grain, especially wheat, in Canada. Gristmills distilled large quantities of surplus grain (to prevent spoilage) from the 18 th century onwards. However, the production was unorganized, and the resulting wheat and rye-based products were of low quality. Also, it was unusual to focus on specific types or brands of alcohol – rum was often the distilled product coming out of Canada at that
The production of whisky remained ad hoc till a Scotsman, John Molson, purchased a copper pot still in 1799 and began to distribute the first batches of what evolved to become an identifiable brand a couple of years later. John was joined by two people – his partner, James Morton, and his son, Thomas, as they opened their first distilleries in Montreal and Kingston. The whisky business caught on in Canada, enhanced through
a burgeoning export trade which was further aided by interruptions in the French alcohol supply during the Napoleonic Wars over the first decade of the 19th century.
Following Molson’s footsteps, a number of other Scottish families took up distilling and selling whisky – which may explain why the proper Scottish version of the name stuck. English, Irish and American immigrants were also heavily involved with whisky production in Canada.
Noted distilleries that evolved over the years included Gooderham and Worts, which created the core of the Distillery District in Toronto in the mid-19 th century. Other well-known names, such as Henry Corby, Joseph Seagram, Hiram Walker and J.P. Wiser converged upon the Canadian whisky market from different places, including England and the US. Each of them created businesses that moved the Canadian whisky industry
forward. One of the later business builders and influencers was Harry Hatch, who was active in the early part of the 20th century.
World War I and American Prohibition Helped
In the years leading up to World War I, Canadian whisky had on the US market. The downfall of the Irish whisky supply during post 1920 – as described above – made whisky from north of the border a permanent fixture in the US, as did Prohibition laws.
Interestingly, Canada had its own Temperance Laws, which evolved into a set of Prohibition Laws, starting with Prince Edwards Island in 1901 and peaking during the First World War. However, due to a set of unique circumstances, the alcohol “ban” was not enforced in quite the same blanket fashion as in the US.
To start with, Ottawa shared jurisdiction with the different states in terms of enforcing alcohol-related regulations, so there were discrepancies in what activities were banned and how said ban was enforced. Additionally, or perhaps due to this lassitude, many Canadian states did not ban either personal use or the export of alcohol even if they forbade domestic sales.
By the time WWI ended, most Canadian provinces had pulled back from a hard enforcement of Prohibition rules. This meant that during the peak of the US Prohibition period (1920-33), Canada was a source of supply that bootleggers and smugglers readily availed of. Moonshine and Canadian liquors (whisky and rum) became sought after during this period.
Major Centers of Whisky Production Within Canada
Whisky production in Canada has developed based on the historical influence of some of the prominent figures mentioned above. Other considerations include climate, access to transportation conduits and local regulations. There are several hubs, including those outlined in Table 1 below.
Major Distilleries & Selected Brands
Hiram Walker (Windsor): Gooderham and Worts, Hiram Walker's Special Old, Corby's Royal Reserve, Lot 40, Pike Creek, J.P. Wiser’s brands, Canadian Club and several generic brands for export
Canadian Mist (Collingwood): Canadian Mist, Bearface brands and Collingwood brands
Kittling Ridge (Grimsby): Forty Foot brands
Old Montreal (Montreal): Sazerac, Caribou Crossing (bottling)
Valleyfield (Salaberry-de-Valleyfield): Seagrams VO (bottling), Diageo brands
Alberta (Calgary): Beam Suntory (for export), Alberta Premium, Alberta Springs, Windsor Canadian, Tangle Ridge and Canadian Club Chairman's Select.
Black Velvet (Lethbridge): Black Velvet, Danfield, Schenley’s Golden Wedding
Highwood (High River): Centennial, Century, Ninety, Potter's and White Owl
Gimli (Gimli): Seagram’s brands, including Crown Royal and VO
What is Canadian Whisky Like?
Most Canadian whiskies can be classified as rye whisky, though not necessarily by US definitions. From the early days of production, Canadian whisky makers began to mix in a certain amount of rye with their grain (wheat or corn primarily) to produce flavors that were to the liking of some of their consumers – the resident Dutch and German populace are usually cited as being a major driver of this taste trend.
The difference is that unlike the US, where a rye whiskey must contain at least 51% of the grain in its mash bill, Canada does not have any clear guidelines in terms of what constitutes a “rye” whisky. Most Canadian whiskies end up being blended, with corn as the main grain, with barley or wheat, and some amount of rye included for flavor.
Canadian Whiskies Tend to be Smoother and Sweeter
Another difference between Canadian whisky and other blended whiskies (Scotch, Bourbon, American Rye etc.) is that Canadian distillates are often captured at 180 proofs (90%+ alcohol by volume (ABV)), aged for 3+ years and then tapped for dilution, bottling and sale. The extremely high ABV makes the alcohol lighter in taste. Also, since the end product is diluted down to 40-45% ABV normally, there are substantial losses in taste and flavor. To make up, other ingredients such as coloring and caramel flavoring are often added. The end result is smoother – a sweet, light blended whisky which goes well with mixers, even more so than some of its American cousins.
The actual amount of sugar present in Canadian whisky may not be appreciably greater than bourbon or other American whiskies. However, the effect of the highly distilled corn (and wheat) mashes, blended in with caramel flavoring, creates what some have described as the “vanilla cream of the whisky world”. This effect is highlighted when many Canadian whiskies are distilled using mixtures of molasses, maple syrup, butterscotch, clove, nutmeg and brown sugar.
Canadian whiskies tend to be blends that are distilled in continuous stills with a strong concentration of corn, with amounts of rye added for flavor and other grains such as barley or wheat mixed in. They are light to taste. Due to the latitude in legal terms, there are a wide range of Canadian whiskies that are available on the market.
Legal Requirements Governing Canadian Whisky – Some Interesting Side Notes
Unlike Scotch or Bourbon, Canadian whisky has few defined regulations, except that:
(a) the grains used for production must be mashed and then distilled in country,
(b) the alcohol content of the distilled spirit can be as high as 90%,
(c) the whisky must be aged in barrels no more than 700 liters in volume, for a period of no less than three years,
(d) the barrels can be new or used, charred or uncharred,
(e) post dilution for sale, the ABV of the final product must be a minimum of 40%, and
(f) artificial additives such as coloring or caramel are allowed.
There are both similarities and differences between the guidelines above and those for Scotch and Bourbon. Canadian whisky almost inevitably contains rye, but not at the US mandated level. It is aged longer than most bourbons, but not as long as the average Scotch. It is lighter and usually has more flavoring than other whiskies.
Talking of Ageing …
While it may not be well known, Canada was the first country to impose aging requirements on whisky. It happened in 1887, a good 25 years before similar laws were imposed on British shores. Canada’s three-year aging requirement is at par with Scotch and Irish whiskeys, though the types of barrels used vary widely by distilleries and brands.
Distillers vs. Blenders
One of the other interesting features of how Canadian whisky is produced are the blending practices. In almost all whisky production over the world, a blended whisky is produced by blending the different grains together in the mash bill prior to distillation. In Canada, the liquors from different grain mashes are distilled separately, with only a few exceptions. This may allow for distillates with less impurities.
The final product is created by blending distillates from different grains (e.g., corn distillate, rye distillate, wheat distillate etc.) in proportions, adding artificial flavors and colors and appropriate quantities of water. It is also common to mix in different vintages. Due to this process, major Canadian producers employ Master Blenders, as opposed to the Master Distillers that grace Scottish, Irish and American breweries.
How Is Canadian Whisky Made?
The process of making Canadian whisky is similar in many respects to other processes. Akin to bourbon, the main methods used are continuous stills production, using different combinations of grain, yeast, water and so on.
The Raw Grains
The raw ingredients of most Canadian whiskies tend to be corn, with different amounts of rye mixed in for flavor. Other grains, such as barley and wheat, are also added. There are some “gluten free” brands, though it’s a bit of a misnomer in that wheat grains are mashed as an ingredient, but the process of distillation is such that people with wheat allergies may be able to tolerate them. The prime example is Crown Royal. Peated, smoky whiskies are not very common in Canada – it’s one of the raw ingredients not available in large amounts.
Water and Climate
It has been said that nature creates 50% of the flavor of the whisky. In Canada, the ecosystem and microclimates available closely approximate Scotland in many cases – with an abundance of grains, clean water and wood. As a result, Canada is considered a great spot for whisky.
Yeast is a key ingredient. Canadian distillers will sometimes use different types of yeast for different grains, given their propensity to distill the grain alcohols separately, prior to blending. For example, the Alberta Distillery uses a special type of yeast suitable for the distillation of rye. Canada’s natural abundance and climate makes it possible to cultivate yeast as needed.
Fermentation and Distillation
While fermentation follows the same general principle as in Scotch, Canadian distillers are distinctive in that most distillers do not create a mash bill with multiple types of grains. Distillation in Canada follows the continuous still process, as mentioned above. Each grain type is distilled separately, and often aged to different levels, before being blended in.
Ageing in Oak Barrels
Canadian whiskies are always aged three years by law, as mentioned above. While you can find 12+ years matured whiskies at the high end, but it’s more likely that the ageing process is not more than three to five years – which is considered to be the minimum general standard for a good Canadian whisky. The barrels used include both new and used, charred and uncharred barrels. Used barrels can be bourbon or wine barrels as elsewhere.
Bottling and Selling
As mentioned before, the distilleries employ master blenders who mix in alcohol from different types of grains and of different vintages, along with water and other flavorings. Canadian distilleries the propensity to add color, taste, caramel and fruity flavoring and employ other mixes that purists would frown upon. Canada also produces a large amount of “stock” whisky – sometimes sold by the barrel – made for export all over the world. The Japanese, for example, are large importers. Beam Suntory maintains a substantial presence in Canada for this reason.
Differences Between Canadian Whisky and Bourbon
Besides the domicile in which each is produced, there are a number of similarities between bourbon and Canadian whisky. Both principally employ continuous distillation and use large amounts of corn-based distillates. Both employs certain additives to enhance the flavoring and are often used with mixers.
There are, however, a number of differences. First, Canadian whisky tends to spicier due to the addition of rye and various spicy and sweet flavors employed during distillation. The presence of rye distillates also adds to the flavor. By contrast, bourbon is blander.
Second, Canadian whisky is aged for a minimum of three years, often in used barrels. Bourbon can be sold with minimum ageing, though “straight bourbon” is matured for two years, always in new barrels. This makes a difference in flavor.
Finally, most Canadian whisky uses less than 51% corn, while bourbon by law must have at least that percentage. Most well known bourbons are in fact 70-80% corn mesh.
Conclusion: Is Canadian Whisky Any Good?
Canada has a wide range of whiskies, which tend to be great for mixing. However, there are also good whiskies in the conventional sense.
In Part II of this story, we will introduce some of the best brands and vintages that Canada has to offer the world market. Don’t miss it!