Overview of Canadian Whisky


Canadian readers will likely already know that Canadian whisky is some of the best whisky the world produces. However, for the rest of our readers, you may hear “Canadian whisky” and think of either sickly cinnamon flavored college shots, or watery, cheap, unremarkable whisky. This bad reputation is all over the world and comes from the Canadian whisky that most drinkers are familiar with. You may be surprised and pleased to hear that Canadian whisky has a lot more to offer than that if you give the better brands a chance!

Canadian whisky got a big boost in the US during the alcohol prohibition of 1920 to 1933, since there was no such prohibition up north. You can see the cultural influence of Canadian whisky in references like Boardwalk Empire’s Nucky and Don Draper from Mad Men drinking Canadian whisky neat. Even later, in the 1970s, brown spirits were out of style in favor of vodkas, wines, and beers, except for a few Canadian staples like Black Velvet, Crown Royal, and Seagram’s VO.

It’s unfortunate that most people today don’t know much about Canadian whisky. If someone does have a story about northern alcohol, it’s likely to be a story about waking up with a hangover after too many Fireball shots in college, or drinking sweet Seven and Sevens that packed more punch than anticipated. However, that could be changing soon, with United States sales of Canadian Whisky up 6% from five years ago, and premium whisky sales up 59% (statistics taken from the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., or DISCUS). Thanks to famous icons like Don Draper, premium Canadian whisky is taking over in America. Now you can find anything from a single malt to a bourbon, all delicious, and all Canadian.

According to single malt whisky expert and author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert Davin de Kergommeaux, “The best Canadian whisky is as richly flavorful as whisky made anywhere in the world” (McClelland & Stewart, 2012). Kergommeaux’s book includes taste notes for some rare Canadian delicacies, such as Canadian Club 30-Year, Wiser’s Special Reserve and Danfield’s Limited Edition 21-Year, among 96 other top Canadian brands. He also gives general information about the history of Canadian whisky and some Canadian traditions for whisky production.

Canadian Whisky

Unlike more strictly defined regional whiskeys like bourbon and scotch, Canadian whisky is not a well defined brand and can vary wildly from whisky to whisky. Canadian rye whisky, for example, only needs to have 5% rye mash to be legally marketed as rye whisky, compared to American rye whiskey requiring a mash to be fully more than half rye, and often promise over 80% rye. Canadian laws for whisky only state that it must sit in wood for three years in batches under 700 liters and beat a modest 80 proof alcohol content. Beyond that, Canadian whisky is fair game, though there are some traditions and methods that hold true for most Canadian whisky.

The distiller for Canadian whisky manufacturers Pike Creek, JP Wiser’s and Lot 40, Don Livermore, argues that the looser legal definition of whisky in Canada offers distillers more creativity and diversity, and makes for better whisky. He goes on to say that the diverse temperatures in Canada also allow for the wood of barrels to expand and contract more, which gives it greater influence over the whisky as it ages compared to a whisky made in the more mild temperatures of Kentucky.

At a Canadian whisky showcase in New York sponsored by DISCUS and Spirits Canada, Livermore says that while American whiskey is primarily built on corn, and Scotland and Ireland use barley, rye is the primary Canadian whisky grain. While rye adds a unique and pleasant spiciness to whisky, it’s not without problems. Rye goes bad more quickly than corn or barley, and can cause clogging in stills. Despite these issues, rye is becoming one of the more popular whisky bases, and Canada is capitalizing on this popularity with more rye whiskys than ever.

Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky is even starting to invade the American whiskey production market. American Whiskey producer Rob Cooper of St. Germain elderflower liqueur fame is producing a Lock Stock and Barrel 13 year Canadian-sourced rye whiskey. Cooper has a history with rye whiskey ever since Rittenhouse Rye overflow was stored at his grandfather’s distillery in Philadelphia. When Cooper wanted to experiment with his own straight rye whiskey, competition for rye supplies in the US were fierce, so he had to look north. Alberta Distillers Ltd. had the supply he was looking for, providing him with aged rye whiskey from 1999 to 2000. Cooper allowed these barrels to age for a few more years until the whiskey emerged as a deep, flavorful amber rye whiskey. Despite a whopping 101 proof alcohol content, the whiskey had a spicy but smooth quality with a unique lemon-pepper-oak-menthol that sticks with the drinker. Canadian whiskey producers aren’t the only ones rediscovering the intoxicating quality and flavor of rye whiskey, and American producers want to get in on the rye whiskey sensation started in Canada as much as they can, even going so far as to snatch up existing barrels.

As de Kergommeaux says, “the good stuff is starting to trickle into the U.S. And the way Canadian whisky is growing, that trickle will soon become a torrent.”