Canadian whiskey as we have come to know it today started with farmers in Canada. The wheat fields at the time were abundant, and so any wheat that was left behind in the mill after the grains had been ground for flour was creatively transformed into whiskey. The Canadian farmers did not believe in allowing wheat to go to waste just because it was plentiful.
But when the Dutch and German farmers arrived, they took one look at the leftovers and decided to up their game by adding some rye to the mix. This is understandable as the Dutch and Germans love their foods and drinks to have that flavorful aftertaste, which is more evident in their dark bread. So, it made a lot of sense for them to add rye to the mash.
And that is how rye whiskey was born in Canada. The funny thing is that the Canadian whiskey on the market today contains negligible amounts of rye. If it is added at all during blending or distilling of Canadian whiskey, it is for nothing else but to add flavor to the spirit.
Canadian Whiskey: Debunking History
It is a widely-held belief that the Prohibition prompted the launch and establishment of the Canadian whiskey industry as we have come to know it today. But in reality, the history of this alcoholic beverage goes a bit further than the Prohibition era.
The Civil War put several whiskey distilleries in the South out of business, with many of them either destroyed by the warring soldiers or abandoned altogether. At the time, American troops had no choice but to look to the north for the supply of spirits since whiskey was the only reliable anesthetic they could use to fill in the gap when their own stores dried up unexpectedly.
The sales of Bourbon surpassed that of whiskey in America in 2010, but it is safe to say that Canadian whiskey is one of the best selling blends in the United States today.
Canadian Whiskey and its Regulations
The production of alcoholic beverages – especially whiskey – is regulated by law according to the country where it originates from. Scotch and Bourbon are strictly regulated, and it is highly imperative for bourbon makers to adhere to the laid-down or established formula when mixing the mash. Canadian whiskey, however, is not that regulated.
When it comes to Canadian whiskey, wheat, barley, rye, and corn are fermented separately. Then during distillation, when the liquid flavor reaches its peak, they are added. For any whiskey to be labeled a rye whiskey in the United States, it must have a minimum of 51 percent rye. But Canadian whiskey is sometimes referred to as rye whiskey whether or not rye is part of the primary ingredients.
Nevertheless, there are still several rules to follow before any whiskey can be appropriately labeled as “Canadian whiskey.”
To qualify as a Canadian whiskey, the following characteristics must be met:
- The alcoholic beverage must be made from a cereal grain mash;
- The spirit must be aged in small, charred oak barrels for not less than 3 years;
- The entire production process of making the whiskey must occur in Canada;
- The spirit must not have anything below 40 percent ABV (alcohol by volume).
As soon as the distillation process of Canadian whiskey is concluded, the level of alcohol in the distillate is about 90 percent or even more. Distillers then go ahead to bring down the percentage concentration of alcohol in the distillate to a drinkable level of 40 percent ABV by adding or blending it with water and other spirits. Subsequently, the flavor and color diminish considerably, and then other additives – such as caramel color and artificial flavoring – are added to the mixture.
In Canada, after the addition of the flavoring, the spirit must be aged in wooden barrels – or the ones used in aging wine – for two years, minimum. Do not be surprised if you find that your Canadian whiskey contains bourbon.
The previous section focused primarily on Canadian whiskey and how it is made. Let’s take a look at Bourbon so that you can fully understand what makes one spirit different from the other.
Bourbon and the Law
The regulations that guide Bourbon – or Kentucky bourbon to be more precise – are stricter than that of Canadian whiskey, or whiskey in general. Take note that all Bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. This is highly crucial, and it does not even matter how it is aged or even what is in the bottle.
Different grains comprise whiskey – i.e., rye, corn, barley, wheat – and are called “mash bill.” For an alcoholic beverage to qualify as a Bourbon, the mash must contain nothing less than 51 percent corn. The remaining parts of the formula can be rye- or wheat-forward, thereby resulting in a distinct difference in the overall taste.
Another fascinating note on regulation, nonetheless, is that American law permits the United States producers to add as much as 8 percent neutral grain spirits – such as distillations from corn, beets, molasses, etc. into their mix – as well as up to 2.5 percent flavoring which may include chemicals produced in the laboratory. But Canada does not permit such when producing their whiskey.
The following are other regulations on Bourbon:
- The mash must be distilled to about 160 proof, i.e., 80 percent alcohol by volume and put into the barrel for aging at 150 proof or less;
- The barrels used for aging Bourbon must be new, charred, and made from white oak;
- The Bourbon must not only be made in the United States but must also be aged there as well.
Canadian Whisky vs. Bourbon: Clearing up the Confusion
What you need to know is that you will never find any Canadian whiskey labeled “Bourbon.” American whiskey is unique, and the spirit is somewhat distinct. What Canada calls a “bourbon” is not even produced in the country and is known to have a subtle taste and some spiciness. And since Canadians can’t call the alcoholic beverage bourbon, it is rye whiskey that fits that description.
Canadian Whiskey: The Break Down
Canadians call their whiskey “rye,” instead of” whiskey,” and this is primarily because it was initially distilled with lots of rye grains. The abundance of this cereal in the product gave it such a spicy taste profile that most of the time, led to the mixing of the spirit with other beverages in order to tame the spice.
Even though it is not mandatory for Canadian whiskeys to contain rye, you will discover that most of Canada’s whiskey bear the rye whiskey moniker.
That is not to say that Canadian whiskey does not contain any rye. Some Canadian whiskeys out there are composed of 100 percent rye; however, the spice of the spirit is tamed considerably in red wine barrels. The wine barrels, having been used – at least once – for aging pinot noir grapes – transmit or impart a deep, red color to the distillate, thereby giving it a robust, fruity flavor.
But other Canadian whiskeys, especially those distilled from barley, corn, and rye have discernible undertones of butterscotch, molasses, brown sugar, and maple syrup. They usually exhibit hints of nutmeg and clover as well.
Now, according to the trade agreements between Canada and the United States as well as the Canadian law, every bottle that must bear the label “Bourbon” must be produced in the United States. But Canada cultivates corn abundantly, and so since the Bourbon formula is made up of at least 51 percent corn mash, it is reasonable to assume that Canada could produce high-quality Bourbon that will be on a par with the best from the United States.
And yes, Canada does produce its own Bourbon. But the location of the distilleries that produce spirit is close to something of a state secret. The bourbon is not sold to the public but used for blending other spirits instead. The distiller that produces Canadian bourbon will not sell the product with that name, and even the identity of that particular Canadian bourbon remains a trade secret till today.
However, since Canadians cannot call their corn-based brew “bourbon,” they have gone all out to produce a whiskey that is 100 percent corn. This brew is aged in used barrels that have spent time in the ultra-cold climate, the Canadian whiskey that is eventually produced emerges with spicy undertones.
Drinking Blends of Whiskey from Canada
Numerous whiskey producers usually blend their products to create unique and highly specific tastes. The overall taste of the blend can be impacted by the region where the grain is cultivated, the distiller, the weather, etc. Most Canadian whiskeys out there come from a single distillery, and then blended inhouse from products that originate in-house as well.
Tax incentives for these Canadian whiskey blends originate from the American tax law. International alcohol beverage producers who blend in American products to create their unique and final brew are given tax breaks. This development gave room for the bottom-shelf alcohol producers and encouraged them to do a high volume, thus leaving the more complicated or sophisticated distilleries to put more focus on their processes and to modern market consumers.
7 Other Things You Did Not Know About Canadian Whiskey
Canadian whiskey is slowly getting revitalized and is sure to rise to prominence again within a short time. Regardless of its iconic mental representation as being tasty with ginger ale or Coca Cola, many craft distillers are popping up – seemingly out of the woodwork – work on producing this noteworthy brew while larger brands have launched campaigns, introducing innovations and new programs.
Many things have been discussed about Canadian whiskey and its rise to distinction. But here are some additional things about this extraordinary brew that you may not know about:
All Canadian Whisky can be Labeled Rye
As stated by the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, a product that is to bear the label “Canadian whiskey,” “Canadian rye whiskey” or “rye whiskey” must possess the taste, aroma as well as the character of Canadian whiskey. Here are some of the regulations laid down by the administration:
- Whiskey must be mashed, distilled, and then aged within the borders of Canada.
- It must be aged in small wood for at least 3 years
- Whiskey must not have less than 40 percent ABV (alcohol by volume)
- It may contain flavoring and caramel
These stipulations – and many others – are also upheld throughout the world through geographical indication agreements.
But within Canada, these appellations are synonymous. It has been mentioned that Canadian whiskey distillers have been making use of rye to make their respective brews more complex for over 200 hundred years.
This was a practice that was put in place long before the United States came up with the regulation which required that any whiskey that must be called “rye whiskey” must have at least 51 percent rye in its mash bill.
Canada was the First Country to Legislate an Age Requirement for Whiskey
Many don’t know this, but Canada was the first country to legislate age requirement for whiskey. The year was 1887, and Canada passed a law that called for the aging of spirits that will eventually be labeled “whiskey” – in wooden containers or barrels – for at least one year. Great Britain was far behind, at least 25 years.
With Some Exceptions, Canadian Whisky is Blended after Distillation
Canadian distillers do not follow precisely the same process of making whiskey in the United States. Each grain that will be used as part of the product is, first of all, distilled individually or separately, and blended afterward. The blend is sometimes left to age further or bottled straightaway.
For this reason, the most important personality in a Canadian whiskey distillery holds the grand title of Master Blender, and not master distiller, the common title that is prevalent in the distilleries in the United States.
In addition, not all Canadian whiskey should be sneered at and labeled a “blend” as most consumers – upon hearing the term – erroneously assume that it stands for a low-end or inferior product that comprises of non-whiskey flavorings and spirits.
70 percent of Canadian whiskey is exported to the U.S.
At least 70 percent of Canadian whiskey is exported to the United States. That is saying a lot, despite the numerous brands of spirits that litter virtually all the bars, whiskey shops, etc. in the country.
During its Infancy, Canadian Whisky was Made Mostly from Wheat
As mentioned earlier, wheat was the main ingredient used in the production of Canadian whiskey, until the Dutch and German that showed up wanted their whiskeys to be more flavorful. Rye was introduced, and because this new style caught on and became increasingly popular among the whiskey-drinking community at the time, wheat whiskey quickly fizzled out.
From 1865-2010, Canadian Whisky was the Best-selling Whisky in the U.S.
The sales of Canadian whiskey have trumped many of its competitors within and outside the country. However, by 2010, the sales of this exceptional brew from Canada slowed down long enough for Bourbon to overtake and outsell Canadian whiskey in the United States. But there is no doubt that Canadian whiskey remains the best-selling spirit in all of North America.
Not All Canadian whiskey is sold in Purple sacks and Plastic Jugs
Okay, it is a common sight to see college students guzzling booze from plastic jugs and purple sacks. The alcoholic beverage in those jugs or sacks is usually dirt cheap, low-proof, and very bland. And no, it is not Canadian whiskey, which is something a lot of people, back then, thought as the next best option when there are no other options to choose from.
So, it is high time you stopped referring disrespectfully to Canadian whiskey as “brown vodka,” which is what many snobs – who don’t know anything about this alcoholic beverage – out there call it.
7 Top-Quality Canadian Whiskeys You Should Have in Your Private Bar
American rye whiskey, by law, must be produced from grains which have at least 51 percent rye. But since such is not the case in up north as Canadian rye whiskey can be made without a single grain of the cereal, distillers have chosen to exploit this loop in Canadian law by producing some the best Canadian brew on the market today.
Most of these premium Canadian spirits contain healthy doses of rye while maintaining the flavors that are associated with Canadian whiskeys.
Therefore, here the 7 top-quality Canadian whiskeys that you should stock in your private bar, highlighted in no particular order:
Crown Royal Reserve is seen as the iconic whiskey of Canada, and there is hardly any seasoned whiskey lover in Canada that has not had the opportunity of opening the little purple bag once.
This spirit is also the classic example of Canadian whiskey as it features the distinctive characteristics that are associated with this drinkable pleasure. The nose exhibits typical rye style – subtle, or weak as some critics might say – and portrays hints of brown sugar and maple syrup along with the special spice of rye.
Crown Royal Reserve Canadian whiskey exhibits another rye quality; it is thin with tastes of maple, oak, and a teeny-weeny bit of corn sweetness. And the refreshing, bitter finish is legendary.
The name “Crown Royal Reserve” make this Canadian whiskey sound like one for special occasions. While that may be so, there is nothing wrong in making this refreshing brew an every-day drink.
All you need to do to enjoy the rich taste of this Canadian whiskey is to resist the impulse to ice or mix. Just enjoy it the way the founders of the land did.
2. Gibson’s Finest Rare Aged 18-Year-Old
Gibson’s Finest Rare Aged 18-Year-Old is another iconic name in this category, and this accolade is well-deserved. Gibson’s was one of the numerous producers of rye that were forced out of the United States during the Prohibition era.
Gibson’s Finest Rare Aged 18-Year-Old is an alcoholic beverage that is composed of a blend of corn column-still whiskey that is mixed with barley and rye flavoring whiskey. This product is aged in a variety of barrels which can vary the final commodity from one batch to another. That distinct mix lends it many of the characteristics of Bourbon with a strong rye presence.
Gibson’s Finest Rare Aged 18-Year-Old exhibits an oaky nose with sound hints of spice and tobacco which is followed immediately by the smoothness of Bourbon along with fruit which is also complemented by spice and rye heat.
You will experience a series of different tastes, including maple, cinnamon, tobacco, and caramel in this highly complex whiskey from Canada. Gibson’s finally ends with a deep finish, with pepper and oak vying for the top spot with that traditional rye zing that is associated with excellently-brewed Canadian whiskey.
3. Alberta Premium Dark Horse 12-year-old
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 12-year-old is the blend of a mixture of 6-year-old small pot rye and 12-year-old rye whiskey along with a measure of corn whiskey which adds some body to it. The edges are taken off with a less-than-1-percent touch of sherry for richness.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 12-year-old is a good Canadian whiskey and the perfect choice for loves of rye. This brew starts with a nose that is synonymous to Bourbon’s; charred oak, caramel and vanilla over the snarling edge of rye spice.
The rye takes over on your palate with pepper and alcohol heat at first, and these are tempered by the more subtle flavors of ginger, oak, and raspberry.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse Canadian whiskey has a prolonged and robust finish which adds to the complexity of the spirit, much unlike numerous typical ryes. Beware that this is not a crossover whiskey and should not be consumed as such.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 12-year-old should only be served to friends who are conversant with the taste of rye whiskeys and are willing to give it a trial.
Pike Creek Port Barrel Finish Canadian Whiskey is produced by Corby Distillers, and they are always proud to boast that Pike Creek was virtually crafted by the elements.
However, what Corby Distillery is trying to tell all who care to know is that they have transferred the entire whiskey-making process to its ancient roots by doing away with affectations such as warehouses that are controlled by the climate.
This shows that this particular Canadian whiskey endures several winters and summers in wood barrels under the strict supervision of a particular individual who holds a Ph.D. in wood science.
Pike Creek Port Barrel Finish Canadian Whiskey is aged in Ontario – Windsor to be precise – and so the Canadian whiskey has more of a Midwestern chill than icy deep freeze.
The nose is definitely rye – as soon as you open the bottle – and you will perceive a hint of alcohol. The corn provides an unusually thick and creamy feel which is decidedly countered by the spice from the rye.
Then this Canadian spirit finishes with a dry sherry as well as a lasting spiciness from white pepper. It is very sharp, and can only be consumed by drinkers who are used to the sharp taste of rye whiskey.
5. 66 Gilead Crimson Rye Whiskey
This is for those who have always wanted to try the real rye. A glass of this remarkable stuff – from a small indie distiller in Ontario’s Prince Edward County – is more than enough to convince you of its premium quality.
66 Gilead Crimson Rye Whiskey is composed of 100 percent rye, and while many drinkers mistakenly assume that this amount of rye would make the spirit very overpowering, the opposite is the case. The primary reason why this Canadian whiskey is not as overwhelming as is expected may be due to the fact that it is aged in red wine barrels. These are barrels where Pinot noir are aged considerably, and these provide that deep red color that you see along with amazingly strong fruit flavors.
This is a combination that works exceptionally well as the spirit doesn’t bite and not rough as well. 66 Gilead Crimson Rye Whiskey is easy to drink with currant, chocolate, raisins, and oak. But wait for the bite at the finish, and it comes out of concealment with an earthy and pleasant aftertaste which readily brings to mind the red wine origin of this fantastic Canadian alcoholic beverage.
6. Proof Two Grain Whiskey
Proof Two Grain Whiskey hails from Toronto and is one of the most popular Canadian whiskeys on the club scene at the largest city in Ontario. This Canadian whiskey comes in a stubby bottle. Proof Two Grain Whiskey is a blend of wheat and rye, but it is not like any other traditional Canadian whiskey out there. However, it does impart some hints that are reminiscent of Japanese styles.
The nose of Proof Two Grain Whiskey is all citrusy, with whispers of honey, anise, and patchouli. This is followed – to the same extent – by an unusual and distinct combination of flavors, and you will experience the thrills of cantaloupe, lemon, cloves, cinnamon, and more honey.
The fire of the rye makes itself known in the finish, and a peppery tingling sensation is experienced as well.
7. Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whiskey
Forty Creek is one of the biggest names in the Canadian whiskey production industry and even fetched a whopping $186 million when it was eventually sold. This Canadian whiskey is a blend of barley, rye, and corn, all of which are distilled individually or separately, thereby making a whiskey that does not fit well into any existing category
However, the Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whiskey exhibits the rye edge while the majority of the tones in both the drinks and the nose is linked with sweetness like maple syrup, molasses, butterscotch, and brown sugar. These go along with savory hints of nutmeg and clove.
Although Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whiskey can stand up to regular drinking, it is a complex Canadian whiskey that must be savored to discover – and re-discover – its lovely taste.
Other Canadian Whiskeys that You Should Consider
Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity
Three different grains were used to produce this exceptional, 17-year-old Canadian whiskey: rye, corn, and wheat. Three corn whiskeys were blended – one aged in old, once-used ex-Bourbon barrels, the other aged in new virgin oak, and one in reused barrels – and with rye that has undergone aging in ex-Bourbon barrels as well as a wheat whiskey aged in new, fresh oak.
And the outcome? The phenomenal Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity Canadian whiskey!
Lot No. 40 Cask Strength
This 100 percent rye whiskey has undergone aging for 12 years and was bottled at 55 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), something that is highly unusual when it comes to Canadian whiskey, as mentioned by de Kergommeaux.
Regular or standard Lot No. 40 Cask Strength is bottled at 43 percent alcohol by volume; therefore, you should expect a more intense and stronger sipping experience from this distinct Canadian whiskey that is in a class of its own.
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old is believed to be one of the oldest Canadian whiskeys to be released for public consumption, barring Canadian Club 40. This aged and respectable Canadian whiskey is made primarily of whiskey that has undergone aging in an ex-bourbon barrel and then blended with some rye aged in new, virgin oak. The notes, taste, and finish of J.P. Wiser’s 35-Year-Old Canadian whiskey can best be described as “Out of this world.”
Orphan Barrel Entrapment
Orphan Barrel Entrapment is a 25-year-old Canadian whiskey that was made available to the public as part of Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. This Canadian whiskey is, in reality, from Crown Royal, and was initially part of a batch of the Deluxe.
The mash bill of Orphan Barrel Entrapment Canadian whiskey is 97 percent corn and 3 percent malted barley. It comes with a deep, oaky flavor that is entirely unique in this category.
Pike Creek 21 Year Old Speyside Finish
Pike Creek 21-Year-Old Speyside Finish is a superior blend that consists mostly of corn whiskey with approximately 5 percent rye. It was aged in old barrels that were previously used to finish an unnamed Scotch whiskey from Chivas Brothers, thus imparting that unusual whisper of peat smoke flavor.
Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye
Canadian Club Chairman’s Select is one of the biggest and popular names in Canadian whiskey, and so it is extremely hard to go wrong with any bottle of this alcoholic beverage. The flagship 1858 bottle is pocket-friendly, and it’s Sherry Cask and Classic 12 always impress whiskey enthusiasts at all times.
Canadian Club released a rye whiskey back in 2017 to jump on the re-emerging Canadian whiskey market, and it is produced at the Alberta Distillery. Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye comes with a soft, rye spice and is bottled at 80-proof, thereby giving it a mellow profile that is heavenly for simple mixed drinks.
This unique Canadian whiskey is a Sazerac brand which was known as the first Canadian single barrel whiskey. Caribou Crossing remains one of the top favorites – and surely a top-shelf Canadian spirit – that every whiskey lover should know and stock in their private bars.
The whiskey that is housed by this ornately designed bottle is the cream of the crop. It is ultra-smooth, richly complex, and comes with a toffee sweetness that fades into a creamy oak finish with hints of pepper.
Caribou Crossing is relatively expensive, but that shouldn’t deter you from purchasing and saving this unique whiskey for special occasions.
Canadian Mist is an affordable and highly reliable Canadian whiskey, touted as one of the best for making any cocktail. This is a one-bottle brand that does not come with fancy bells and whistles. It is produced in the same distillery where Collingwood originates from, and you will definitely notice the connection between the two, favorite Canadian whiskeys.
Canadian Mist is smooth and subtle; a mixable and versatile whiskey which can stand up to anything that you want to mix with it. Yes, it will get lost in recipes that are loaded with too many flavors, but it is perfect nonetheless for simple cocktails with few ingredients.
The soft profile of Canadian Mist also makes it an excellent choice for whiskey lovers who prefer consuming white spirits such as rum, vodka, and gin.
As you can see, Canadian whiskey is no slouch in the industry today, and as the months roll by, so does the popularity of this exceptional spirit increase. Do well to have at least one of these Canadian whiskeys on your private bar and your friends will thank you for it!