Canadian Whiskey vs Bourbon: Similar But Different

Bourbon and Canadian whisky are two of the most popular types of whiskey in the world. Both are made from a grain mash and matured in oak barrels. Canadian whisky and bourbon must be bottled with at least 40 per cent ABV. 

However, just because they are both whiskeys does not mean they are the same. In fact, there are plenty of differences when comparing Canadian whisky to bourbon.

It can be confusing to know the difference between Canadian whisky and bourbon, and we hope this article will help you understand things better.

A Brief History of Bourbon

In the 1700s, Kentucky was originally part of Virginia. By promising to build a cabin and grow corn, pioneers were granted land rights in what would later become the Bluegrass State.

Many of these early settlers were immigrant farmers and distillers from Scotland and Ireland. Obliged to grow corn and familiar with the distilling process, they soon figured out how to make whiskey.

Most of these distilled spirits were consumed in the form of hard cider and applejack, which were popular with rural Americans. Whiskey, however, quickly became the most popular spirit in the country.

By the late 1700s, Kentucky residents were shipping tons of whiskey down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans. The whiskey was shipped from Limestone, a riverfront port in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and was soon known as 'the whiskey from Bourbon'.

Whiskey on the Mississippi

Credit: Whiskey on the Mississippi

Whiskey was often prescribed for its medicinal properties and used in exchange for food, hides and sometimes land with the Native Americans.

Legendary distillers Jacob Meyers and Jacob Froman of Lincoln County, Marshall Brashear of Jefferson County, Elijah Craig of Scott County or Jacob Spears of Bourbon County may have made the first bourbon, but it is doubtful that their whiskey matured the way our bourbons do today.

It was not until a Scot, Dr James Crow, the founder of Old Crow Bourbon, insisted on aging his whiskey in charred new oak barrels that he perfected the sour-mash method of whiskey making.

The steam engine also caused an explosion in the bourbon market and the railroad made it easier to export the finished whiskey.

At the time, bourbon was shipped in its original barrel, but often diluted or replaced with other brands en route. To solve this problem, Louisville druggist George Garvin Brown was the first to sell bourbon in sealed bottles in 1790.

He later went on to found his own bourbon, Old Forester, and the Brown-Foreman Corporation.

A Brief History of Canadian Whiskey

The production of whisky has a long and storied history in Canada, dating back to the early days of European settlement.

Immigrants from America and Europe brought their distilling methods and technologies with them and began making whisky from wheat and rye. This early whisky was often made in improvised stills, using the grains closest to spoilage.

This resulted in the alcohol content and quality of the home-made whisky varied greatly. The whisky was often consumed unaged by the local market.

Canada's first whisky distillery was established in Quebec City in 1769. However, the most notable development took place in 1801 when John Molson bought a copper pot still that had previously been used to make rum and began the first true commercial production of Canadian whisky.

He later teamed up with James Morton and the two men ran a distillery in Montreal.

In Toronto, James Worts and William Gooderham first set up a milling business and later used the high quality grain to start brewing and distilling in 1837.

By the end of the 19th century, Gooderham & Worts produced half of all spirits sold in Canada and was one of the largest whisky producers in the world.

Gooderham and Worts Ltd., Toronto Canada, Canadian Rye Whiskey1896 Painting of Gooderham and Worts Ltd., Toronto Canada

Other pioneers of Canadian whisky were Seagram's (founded in 1857 in Waterloo, Ontario) and Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery (founded a year later in Windsor, Ontario).

Read more: The History of Canadian Whisky

What is Bourbon?

You may have heard that bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon. So what exactly makes a whiskey a bourbon?

There are a few regulations that a distillery must follow in order to use the designation for their product.

  • The mash (the grain mixture used to make the whiskey) must be at least 51% corn.
  • The spirit must be distilled to no more than 160 proof (80% alcohol by volume).
  • The spirit must be aged in new, charred oak barrels.
  • The final product must be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume).
  • If it is aged for less than four years, it must have an age statement somewhere on the bottle that tells buyers how long it was aged.

Bourbon is unique because of its high corn content and the use of new oak barrels. These two factors give bourbon its characteristic sweetness and complex flavor profile.

What is Canadian Whisky?

Canadian whisky is a type of whisky made exclusively in Canada. Most Canadian whiskies are blended multi-grain liquors, meaning grains such as wheat, corn, barley and rye are fermented separately and added to the distillation only when the flavor of the liquid has reached its peak.

The addition of rye specifically became of high demand in the 1900s and soon Canadians started referring to it simply as rye. Today, rye and Canadian whiskey are used interchangeably to refer to the exact same product under Canadian law.

While American rye whisky must contain 51% rye, Canadian whisky is referred to as "rye whisky" whether it contains rye or not. It's possible to find Canadian whiskies that are 100% rye based. In such cases, the strong spices of the rye is tamed by aging in red wine barrels. which impart a deep red color and strong fruit flavor.

Key Differences Between Bourbon and Canadian Whisky

Spelling: This is an easy one to spot. One of the main differences between Canadian whiskey and conventional whiskey is that it is spelled and labeled without the "e" in the whiskey's name. In Scotland, the spirit is spelled without the "e" in the Gaelic language tradition, as it is in Japan and Canada. The Irish spell it with the "e" and brought this spelling with them when they emigrated to America. There are a few exceptions, such as Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon Whisky, which hold on to their Scottish heritage and defy other American distillers by using the Scottish spelling

Location: Bourbon must be produced in the United States, while Canadian whiskey must be produced in Canada.

Mash Bill: There are no laws that dictate which grains must be used in Canadian whiskey. For bourbon, the mash must be at least 51% corn. Also, for Canadian whisky, the different grains are usually fermented, distilled and aged separately. They are only combined at the end before bottling.

Taste Profile: the 51% corn concentration in bourbon gives it a sweet aftertaste, unlike Canadian whisky that can taste a bit on the spicy side. Bourbon tends to be mellower and smoother, while Canadian whiskey is often described as more intense and rugged.

Aging: Canadian Whiskey must be aged for at least 3 years, while bourbon must be aged for at least 2 years (straight bourbon). Also, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, while Canadian whiskey can be aged in new/used and charred/uncharred barrels.

Minimum Bottling Strength: Bourbon must be bottled at a minimum alcohol content of 40% by volume (ABV), while Canadian whiskey can be bottled at any strength.


Canadian Whisky vs. Bourbon: How to Enjoy Them Both

If you are looking for a smooth and flavorful whiskey that you can enjoy neat or on the rocks, both bourbon and Canadian whisky are great choices.

However, if you want to explore the unique flavors of both types of whiskey, you should try them both. A glass of Canadian whisky is rich with complex flavors that range from spicy to citrusy to sweet. If you are looking for a little extra kick, try adding a cinnamon stick or a large piece of fresh ginger to the spirit , or add a slice of orange as you drink. With these additions, you can enjoy the rich spices, body and bite of this style of spirit neat or with a single large ice cube, while still feeling the warmth that makes it perfect to keep you warm on a cold winter night.

Bourbon, on the other hand, is perhaps best served with a little bit of water to open up its complex sweet flavors that range from vanilla and caramel to butterscotch and coconut. It can also be served over ice or with just a large ice cube. Either way, its bold flavor and distinctive flavor profile will not be diluted.

For those who want to enjoy a bourbon or Canadian Whisky cocktail, the possibilities are endless.

Bourbon Cocktails

Several popular bourbon cocktails are perfect for any occasion.

The classic Manhattan, for example, is one of the most famous bourbon drinks and is made with sweet vermouth and bitters.

The Old Fashioned is another classic, made with bourbon, sugar, Angostura bitters and water. 

Related: 30 Most Popular Classic Cocktails in the World

Canadian Whisky Cocktails

A few popular Canadian whiskey cocktails are worth trying. Donald Sutherland is a Canadian version of the famous Rusty Nail cocktail. It is prepared with a combination of Canadian rye whiskey and Drambuie

For a truly unique drink, mix Canadian Old-Fashioned with maple syrup and serve over ice.

Or if you are looking for something more indulgent, try the Canadian Whisky Sour, made with lemon juice, simple syrup and egg white.

Finally, no list of Canadian whisky cocktails would be complete without the Caesar, Canada's national drink.

It's made with Clamato juice, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce, and although it's usually made with vodka, Canadian whiskey is a good substitute for the cocktail.


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