As a relatively young country (barely more than 155 years old), Canadian whisky embodies a history that is actually much older than the nation itself. While the first documented distillery was not founded until the late 1760s in what is now Quebec City, the history of Canadian whisky goes back much further.
The story of Canadian whisky all the way back to when the European merchants joined the North American fur trade that had been going on for centuries among Canada's First Nations peoples.
Long before the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous people of what is now Canada had been hunting and trapping fur-bearing animals for thousands of years. In the 16th and 17th centuries and into the 19th century, French and European settlers established trade with the indigenous peoples around them.
At the time money had no place here; rather, trappers learned to trade goods with Natives. Often they used rum and brandy to trade fur pelts and robes with local aborigines for sale in Europe.
These distillates were usually highly diluted and put into animal skin bags or small barrels before being traded with the natives, who soon referred to them as "firewater".
Other barter items also included firearms, food, woollen blankets and tools.
CANADIAN WHISKY’S ROUGH START
Soon these European traders and settlers started venturing into the whisky business like their counterparts in the US.
However, there was one major problem--quality control. While there were dozens of legitimate distilleries which were busy laying the foundation for true Canadian whisky, the industry was already overrun by whisky bootleggers.
The descriptions of early Canadian whisky produced by these bootleggers were a far cry from today's Canadian whisky. These insidious mixtures were made from distilled alcohol and laced with ingredients such as chewing tobacco, molasses, ink (yes, ink), red pepper and even soap!
This eventually led in-part to the creation of the North-West Mounted Police in 1870 (three years after the Canadian Confederation). Their role was to put an end to the many illegal whisky forts that were rampantly peddling such mixtures to Native populations.
THE BIRTH OF CANADIAN WHISKY
Before there were distilleries, the true pioneers of Canadian whisky were farmers who would set aside an ample amount of grain from their autumn harvest, which they would then use to distill their own homemade whisky.
These whiskies were carefully refined season after season and sold in the local markets.
Canada's first whisky distillery was established in Quebec City in 1769. That said the more notable development was 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.
In Toronto, James Worts and William Gooderham first established 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 was producing half of all spirits sold in Canada and was one of the largest whisky producers in the world.
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).
Hiram Walker was an American who bought land in Windsor (across the river from Detroit, MI) and established a distillery in 1857.
He soon created Whiksy by aging it for five years in oak barrels to give it a distinctive amber color and a much smoother taste.
This whisky soon became a big hit in neighboring nation as Americans acquired a taste for Canadian whisky. It was particularly popular in the late 19th century gentlemen's clubs hence it became known as "Club Whisky."
Concerned that Hiram's Club whisky would hurt their sales, American distillers petitioned for the word "Canada" be added to the label. The hope was that this move would hamper the popularity of Walker's whisky, but it had just the opposite effect.
Club Whisky only became more exclusive and sought after. Walker wanted to take advantage of this, and in 1890 he added the word "Canadian" to the whisky's name.
Now it was known as Canadian Club Whisky. Today, Canadian Club is part of Beam Suntory's portfolio and has featured in several iconic product placements such as in the AMC show Mad Men, where it was often the drink of choice for the main character Don Draper.
When Prohibition went into effect in America in January 1920, Canadian whisky became highly sought after.
Among the many notorious bootleggers was gangster Al Capone, who routinely shipped Canadian whiskey from Walkerville Ontario across the river to Detroit at night, then sold it in the U.S. at vastly inflated prices.
Although the Act was repealed in 1933, black market sales of Canadian whisky had a major economic benefit. Canadian whisky had undoubtedly become a major player in the international whisky market.
Related: The American Prohibition
MAJOR DEVELOPMENTS IN THE 20TH & 21ST CENTURY
- In 1928, Seagram was purchased by Samuel and Alan Bronfman and renamed The Distillers Corporation. Over the decades, they shipped millions of gallons of whisky to the United States and other markets.
- In 1939, Bronfman created Crown Royal as a tribute to a royal visit to Canada by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The whisky was sold only in Canada until the 1960s, when it was first introduced to international markets. Today, it remains one of Canada's most popular whisky exports.
- In the 1970s, Canadian whisky (and the whisky industry as a whole) lost ground to vodka as consumers increasingly preferred liqueurs and lighter spirits. Around the turn of the millennium, single malt Scotch and bourbon were able to regain some of the lost ground, but the same couldn't be said for Canadian whisky. As a result, a large number of Canadian distilleries went out of business.
- The past decade, has seen the emergence of the craft whiskey movement in Canada. Today, there are more than 250 micro-distilleries nationwide. One of the leading craft distilleries in North America, Canada's Forty Creek Distillery, was purchased by the Campari Group in 2015 for $186 million.
- The Canadian Whisky Awards were launched in 2010. This annual event recognizes the best Canadian whiskies. For instance, in 2022, Crown Royal Nobel Collection Winter Wheat was named the best whisky in Canada and Canadian Whisky of the Year.
CHARACTERISTICS OF A CANADIAN WHISKY
Canadian whisky is often referred to as rye whisky, because historically much of the grain content was rye. Nonetheless most Canadian whisky is actually blends that also contain other grains such as corn.
To be a true Canadian whisky, it must be produced (mashed, distilled and aged) in Canada. It must have an alcohol content of at least 40% ABV and be aged in small wood barrels for at least 3 years.
The type of casks used may vary and if desired, caramel or flavorings can be added to the whisky.
Canadian whisky producers generally do not use the same mash bill standards as their U.S. counterparts. In Canada, each type of grain is milled, mashed, fermented, distilled and aged separately, and the final blend is only mixed together afterwards.
Typically, distillers make their whiskies by blending a small amount of a distinctive whisky (e.g., corn whisky) with a slightly aromatic whisky (e.g., rye whisky).
All in all, Canadian whisky blenders have a rare luxury of not being bound by excessive restrictions dictating how their whiskies must be made.
CANADIAN WHISKY TODAY
After a somewhat bumpy start, Canadian whisky quickly gained international renown. It’s becoming popular again due to the classic cocktail renaissance and consumer demand trends toward bigger, bolder flavors. That said, it stills lags behind Irish whiskies and Single Malt Scotch in the international whisky race. This means there is still much to be done but the good news is the future certainly looks bright for Canadian whisky.