Why Canadian Whisky Deserves As Much Recognition as Bourbon or Scotch

Ask anyone who's written or at the very least researched about Canadian whisky and you will be shocked once you realize how big the Canadian whisky industry is.

In fact, Canadian whisky is one of the most fascinating spirits on the market today. 

Let us start with the spelling. Canadians spell it "whisky", and Americans "whiskey". The former comes from Scotland, the latter from Ireland. Canada has a much greater Scottish influence than the United States.

In distillery-dominated Prince Edward Island, for example, more than 40 percent of the population is of Scottish descent, and Nova Scotia literally means "New Scotland".

Many of the country's founding fathers - James Douglas, John A. Macdonald, Alexander Mackenzie - were either Scottish or Scottish-Canadian.

In any case, the production of Canadian whisky is more similar to Scotch whisky than Irish or American whiskey, so the spelling makes sense in more ways than one.

The first Canadian distilleries, established much later than American distilleries, around the 1830s, were not actually distillers, at least not primarily.

Instead, they were milling operations.

To make use of the wheat waste, they fermented and distilled it into liquor. 

Canadian whisky began not with small craft distilleries, but with large companies. "It did not take long for spirits - whisky - to become the main profit generators for these companies," says Davin de Kergommeaux, whose book Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert popularised the country's whisky.


A Quick Look Into The History of Canadian Whisky

In the first century of Canadian whisky, there was not really a Canadian style. Individual distilleries went their own way; some were English, and a surprising number, including such important ones as J.P. Wiser's and Hiram Walker, were American.

When the American Civil War brought the entire American whiskey industry to a halt, Americans imported whiskey from Canada, and Canadian distilleries even brewed "American style" bourbons specifically for export.

Soon, Canadian whisky was the best-selling whiskey in North America.

Some businesses grew or thrived by figuring out how to supply the bootleg market - the Bronfman family of Montreal were so successful that they were able to buy Seagram's, a long-time Canadian distillery, a few years before the end of Prohibition.

While many American distillers and brewers returned to their pre-Prohibition recipes, Canadian whisky continued to evolve and become something new.

Although de Kergommeaux says there is no documentation or exact date for its creation, the Bronfmans are generally credited with developing the technique for making what we know today as Canadian whisky.

In the 1940s, there was a definable style that was very different from American whiskey.

To the chagrin of generations of Canadian whiskey distillers, this style does not fit into existing whiskey categories, especially those used south of the border, in the United States, where the majority of their customers reside. 

For casual whiskey drinkers, there is a clear distinction between a blended whiskey and single malt whiskey.

In the United States, marketing by Scotch whisky producers, in particular, has sent the message that single malt, made from a single type of grain in a single distillery, is nobler, better and more expensive, and that blended is the cheap stuff.

The term "single malt" is legally defined in Scotland, but not in the United States.

A number of famous whiskeys, such as the popular bourbons from Kentucky, are not single malts.

However, they are considered "straight whiskey", made from a blend of grains such as corn, rye, wheat and barley, with each type of straight whiskey (bourbon, rye) being specified as to how much of each type of grain is used.

Straight bourbon must be aged for a certain amount of time, but most importantly, no flavorings or colorings must be added to it: What comes out of the barrel is what you get.

If you make changes after it comes out of the barrel, you have a blended whiskey. And consumers have been made to believe, that "blended" means "cheap".

Canadian Whisky is Different

But despite this misguided viewpoint, is not in any way bad. Just different.

For instance, American straight whiskey is made by blending different grains together, then fermenting, distilling and maturing them.

Canadian whiskey is completely different. Instead of mashing all the grains together, Canadian distillers mash, ferment, distill and mature each grain separately.

Then these finished whiskies are combined. This gives the blender an incredible amount of freedom in the outcome of the final product.

Maybe you want to use toasted new barrels for your rye, heavily charred barrels for your corn, and very old barrels for your barley.

You may want to use a rye whiskey that has been aged for a decade and a barley whiskey that is brand new.

You are even allowed to add in up to 9 percent of other finished liquors. So if you want a hint of sherry in your Canadian whisky, just add a few percent of real sherry. 

Blending in Canada is about making the whisky more interesting and versatile.

This is not an inferior form, just a different one. Perhaps even a better one.

Even today, you may be shocked to learn how many of the best-selling whiskies in America actually come from Canada.

Because the Canadian style depends so much more on the blender than the distiller, it can be difficult to pin down.

Bourbon always tastes like bourbon; the barrels used and the grain content makes for a fairly universal character of vanilla and oak.

On the other hand, Canadian whisky is unencumbered and can be made in so many different ways that it is hard to find a consistent flavor.

Well, with one exception, Canadian whisky almost always contains a strongly flavored rye whisky that gives it peppery notes.

That's why the term rye whiskey is sometimes synonymous with Canadian whisky.

The problem with rye is that it contains very little starch and therefore produces very little alcohol.

On the flip side, it is much more flavorful. A little bit of rye really goes a long way to contributing flavor to the whisky.

Also,  it helps that rye is a cold-weather crop well suited to the climate of most Canadian growing regions.

Canadian rye for whisky

Canadian Whisky Has Earned Its Rightful Position

Although associated with blended whiskey, Canadian whiskey maintained a stranglehold on the American whiskey market for decades thanks to its popularity during Prohibition.

In fact, Canadian whiskey was the best-selling bourbon in the United States from the Civil War right up to 2010.

Even today, you may be shocked to learn how many of the best-selling whiskies in America such as Crown Royal and Fireball actually come from Canada.

Others like  Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, Canadian Club and Rich & Rare are also in the top 20 sales figures.

Yet, Bourbon, Scotch and even Irish whiskies have seen massive increases in reputation over the last two decades.

Canadians is probably the last to join the ranks. In fact, it's only in recent years that Canadian whisky has started to get the attention it's always deserved.

In 2016, Jim Murray's influential Whisky Bible named Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye Whisky of the Year.

Since then, most international competitions have introduced a category for the best Canadian whisky, alongside Scotch, Irish, Bourbon and others. 

Canadian whisky has always been around, intriguing, unconforming and quietly successful. It does not demand your attention, but it deserves it.

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