Canada whiskey is known for its lighter blended whiskys, some of which are among the most common bottles you’ll see on any back bar, including: Canadian Club (Don Draper’s whiskey of choice), Crown Royal, or Seagram's VO. These bottles are designed to be not much more than an affordable companion to a mixer (7 and 7 anyone?) which is why despite being widely recognized, Canadian whisky garners less enthusiasm amongst connoisseurs than the other whiskey categories.
But in addition to those mass-market brands, there is also some serious whisky making happening up the Great White North, a few worth checking out are listed below. So don't sleep on Canadian whisky - it could very well prodcue the next bottle everyone is clamoring for. Remember what happened to Japanese whisky?
In general, Canadian whiskies lean towards lighter, slightly sweeter flavors like soft oak, fruit, and maple. There is some spice, but less of a bite compared to American whiskey. There two key contributing factors to this. One, Canadian whisky is typically distilled to higher proofs, and two, they are often aged in used oak barrels, as opposed to new as in American bourbons and ryes. Mind you, this does not make them inferior, it is merely indicative of their style.
Mixing with Canadian Whisky
In cocktails Canadian whisky functions similar to American whiskey. But generally with less "oophm." But this makes them an nice introduction to the whiskey category. If you're trying to convert someone, an Old Fashioned with Canadian whiskey just might be the trick.
For more about the world of Canadian whisky check out Davin de Kergommeaux's great website canadianwhisky.org and his book "Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert"
These are a few of most familiar brands, though there are others - Canadian Mist, Black Velvet. Each offers several different bottlings, some of which are very highly rated - like Crown Royal's Northern Harvest rye. The basleline entry of each is of the light, blended varitey.
Seagram's VO (Seagrams 7 Crown - of 7 and 7 fame - is actually a blend now made in America, though the compnay oringinated in Cananda.)
If you'd like go experience more of what this category has to offer, keep a look out for these lesser known brands.
Canadian vs. American Rye
Rye has served as chief flavoring grain Canadian whisky’s for hundreds of years. But the resurgence of American rye has led to some confusion. Canada and the United States have different definitions of rye whiskey, and they are made in completely different ways.
In the United States, rye whiskey needs to have at least 51% rye in the mashbill. But Canadian whisky is all about blends rather a single mashbill, so that doesn’t apply. In Canada, rye is added through the flavoring whisky (see below), but there’s no directive saying how much flavoring whisky needs to be used, or how much rye it must contain, if any.
This brings us to the most confusing part. In Canada today, the terms Canadian whisky, Canadian Rye whisky, and Rye whisky and are all interchangeable. So Canadian whisky can say "rye" on the label without actually containing any rye. This came to be when Canadian whisky gained popularity for it’s robust, spicy rye flavors, and people began to refer to Canadian whisky simply as rye. Eventually this associtation was reflected in the labeling, regardless of how much rye was in the bottle. Most Canadian bottles do contain rye, but it’s closer around 5-15% rye. I generally find Canadian ryes to be less assertive than American ryes. But some of this is likely due to the higher distillation proof and used oak barrels.
That all being said, there are plenty of very full flavored rye whiskies made in Canada. In fact, a few of my favorite American rye brands get some or all of their whiskey from Canada’s Alberta Distillery. Including Whistle Pig, Hochstadters Vatted Rye and Lock, Stock Barrel rye. These are all big time spicy ryes, what I would call on the rye page: "spice 3". Personally, I don't care where it coms from, as long as it's is good.
Grains & Fermentation
Canadian whiskey shares many similarities to American whiskey, but with some significant distinctions. There are based on the same grains - corn, rye, wheat, and some barley. Though corn is predominantly used for both, Canadian whisky is most associated with rye. However, Canada regulates rye quite completely different than America, and their whisky usually ends up containing less rye, if any. More details on that above. Another different Though sometimes instead of malted barely, natural enzymes like koji or malted rye and added to stimulate fermentation.
Distillation & Blending
Blending is integral to Canadian whisky. The majority of them follow the same template as blended scotch and Irish whiskey, wherein a lighter whiskey makes up the majority of the blend and a fuller flavored whisky is used to accentuate it. This a divergence from American whiskey and single malt scotch where the profile whiskey is conceived from fermentation.
Canada refers to the two main components of their blends as the base whisky and flavoring whisky.
The Base Whisky - This will commonly make up the bulk of the blend. It is usually 100% corn and distilled to over 90% ABV - bourbon for example is a maximum of 80%. So the base whiskey is softer and lighter tasting. Canadian base whisky is sometimes mistaken to be an unaged neutral grain spirit. But according to Davin de Kergommeaux, neutral grain spirit is “never” used in Canadian whisky. Though it sometimes is in blended American whiskey (avoid at all costs!).
The Flavoring Whiskey - This is generally distilled to lower proofs so it is fuller and richer. Flavoring whiskys are usually rye forward, and are the way Canadian whisky’s traditional rye component is typically incorporated (more below), though some flavoring whiskies are corn-based and more bourbon like. Flavoring whiskies are used in smaller amounts, but there are no regulations on ratios. Some blends may carry a large proportion of flavoring whisky.
The prevalence of blends is sometimes pointed to as a mark of inferiority. But that’s more of a misunderstanding of the style. Because of how it’s made Canadian whiskey must be categorized in the United States as blends. No matter how rich and flavorful they are. This is an example where perception of a terms on a bottle being misleading to a consumer.
Aging must be for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, with no further specifics on the type of barrel. Used bourbon barrels are often used, particularly in base whiskies. Some flavoring whiskies will use new barrels. Like scotch and Irish whisky, the prevalence of used barrels imparts a less aggressive oak character, compared to American bourbon and rye. Typically the cheaper brands will not be much older than 3 years, while the higher end bottlings can go to 8 years and well above.
Sometimes you'll see the lightly aged, high proof base whiskies vulgarly referred to as brown vodka. It certainly is much lighter than American whiskey, but I personally think blanket statements like that are a little unfair and selling the category short.
Canadian whiskey allows a small amount of “flavoring,” to be added to the blend. 9.09% to be exact, or 1 part per every 10 parts. This can be pretty much anything with alcohol, such as bourbon, fruit brandy, wine or sherry, so long as the final product "possess[es] the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky." Many Canandian
This is yet another popular reason to consider Canadian whisky to be lower quality. But may I remind you that tequila and Cognac also allow flavoring and many scotches and rums use coloring.
History of Canadian Whisky
Canadian whiskey follows a timeline similar to American whiskey. Though many early Canadian distillers were from England, as opposed to the Scottish, Irish and German immigrants in the United States. So their whiskey was a little closer to English gin, lighter and mellower, and not as robust and spicy as the Americans. They also used quite a bit of rye, which was abundant because it fared better with the colder winters up north (that's another reason I like rye, it's stubborn and doesn't quit).
Towards the end of the 19th century Canada began to make blended whisky, in the fashion of the Scots who were having success eroding the Irish whiskey market with their own blends scotch at that time. This lighter expression would go on to become the hallmark style of Canadian whisky.
While the Canadian whiskey was continuing to grow at the turn of the 20th century, it was Prohibition that blew the doors open. Once American whiskey was illegal, sales for Canadian jumped 400 percent. Fourteen years later when prohibition was repealed, tastes had largely shifted towards this lighter blended whiskey, giving Canada a major foothold in the market that they still enjoy today, to some extent anyway.
In the last 20 years as tastes have begun to swing back to full flavored straight American bourbons and ryes, Canadian whisky has begun to shift as well. In the next decade few years I imagine there will be a whole lot more to this story.