You’ve seen a few headlines you haven’t quite clicked on. Your neighborhood Whisky snob brings it up all the time. Everyone you know with even a tenuous connection to the great nation of Canada has been furiously posting links reading: “Canada makes the finest Whisky in the world!”. The liquor-soaked corners of the internet are ablaze. Should you believe the hype?
After performing our due-diligence the Flaviar team is ready to tell you… Yes! Totally! And we can help you get acquainted.
A Bad ReputationCanadian Whisky has gotten a bad rap, and deservedly so. For many years it was the preferred spirit of disillusioned grandmothers and college-aged inebriates trying to seem fancy. Household names in this category are known for two distinguishing qualities: they’re cheap, and easy to mix. This is in large part thanks to their means of production.
While producing regions like Scotland and the U.S. have put in place strict rules about how their Whisk(e)y can be made and marketed, Canada has taken a decidedly laissez-fare approach.
Brands like Seagrams and Canadian Club are part of a long tradition of… not much. While producing regions like Scotland and the U.S. have put in place strict rules about how their Whisk(e)y can be made and marketed, Canada has taken a decidedly laissez-fare approach. Many Canadian brands don’t even include a mash bill or age on the label. What’s the curious carouser to do?
The Old and The NewRecent entrants like the Buffalo-Trace-owned Caribou Crossing are pushing the field into new flavor arenas, but Canadian drams are classically light and sweet; more kindred to a blended Irish Whiskeys than a peaty Scotch or oak-laced Bourbon.
They can also be distilled to a higher proof than Bourbon, which the government caps at 160. The base spirit for Canadian Whiskies frequently hit proofs around 190 meaning a stronger, but less flavorful foundation.
What goes into them isn’t particularly enchanting, either. Middle America conjures the image of tall, orderly stalks to many minds, but corn is going just as strong up North. Corn and wheat are the primary grains used in Canadian Whisky production, imbuing the feathery, dulcet flavor profiles of those grains to the resulting blend.
In summary, the classic Canadian Whisky is a slightly bland, light and sweet liquor; the store-brand vanilla ice cream of the Whisky world. But the industry is changing. And has a past more interesting than it’s reputation suggests.
Boozy BackstoryDistilling in the Canadian provinces began when European settlers brought their know-how and penchant for a good buzz to the shores of Quebec some time in the 1700’s. After landing in the East, where Caribbean molasses was widely available, many of the early settlers made Rum. As they proceeded west the pioneers found abundant wheat, and Whisky production took off.
There is one ingredient found in many Canadian blends that we haven’t mentioned. The last secret of Saskatchewan’s Special Sauce came with Dutch and German distillers who began adding small amounts of Rye to the mash for a taste of home. This spicy tradition stuck, and carries on to this day, resulting in many labels in Canada bearing the name, Rye.
The last secret of Saskatchewan’s Special Sauce came with Dutch and German distillers who began adding small amounts of Rye to the mash for a taste of home.
The First WaveThese were the humble beginnings, but two periods of turmoil in America would drive the formation of a true industry. First, the American Civil War, lasting from 1861 - 1865 threw a wrench in domestic spirit production. But even in—and perhaps especially in—the face of strife, people reach for a strong drink, and the Briefly-Not-United States turned to Canada as a reliable source.
After Prohibition, however, Canada was there for its American friends with the only barrels of aged Whisky around, and they made a killing. Canadian Whisky was the best selling liquor category in America until as recently as 2010!
Then the story we’ve all heard: Prohibition. Bootleggers slipping through fog-choked harbors with crate after crate of fine Canadian gold. And it’s true. With American stock in ruins from 1920-1933 Canada had the only supply on hand, but in reality the volume paled in comparison to normal trade. After Prohibition, however, Canada was there for its American friends with the only barrels of aged Whisky around, and they made a killing. Canadian Whisky was the best selling liquor category in America until as recently as 2010!
And now we’re here. Today. Ready to taste a new generation of producers from the great white north. In a place once known for brown vodka, there are over 30 craft distilleries and counting. Stores are starting to carry whole shelves and sections of reputable Canadian brands you'll be hearing more about.