Despite its huge popularity in the United States, Canadian whisky is still a relatively misunderstood and underrated spirit elsewhere in the world. However, there are some truly exceptional releases to explore that offer a different, highly flavoursome take on the spirit.
Canadian whisky can trace its roots to the 19th century and particularly the influence of English, Dutch and German distilling immigrants who settled and began to explore the possibilities of using different grains in the production of distilling whisky – including rye and corn maize, alongside the more traditional wheat.
Thanks to the changing fortunes in American whiskey production during the Prohibition era (1920-1933), when distillation was outlawed in the States, Canadian whisky rose in popularity, famously illicitly transported across the border. This was especially true of the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario (the makers of Canadian Club whisky), which is rather conveniently located close to the Canadian side of the Detroit River that effectively splits the two countries.
This illicit ‘gold rush’ gave Americans a real taste for sweet, rich Canadian whisky, and today it remains firmly in favour with drinkers across the States. Crown Royal, a Canadian blended whisky, is the second most popular whisky brand in the country, sitting just behind the ubiquitous Jack Daniel’s Tennessee whiskey.
Unlike many of its American counterparts, Canadian whisky takes its spelling from Scotland (without an ‘e’), although some elements of its production and maturation are significantly different to Scotch. As well as the different types of grains used, which can impart sweet, spicy and sometimes fruity and peppery notes (especially from the use of rye), it is mostly distilled in large column stills rather than the traditional copper pot stills used to make Scottish single malt. This tends to give a lighter, more floral, and smooth, buttery character to the spirit.
However, several distilleries also produce smaller batches of whisky in the traditional pot still way, which gives the spirit a more intense flavour – and a liquid that can then be mixed in different quantities with the column-distilled ‘base’ whisky (not unlike the blended whiskies we see in Scotland).
These different whisky styles are then matured individually for a minimum of three years, across a variety of used oak casks, ex-American bourbon barrels and virgin oak casks – each cask type being tailored to the flavour profile of the spirit – before they are finally blended, or sometimes released as single-barrel bottlings or small-batch, single-grain whiskies.
One of the most distinct differences comes from the legislation allowing Canadian distillers the freedom to add up to 9.09% of additional ‘flavourant’ into the whisky and still label it as Canadian whisky. While this may sound dubious, distillers have explored the boundaries of possibility, with some adding in a small amount of American bourbon to bolster the flavour, while others have included a percentage of aged Scotch or sherry distillate to bring complexity and a more rounded flavour.
Today, Canadian whisky production is dominated by eight major producers, which represent 95% of Canada’s whisky production, broadly spread across the country’s provinces: from Shelter Point and Pemberton to the west in British Columbia, through to Alberta’s Black Velvet, Gimli in Manitoba, Hiram Walker and Kittling Ridge (owner of the Forty Creek brand) in Ontario, Valleyfield in Quebec and finally, Glenora in Nova Scotia to the far east.
Alongside these giants, a number of smaller producers and independent bottlers are making a name for themselves domestically by blazing a trail of innovative thinking. Bearface’s One Eleven Series Oaxaca Edition cleverly plays with the 9.09% rules, by adding a small proportion of Mexican-produced, roasted agave spirit to its whisky, giving a subtle smokiness.
Similarly, Black Fox Farm is a craft distillery based in the province of Saskatchewan, focusing on sustainability and seasonal terroir and using locally sourced grain to create a range of distinctly flavoured whiskies.
A lot of Canadian whisky is drunk locally, and some bottles don’t even make it out of the country, so if you see a good one available to buy, don’t miss your chance. Here’s seven of the best from the 2020 IWSC’s list of award-winning whiskies.