Every American seems to be a whiskey connoisseur these days, able to speak knowledgeably about what’s coming out of Scotland, Ireland and Japan. Yet, few know much about what’s being produced by our great neighbor to the north. And, if they do know anything about Canadian whisky, it’s usually a myth or half-truth.
No, Canadian whisky is not simply grain neutral spirit with a little added flavoring.
Yes, Canadian whisky, when exported to America, is allowed to have 9.09 percent non-whisky “flavoring” added, though that’s a far less prevalent practice than is rumored, especially amongst higher quality offerings.
No, not all Canadian whisky should be pejoratively labeled a “blend,” which most consumers assume to mean low-end product comprised of non-whisky spirits and flavorings. It’s really no different than, say, bourbon; Canadian distilleries simply choose to distill and age each grain separately, then blend them together—either right after distillation or after aging—as opposed to initially creating a multi-grain mash bill right from the get-go.
Yes, most all Canadian whisky is called “rye,” but it’s not rye the way we think of rye—as in, comprised of at least 51 percent of that grain. Traditionally, Canadian whisky was an all-wheat distillate. When some producer got the clever idea to add a touch of rye grain to spice things up, a sensation was created, and Canadian whisky soon dubbed “rye” (even those bottles that contained no rye). Today, rye is still mostly used as a minor “flavoring” grain in Canada’s now corn-dominate whiskies.
Most importantly, no, not all Canadian whisky is the plastic-jugged and purple-sacked swill you drank in college—in other words, bland, low-proof and dirt cheap. In fact, after being derided for years, Canadian whisky’s reputation is on the upswing these days. Sales are up 7 percent across the board since 2011, and there’s been a 112 percent increase for higher-end products. Writers across the world are taking notice.
In 2016, legendary spirits writer Jim Murray named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the world’s best whiskey. In October of last year, Davin de Kergommeaux published a revised and expanded edition of his book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, to much acclaim. Just this January, Clay Risen of the New York Times hailed Canadian whisky’s “long-awaited comeback.” We, too, touched on the “new” Canadian whisky early last year, but here we wanted to delve deeper in pitting the big brand stalwarts against some mostly-unknown upstarts.
For the tasting, PUNCH’s editorial staff was joined by Aaron Goldfarb, a frequent PUNCH contributor on beer and spirits, and Joshua Richholt, a Canadian whisky expert and real-life Canadian. With less strenuous production rules than those that dictate bourbon, we encountered a massive breadth of flavors. Most all, however, offered a sweet, honey-cake base with underlying notes of burnt sugar and dark fruit, making for many sippable pours. And the overall quality of the lot was exceptional. Here are our favorites.
Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch
A splashy release (at least by Canadian whisky standards) when it hit American soil in 2016, Alberta Rye Dark Batch deserves to be lauded. Alberta Distillers isn’t just Canada’s largest rye producer, they’re North America’s—though, they’re perhaps better known for supplying the juice to brands like WhistlePig. Here, their own blend of 6- and 12-year-old Canadian rye also includes 8 percent bourbon (reportedly Old Grand-Dad) and 1 percent sherry. The whisky is a beautiful orange color with a citrus-forward nose. The palate is quite sweet, with notes of brown sugar and just a hint of spice with plenty of lengthening acidity on the finish. One taster found that its rancio and fig notes reminded her of Armagnac. Overall, this is a great example of how the 9 percent blending allowance for exports can go right.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 45 percent
Pike Creek 10 Year Rum Barrel Finish
Corby Spirit and Wine (which also owns the excellent Lot 40, which we were unable to include in this tasting) produced this bottling as a way to demonstrate how earlier methods of Canadian whisky production might have tasted. A corn whisky with just a bit of flavoring rye is finished in rum barrels, which are easier to obtain in Canada than the expected sherry butts. The palate is quite fruity and oily in texture, with notes of plums and apricots. While not quite as complex as some of the other bottlings in the tasting, the panel appreciated that it was so “effortlessly good.”
- Price: $31
- ABV: 42 percent
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
This blend of “extra-aged” rye, barley and corn whiskies is finished for two years in bourbon barrels. A universal favorite of the panel, it lead with a compelling maltiness on the nose that gives way to a rich, almost lactic mouthfeel with notes of candied nuts and vanilla. Several on the panel dubbed it reminiscent of “malted milk balls.”
- Price: $55
- ABV: 40 percent
Crown Royal XR
Often mocked in America due to their ostentatious packaging, this Diageo brand actually produces several praise-worthy, higher-end bottlings. Their “extra rare” series features whisky that was once distilled at their now-shuttered LaSalle Distillery in Quebec (meaning they are pre-1993). A blend of mostly “bourbon-style components” (according to master blender Andrew MacKay), it’s mineral and savory on the nose with notes of honey and figs that carry through to the palate. It’s balanced out by a spicy, fine-boned finish.
- Price: $135
- ABV: 40 percent
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old
Another Corby product distilled at Hiram-Walker, this won Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2018. The 100-proof offering kicks off with notes of cocoa nibs and spice on the nose and leads into a palate that is all dessert: butter cookies, caramel, baking spices. A Canada-only release at the moment, the price shows how affordable even very well-aged Canadian stock is vis-a-vis comparable bourbon and Scotch offerings, which would retail for well into the thousands of dollars.
- Price: $125
- ABV: 50 percent