Spirit Guide: Meet the New Canadian Whisky

When, in 2014, the makers of the popular WhistlePig Rye disclosed that their product was, in fact, Canadian, it inspired new interest in the whisky industry north of the border. Wayne Curtis on the new styles of Canadian whisky, and why it’s quickly becoming an industry favorite.

Canadian whisky has been a North American mainstay for decades—Canadian Club and Crown Royal as familiar on the backbar as Budweiser and Miller High Life are on the tap.

Typically consisting of a blend of grain distillates made and aged separately—lighter corn whiskey usually making up the bulk of the product, with rye and barley whiskey added for flavor—Canadian whisky became popular in the wake of U.S. Prohibition, and soared during the midcentury. But what’s historically set Canadian whisky apart has also been its great scourge: rules allow 9.09 percent of the total volume to be made up of nontraditional, and non-Canadian, ingredients. (Sherry, for instance, was commonly added to add depth and sweetness.)

While fans (and there are many) hail it as smooth and easy to sip, critics (also many) find it lacking in body and complexity, and label it somewhat unkindly as “brown vodka.” However, over the last five years or so, a new life form has emerged from out of the old—a more robust whiskey that highlights the bolder flavoring elements, allowing the more interesting components of traditional Canadian to stand out.

This new breed of Canadian whisky can partly be traced back to a product that quietly slipped over the American border from the north. WhistlePig Rye, originally distilled for flavoring blended whisky, was imported from Alberta and bottled in Vermont—the label proudly touted “Hand-Bottled in Vermont,” leading many consumers to assume it was an American whiskey. (Producer Raj Bhakta got flack for this, but his hands were tied by both earlier non-disclosure agreements with the producer, and labeling requirements of Vermont.)

When Bhakta went fully transparent with his sourcing in 2014, he attracted attention from American whiskey writers, followed by whiskey aficionados. “That had huge impact,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. “The light bulb went off.”

More importers sought out similar quality whisky from Canada, and producers themselves began marketing “reblended” or “unblended” whisky. In 2014, Canadian Club (a Beam Suntory company) released a 100 percent rye in Canada. In early 2015, Diageo came out with Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye—90 percent rye, and 10 percent corn and malted barley—which snagged Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whisky of the Year. The Sazerac Company, known for its experimental bourbons made at Buffalo Trace in Kentucky, acquired a fallow Montreal distillery (where genever was once made) in 2011. It’s been gearing up for a series of experimental Canadian whiskey products in the coming years, following the path they took with bourbon, and a new Vendome copper still soon to be installed.

“I like the flexibility of Canadian,” says Drew Mayville, ‎Master Blender and Director of Quality at Sazerac’s Buffalo Trace, referring to the category’s broad definition—i.e. it has to be made in Canada, aged there for three years, and, as mentioned above, may contain 9.09 percent additional ingredients.

This emerging market for bolder Canadian whisky is also getting the attention of the country’s budding craft distilling scene, which was already more open to bucking tradition. Toronto Distillery Co., for instance, sells three disaggregated white whiskies: corn, wheat and rye. The idea is to educate consumers about what’s in a blend before aging commences, and to be better informed when their aged solo products and blends hit the shelves. Odd Society Spirits in Vancouver, which produces pot-distilled whisky, is likewise making single-grain variants, including malted barley and rye.

All this activity is adding a bit of effervescence to a category that’s been staid and a little sleepy amidst the recent American whiskey boom. “The people who make it are getting a little bit of spring in their step,” says de Kergommeaux. “High-end whiskey is taking over, and some are seeing double digit growth. The image is changing and people are talking about it.”

The Bartender's Choice

Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whisky

Lot No. 40 was launched by Pernod Ricard in 2012 as a recreation of an historic rye made by beloved Hiram Walker distiller Joshua Booth, whose farm was named after its assigned lot number.

It’s a medium- to full-bodied whisky distilled in Ontario and made with 90 percent rye grain and 10 percent malted rye. There’s ginger and baking spice on the entry, and the malt gives it an unexpected floral element. There’s also a touch of plum and stone fruit delivered by the seven or eight years of maturation in the barrel, followed by a pleasingly spicy finish we’ve come to expect with rye. It’s not as deep and sophisticated as some other Canadians on the market—especially the Crown Royal Single Barrel—but it’s a superb gateway Canadian. It’s been popular with bartenders south of the border looking to put a worthwhile northern whisky behind their bar.

  • Price: $30
  • ABV: 43 percent

The Blender

Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch

Alberta Distillers Ltd., owned by industry giant Beam-Suntory, was a catalyst in getting the Canadian mitosis underway a few years ago; they owned the distillery where WhistlePig sourced its first rye, setting the stage for other premium bottlings from Canada. ADL is the largest rye producer in North America—they currently have somewhere around a half-million barrels aging—which gives them an enviable selection when drawing down.

Dark Batch is essentially a retooling of the traditional blended Canadian whisky, complete with sherry. But rather than being built on corn whisky, it has a base consisting of 91 percent rye (a blend of ryes aged up to 12 years, some in new oak barrels), which is then cut with 8 percent bourbon (Old Grand Dad, which already skews rye-heavy), and 1 percent oloroso sherry. It’s aged at the high-plains western distillery, meaning a dryer climate and larger temperature swings, which helps with the maturation and lends some appealing depth.

  • Price: $25
  • ABV: 45 percent

The Upseller

Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Crown Royal was first created to present to visiting British royalty in 1939, and since its introduction to the United States in 1964 has steadily ascended to becoming the top-selling brand of Canadian whisky. (It’s second only to Jack Daniel’s in overall whiskey sales in the U.S.) The ubiquitous purple cloth bag has long signaled “luxury.” But wholesale improvements among competing whiskies in the past decade or two—Scotch, bourbon, Irish—have taken some of the royal hue out of its trademark purple.

Crown Royal has responded by stepping up its game and releasing higher-end expressions. With some two million barrels aging at its facility in Manitoba, Crown Royal has a massive palette to work with, and has turned up some extraordinary single casks—among Canada’s first such bottlings. The Hand Selected Barrel is a high-rye blend (about one-third rye), with the product aged in new oak barrels, rather than the more common ex-bourbon, giving it a profile much closer to a well-aged bourbon.

The single barrel I sampled (many barrels are acquired and sold by individual retailers) was full and bright, gingery and upbeat without acceding any baritone authority. There’s a touch of gingerbread cookie in the entry, followed by a long, deep char flavor on the finish. While variations are to be expected, all signs point to yes.

  • Price: $50
  • ABV: 51.5 percent

The Little Big Whisky

Still Waters Stalk & Barrel Single Malt

Canada remains dominated by a handful of major distilleries, but micro-distilleries have been popping up in earnest over the past decade. Among the first was Still Waters Distillery, founded by two friends named Barry (Bernstein and Stein) a short drive north of Toronto. Their compact operation opened in 2009—very early in the rise of Canadian craft distilling. Their whisky is made from two-row malted barley grown in Canada, distilled in a pot still and aged in ex-bourbon casks. Each bottle comes with cask and bottle number—the bottle I sampled was a stout 60.3 percent ABV—and they spend the legal minimum of three years in the barrel.

Still Waters has gotten uniformly good notice and it will certainly benefit from more time in the barrel. At present, it can come off as a bit fiery, both on the nose and in the mouth, but it’s worth celebrating and supporting as a promising new whisky. Here’s hoping the Barry’s have laid down enough to let future bottlings hang out in the barrel and grow more complex before they meet glass; a six or eight year will be sure to command widespread attention.

  • Price: $50 ($70 cask strength)
  • ABV: 46 percent (or 60.2 cask strength)

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Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails, a chronicle of America’s most ignoble spirit. He’s also a contributing editor at The Atlantic magazine, where he launched and wrote the “Drinks” column from 2008 to 2014, and he writes regularly for Imbibe and The Daily Beast. He’s also written about spirits for The New York Times, Sunset, Yankee, enRoute, American Scholar, American Archeology and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in New Orleans and Grand Lake Stream, Maine.