The conventional wisdom is that Canadian Whiskey owes its success to the United States’ brief and mostly unsuccessful attempt at Prohibition. There’s a lot of truth to that. But while that storyline explains a lot of the growth and popularity of Canadian Whiskey, the spirit has a long history in Canada, and continued to be a big seller ever as U.S. distillers got back into the business.
Officially, the first distillery in Canada started manufacturing spirits in 1769 in Quebec City, with John Molson getting the credit to be the first whisky distiller in 1799. Since many of the new immigrants were from Scotland and Ireland, home to some of finest spirits around, they were inclined to distill the leftover grain after the harvest season into whiskies.
As the years passed and the temperance movement became more powerful in the United States, Canadian distillers started turning a closer eye towards exporting their products to their neighbor to the South. Some made a success of that in the 19th century, such as Hiram Walker and what would become Canadian Club Whiskey. The Industrial Revolution and the establishment of easier means of transportation, such as railroad lines (and then automobiles) made this a profitable venture.
But liquor wasn’t big business in Canada until 1919, when the 18th Amendment made it illegal to manufacture, sell, transport or consume alcohol in the United States. Unlike in Canada, whose Prohibition lasted less than a year on the national level, the USA was officially dry until 1933. Not only did that prevent the distillers from producing more liquor, it cost them all of their aged stock. That misfortune for American distillers was good fortune to those North of the border.
A number of Canadians recognized a business opportunity, and adjusted their mashbills to meet the taste preferences of U.S. drinkers, many of whom managed to find a way to stay wet even as the law theoretically forced the country to be dry. While Canadian distillers had mostly produced rum up until that point, the big drink in the United States was rye whiskey, as anyone who’s read any Damon Runyon short story can attest.
Distillers therefore started using more rye to meet consumer preferences, but that had some drawbacks. Rye produces what some consider to be a harsher finish, and it isn’t among the cheaper grains to work with. Partially as a result of that, Canadian distillers blended it with other grains, specifically corn, and in fact soon made corn the main ingredient in the mashbill because it made the drink smoother and cheaper than a straight rye whiskey.
Not all of the alcohol made it across the border. It also was in demand in Canada itself, taking on a greater share of the domestic market. Meanwhile, thanks to Prohibition a generation of American drinkers who cared enough to break the law and visit speakeasies grew up on Canadian Whiskey and forgot about what they had been drinking up until 1919, which had profound implications once Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
Preference for Canadian Rye Whiskey
Some might have expected Canadian Whiskey to become less popular once domestic distillers could operate legally again, but a funny thing had happened in the intervening years. Most had learned to prefer the drink of the Canadian version of rye whiskey to the stuff they had been used to, learning to value smoothness and consistency and willing to sacrifice the loss of some flavor (to be fair, that flavor could be overwhelming, particularly at the time). As a result, demand for Canadian Whiskey continued to be high, while the demand for rye whiskey fell off precipitously from the pre-Prohibition days, and hasn’t ever recovered.
In addition to the new taste preferences of the U.S. market, Canadian distilleries had a huge advantage in terms of supply. Since they had been producing drinks for the U.S. market, they had a lot of aged whisky reserves ready to export, and now they could do it legally. That gave those distilleries a big advantage over American companies who were starting up again from scratch and had no aged products ready to sell for years.
Moreover, now that they were legitimate businesses instead of (to the U.S. government) booze smugglers, companies like Seagrams could grow and expand further. Eager to legitimize themselves both at home and abroad after the years of skirting or blatantly crossing the laws to conduct their business, Canadian Whiskey distillers made a splash. They invested in new and expanded facilities and grew their position in the export market – in fact, more than $500 million worth of Canadian Whiskey is exported to the United States each year.
What is Canadian Whiskey?
And what exactly is Canadian Whiskey? I’m glad you asked.
Canadian Rules for Whiskey
First, here are the Canadian Rules for Whiskey: It must be aged in oak casks for at least three years (though practically speaking many spend at least twice that long). Then it has to be bottled and sold. That’s pretty much it as far as hard-and-fast mandates are concerned.
Unlike in the United States, there are no regulations for what has to be in the mashbill for it to be called a “Canadian Whiskey.” The base whisky is usually corn, or sometimes wheat. As for the flavoring whisky, rye is almost always used, since the original Canadian whiskies produced by the settlers were often rye-based beverages and because Canadians tend to refer to the current offerings as Rye even though that tends to be a smaller part of the mashbill. While the corn provides the bulk of the grain in the mashbill, the amount and the processing of the rye is what determines the taste.
The rye itself is treated in different ways in different whiskey blends, with a corresponding effect on the result. A lot of blends use malted rye, which makes it a little smoother and more flavorful, in addition to the unmalted rye. Barley or barley malt are often in the mix as well. Then you add the yeast and water, age it to taste, and you have Canadian Whiskey.
Canadian Blended Whiskey
Or, rather, you have part of a particular batch of Canadian Whiskey. Except in rare cases, what happens next is that the whisky gets blended with batches from previous years, returned to the barrels so that the flavors can seamlessly merge, and then get placed into bottles and shipped to your local liquor store.
That’s a lot of wiggle room, and it leaves a lot of room for distillers to play around with the ingredient base. The freedom means that each distillery can do things very differently. Take the general culture of rules and regulations for an American Whiskey mashbill, and Canada’s approach is the opposite.
One result of the emphasis on blending Canadian Whiskey is consistency. The blending of multiple batches makes the variances of each year’s batch of whisky smooth out, so there is little difference in taste between vintages. If you enjoyed your father’s or grandfather’s Crown Royal a few years ago, you’ll feel very nostalgic if you pick up a bottle today because the taste will be pretty much the exact same as it was back then. That’s part of its appeal – you know exactly what you are going to get.
Note that most Canadian Whiskey is blended, but not all. Glenora offers a Canadian single malt whisky in the Scottish tradition, and got rave reviews, and there are other smaller distilleries that are dipping their toes in that direction. But they are the exception to the rule.
Canadian Whiskey Taste
Now, for taste. Because corn is usually the main ingredient in the mashbill, the typical Canadian Whiskey tastes a bit like bourbon whiskey, sort of akin to it being a first cousin once removed. There’s some added spiciness from the rye, so it’s usually not quite as sweet as the typical bourbon, but on the other hand the blending smoothes out any rough edges so you don’t get some of the flavor that you would get from a premium bourbon. Think of it as a spicier Maker’s Mark off of a blander base, and you’ll get the general idea.
An effect of the blending is that neutral spirits tend to dominate. A Canadian Whiskey can have as little as three percent straight whisky in the blend, and rarely does it approach 10%. It’s almost like adding a dash of flavor to an otherwise unassuming drink – you get subtle hints more than bursts of flavor. That’s also true because while Canadian Whiskey is often distilled at 180-proof, it is then blended with lower-proof whiskys, and distillers can add up to 9.09% of anything else they want to alter the flavoring (from brandy to caramel, so read the label). The result is bottled at 80 proof, a lot less potent.
That makes Canadian Whiskey an ideal spirit to use in mixed drinks. They work well in traditional whisky drinks like Manhattans and Highballs, and it’s a fun drink to experiment with if you’re looking to discover some unique combination of ingredients to create the next big cocktail.
Canadian Whiskey is Not Rye Whiskey
Here’s what Canadian Whiskey is not: Rye Whiskey. If you take off to the Great White North, you’ll hear the locals call it that, but it’s not close to what the U.S. would call a Rye. United States regulations mandate that a Rye Whiskey have at least 51% rye in the mashbill, and Canadian Whiskies don’t come anywhere near that level.
Some interesting notes: Since Canadian Whiskies are generally blended, the age on the bottle is that of the youngest whisky used. Also, more than half of the Canadian Whiskey sold in the United States is bottled in the USA as well, shipped from Canada in barrels. As a general rule, the Canadian Whiskeys bottled in Canada are the higher-end spirits designed to stand alongside Scotch and Irish Whiskies, while the Canadian Whiskies bottled in the United States are a more budget-friendly option that competes with bourbon and other blended whiskies.
Most Americans are familiar with Crown Royal, the top-selling Canadian Whiskey in the United States. That’s one of the brands with the best story behind it, as it was developed to honor the visit of England’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (mother of the current English Queen) to Canada in 1939. It was only available in Canada until 1964, but since then has become a staple of the American liquor store.
That was developed by Samuel Bronfmen, then-President of the Seagram Company. Seagram was already the biggest name in Canadian spirits, as the distillery that would serve as the foundation for the family fortune was established in Waterloo, Ontario in 1857. Joseph Seagram became a partner in the distillery in 1869 and was the sole owner by 1883. Samuel followed in Joseph’s footsteps, and the rest is history.
Canadian Club Whiskey is another hallowed brand, which doesn’t sell as well but has a more ancient history. It began production in 1858 … in Detroit. When the temperance movement took hold early in Michigan and the state looked to be going dry, he moved production right across the border to Windsor, Ontario. At that point, it was commonly called “Walker’s Club Whiskey,” and it became “Canadian Club” near the turn of the century. It was considered a high-end drink at the time, and only became more sought-after during Prohibition, when Al Capone and his men smuggled in cases on routes that led from Windsor to Detroit to wherever else they needed to go. Though Canadian Club Whiskey is now owned by the Jim Beam people, the Walker Distillery is still in production, with Wiser’s Whiskey being the big seller.
Of course, these days everyone knows about Canadian Club Whiskey because it’s Don Draper’s beverage of choice on the hit AMC show “Mad Men.” It’s also the brand name liquor imported by the rum-runners on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which makes historical sense since Capone is a character on the show.
Other big names in the Canadian Whiskey business in the United States include Seagram VO, Canadian Mist, and Black Velvet. Crown Royal, Seagram VO and Canadian Club are the most common to find at drinking establishments, and they’re also generally considered among the most mild and easy to drink.