Canadian whisky is everywhere, though you might not know it. Masterfully crafted whiskey brands like New York’s Cooper Spirits, Sonoma County’s 35 Maple Street, and even the much lauded Whistlepig often source stock from whisky made in Canada — most often the famed Alberta Distillery. So, the chances of you drinking Canadian whisky, loving it, and not knowing it’s Canadian is pretty high. What’s more, Canadian whisky is more than just an appellation — or geographical designation. Canadian whiskies are made differently and deserve as much respect as any other varietal on the market.
On the morning of Canada’s 150th birthday, let’s dive into to what makes Canadian whisky so special and explore some great gateway bottles to stock your bar with this year. Cheers!
Rum was king of the American colonies while the European colonialist were still coastal. Molasses traveled up the North American Coast from the Caribbean and rum was distilled in bulk. When the colonists moved inland, access to the molasses trade dwindled, but they still needed boozed. The colonists solved this conundrum by using what was on hand. Grains were switched out for the molasses and whisky was given a go. At first, wheat refuse was primarily used, which became known as “common whisky” throughout the Canadian colonies.
Early English/Canadian whisky distilleries used to be an extension of flour mills. Distillers used the middlings or grist — the refuse of making flour from wheat — for their mash. This was basically a 17th-century up-cycling program of agricultural waste. The middlings used to make that common whisky weren’t exactly flavorful, but it did get those early colonists drunk.
The English-colonial heritage of the stills also lends to Canadian whisky missing the ‘e’ between the ‘k’ and ‘y.’ American whiskey was largely adopted from Irish whiskeys. So, we use the ‘e.’ Canada’s whisky arguably predates American whiskey and, thus, has the older spelling to this day.
As the 1600s became the 1700s more and more colonists flooded into the Americas. When the Germans arrived in Canada they tasted the local hooch and had a recommendation to better the bland ‘common whisky’ that was being distilled. Rye.
Germans love their rye bread and started adding the grain to the mash, much to the fervor and delight of drinkers across the colonies. It was so popular that wheat was eventually abandoned altogether and rye whisky became king of the Canadian market.
As more Europeans arrived in Canada and European Americans crossed the northern border, they brought more skills, stills, and ideas with them. Corn became a common starter ingredient for mashes, similar to American styles like bourbon. Pot stills and column stills were being used to tinker with outcomes. Eventually, a unique set of practices took hold, and Canadian Whisky began to have a defining “style.”