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.”
What is Canadian Whisky?
So what makes it unique? No mash bill — that’s the recipe for the mash which often includes grains and cereals that are malted (dried) and mashed to get the process of fermentation underway. Canadian whisky has single grain or cereal mashes. Each corn, rye, barley, or wheat mash is distilled and matured separately and then blended later. That makes it almost the opposite of American whiskey.
Where Canadian whisky and American whiskey align is on the cereal corn (maize). Canadian whisky is primarily corn fueled, but does not have the same requirement in the United States for grain or cereal labeling. For instance, Rye in Canada denotes a specific flavor profile from rye grain and flavors coaxed from barrel-aging — but, there doesn’t have to be a specific amount of rye involved in the blend for it to be called Rye. Whereas in America, Rye whiskey has to be made with 51 percent rye grains to be called Rye. This has led to many south of Canada’s border erroneously dismissing Canada’s Rye whiskies as inferior. This is a huge mistake.
By using single mash distillates and then maturations, Canadain whisky focuses on coaxing the best possible flavors from each grain and cereal used. And then they blend their whiskies when they know they have the best possible outcome from that original ingredient. In the end, it’s more like a blending of single malts instead of a blending of whiskies. And if blends aren’t your thing, there’s a deep love for single malts, single stills, and specialties to be sipped and adored.
We love Canadian whisky so much so that 75 percent of all Canadian whisky ends up in the United States. So here are ten bottles to try right now.
LOT 40 RYE WHISKY
Lot 40 is one of the best Canadian Ryes on the market. It has the character of a Scotch single malt that’s made with malted rye instead of malted barley. This one is also renowned for coming from a single copper pot still that produces 12,000 liters (3,170 gallons) per rotation.
On first sip, Lot 40 is boldly spicy and leans into the dark pumpernickel aspects of the grain, with a mellow sweetness. Overall, this is a world-class rye that stands next to or above every other rye on the market.
ALBERTA RYE DARK BATCH
Alberta Rye Dark Batch is something special. It’s a blend of 91 percent Rye, 8 percent Bourbon, and one percent Sherry. This one is the brainchild of the geniuses at the Alberta Distillery who are pushing the envelope and redefining what makes a great whisky.
The blend lends hints of smoke with strong spice from the rye with vanilla from the American oak bourbon barrel it’s aged in.This is rounded out by a darkly sweet hint from the sherry.
STALK & BARREL SINGLE MALT
This single malt is derived from malted barley — no rye here. It’s pot stilled and then aged for at least three years in former bourbon barrels, much like a great Scotch single malt. Each bottle is pulled from a single cask and remains unblended and unfiltered, making this a great Canadian single malt.
This whisky allows its barley shine through in every sip. There’s a lot of fruit, ginger, and cinnamon in the taste, with hints of vanilla and oak.
66 GILEAD WILD OAK WHISKY
Wild Oak Whisky is a Canadian blend of corn (51 percent), rye (30 percent), and peated barley (19 percent). It leans more towards a bourbon than a scotch. It’s aged for at least three years in new, charred oak and then each distillate is blended to perfection and bottled.
Expect strong florals, grass, and spice. There’s a butterscotch sweetness, oak, and a slight smokey edge to this one that makes it stand out as something truly unique.
CANADIAN CLUB 100% RYE
Called Chairman’s Select 100% Rye up in Canada, this Rye whisky is a rye-lovers delight. This one comes from the master distillers at Alberta Distillery and has no age statement. We do know that is it 100 percent rye, likely blended from rye aged in new oak, old bourbon, and old Canadian whisky barrels.
The taste is a spicy rye, with peppercorns, clove, and cinnamon leading the pack. Orange peel, caramel, and a rich creaminess round out this one. It’s perfect for the next Manhattan you plan to whip up.
JP WISER’S 18 YEAR OLD CANADIAN WHISKY
JP Wiser has been making quality whisky in Canada since the mid-1800s. This bottle is a blend of 18-year-old multi-grain distillates that keeps winning awards and flying off the shelves in Canada.
Expect a distinct spice and orange zest here alongside some pine and florals. The barrel-aging adds a lot of oak, vanilla, and toffee essence to the taste. This is a great sipping whisky to start your exploration.
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COLLINGWOOD 21 YEAR OLD RYE RESERVE
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Collingwood 21 year old rye whisky. This is a one time bottling and is the smoothest rye I have ever tasted. Bought 6 bottles and now only 4 remain. #ryewhisky #whisky #whiskey #mydram #livingthedram #dram #ilovescotch #scotchfanatic #whiskeyfanatic #mydrink #sogood #instadram #instawhisky #instascotch #drink #alcohol #collingwoodrye
Collingwood is an artisanal whisky distilled by Brown-Forman at Canada’s oldest distillery on the Georgian Bay in Ontario. This whisky is 100 percent rye that’s triple distilled and then aged for 21 years in oak before getting being finished in toasted maple barrels.
Overall this is an earth-shattering Rye. It’s very smooth and leans into the clove, allspice, and peppercorn spice with a very subtle twist of caramel and raisin sweetness complementing the oak. It’s creamy smooth ride to spice town with a few sweet stops along the way. It’s also superb at lingering on your palate and leaving you wanting more. Plus, the bottle is funky and cool.
WHISTLEPIG STRAIGHT RYE
Whistlepig Straight Rye is bottled on a farm in Vermont and it is a 100 percent Rye from Alberta, Canada. Legendary distiller David Pickerell (formerly of Maker’s Mark) found the impeccable barrels of Rye in Canada and teamed up with former The Apprentice contestant Raj Bhakta to bring the barrels down to Vermont and bottle them under their new shingle. An instant classic was born. Although Whistlepig is now bottling whiskey from Indiana and their own in-house distillery, it’s their Straight Rye that made their name and still shines brightest.
This Straight Rye is aged in American oak and finished in old bourbon barrels. Expect orange peel with spices like star anise and cloves alongside an oaky char and hint of vanilla. This a world class Rye blends American and Canadian ingenuity into a single bottle.
CROWN ROYAL NORTHERN HARVEST RYE
In 2016 Jim Murray (the world’s whisk(e)y sherpa) anointed Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the best whisky in the world, making it the first Canadian whisky ever to earn that honor. This extraordinary 90 percent Rye blended whisky has been setting the world on fire ever since.
The rye heavy blend never leans too hard into any one flavor, allowing for a well thought out balance. There’s a butterscotch sweetness accented by charred oak. Next, comes the clove, star anise, allspice, and cinnamon pepperiness. That gives way to a creamy vanilla smoothness. It’s a glass of whisky for the ages. It also makes one hell of an old fashioned.
FORTY CREEK WHISKY CONFEDERATION OAK RESERVE
Confederation Oak Reserve was distilled to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada in 1867 — or Canada 150. The whisky is a blend of rye, corn, and barley which has been individually distilled and matured in white oak then finished in special Canadian oak barrels made from 150 year old trees harvested from around the distillery. It’s basically Canada in a bottle.
The years of aging have given this blend a maple, fig, and vanilla nose. Expect walnut, smoke, oak, vanilla, and peppery spiciness with a slight leathery mustiness coming through on the taste. Overall this is Canadian whisky at its best.