Canada whiskey is known for its lighter blended whiskys, some of which are among the most common bottles you’ll see on any back bar, including: Canadian Club (Don Draper’s whiskey of choice), Crown Royal, or Seagram's VO. These bottles are designed to be not much more than an affordable companion to a mixer (a 7 and 7, for example) which is why despite being widely recognized, Canadian whisky garners less enthusiasm amongst connoisseurs than other whiskey categories.
But there is some serious whisky coming out of the Great White North, so don't sleep on Canadian whisky - it could very well produce the next bottle everyone is clamoring for. Remember what happened to Japanese whisky.
Stylistically, Canadian whisky is closest to American whiskey in that they both use corn as their primary grain. In general, Canadian whiskys lean towards lighter, slightly sweeter flavors like soft oak, fruit, and maple. There is some spice, but less bite compared to American whiskey. There two key contributing factors to this. One, Canadian whisky is typically distilled to higher proofs, and two, they are often aged in used oak barrels, as opposed to brand new ones, as is the case with American bourbons and ryes. Mind you, this does not make them inferior, it is merely indicative of their style.
Mixing with Canadian Whisky
In cocktails Canadian whisky functions similar to American whiskey. But generally with less "oophm." But this makes them an nice introduction to the whiskey category. If you're trying to convert someone, an Old Fashioned with Canadian whiskey just might be the trick.
For more about the world of Canadian whisky check out Davin de Kergommeaux's great website canadianwhisky.org and his book "Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert"
These are a few of most familiar Canadian whiskey brands, though there are others (Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, etc.). Each brand offers several different bottlings, some of which are very highly rated - like Crown Royal's Northern Harvest rye. But the frontline bottle for each is in that light, blended style.
Seagram's VO (Seagrams 7 Crown - of 7 and 7 fame - is actually a blend now made in America, though the company originated in Canada.)
This is some of the best whisky that this category has to offer. Full disclosure, I haven't tried them all. But those I have get a thumbs up.
Canadian vs. American Rye
Canada and the United States have different definitions of rye whiskey, and they are made in completely different ways.
American rye whiskey needs to have at least 51% rye in the mashbill (more about how American whiskey is made here), very straightforward. Canadian whisky is all about blends rather a single mashbill, so that doesn’t apply. In Canada, rye is added through the flavoring whisky (described above), but there’s no directive saying how much flavoring whisky must be used in a blend, or how much rye it must contain, if any. Despite their association, many Canadian whiskys contain no rye or very little.
This brings us to the most confusing part. In Canada today, the terms Canadian whisky, Canadian Rye whisky, and Rye whisky and are all legally interchangeable. Which means, yes, Canadian whisky can say "rye" on the label without actually containing any rye. This came to be when Canadian whisky gained popularity for it’s robust, spicy rye flavors, and people began to refer to Canadian whisky simply as rye. Eventually this associtation was reflected in the labeling, regardless of how much rye was in the bottle. Most Canadian bottles do contain rye, but it’s closer around 5-15% rye. I generally find Canadian ryes to be less assertive than American ryes. But some of this is likely due to the higher distillation proof and used oak barrels.
That all being said, there are plenty of very full flavored rye whiskies made in Canada. In fact, a few of my favorite American rye brands get some or all of their whiskey from Canada’s Alberta Distillery. Including Whistle Pig, Hochstadter's Vatted Rye and Lock, Stock, and Barrel rye. These are all big time spicy ryes, what I would call on the rye page: "spice 3". Personally, I don't care where it coms from, as long as it's is good.
Grains & Fermentation
Canadian whiskey shares many similarities to American whiskey, but with some significant distinctions. They are based on the same grains - corn, rye, wheat, and some barley. Corn is predominantly used for both, though Canadian whisky is most associated with rye. Canada regulates rye whisky completely differently than America, and it usually contains far less rye, if any. More details on that above. Another difference, sometimes instead of malted barely, malted rye or natural enzymes like koji are added to stimulate fermentation in Canadian whiskys.
Distillation & Blending
Blending is integral to Canadian whisky. The majority of them follow the same template as blended scotch and Irish whiskey, wherein a lighter whiskey makes up the majority of the blend and a fuller-flavored whisky is used to give it some character. This a divergence from American whiskey and single malt scotch where the profile of the whiskey is conceived from fermentation.
Canada refers to the two main components of their blends as the base whisky and flavoring whisky.
The Base Whisky - This will commonly make up the bulk of the blend. It is usually 100% corn and distilled to over 90% ABV - bourbon, for example, is distilled a maximum of 80% ABV (learn more about how the distilled proof of a spirit affects its flavor here). This will be aged Canadian base whisky is sometimes mistaken to be an unaged neutral grain spirit. But according to Davin de Kergommeaux, neutral grain spirit is “never” used in Canadian whisky. It is aged like everything else. (Though neutral spirit is sometimes used in blended American whiskey - avoid at all costs!).
The Flavoring Whiskey - This is generally distilled to lower proofs so it is fuller and richer. Rye is usually the primary grain in flavoring whiskys which is how Canadian whisky’s traditional rye component is typically incorporated (more below). Though some flavoring whiskys are corn-based and more bourbon-like. Flavoring whiskies are generally used in smaller quantities in a blend, but there are no regulations on ratios. Some blends carry a large proportion of flavoring whisky.
The prevalence of blends is sometimes pointed to as a mark of inferiority. But that’s more of a misunderstanding of the style. Because of how it’s made Canadian whiskey must be categorized in the United States as blends. No matter how rich and flavorful they are. This is an example where perception of a terms on a bottle being misleading to a consumer.
Like scotch and Irish whiskey, aging guidelines for Canadian whiskey are broad. It must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak barrels, but there are no further specifics on the type of barrel that must be used. Ex-bourbon barrels are often used, particularly for base whiskys. Some flavoring whiskys will use new barrels. As always, the prevalence of used barrels imparts a less aggressive oak character, compared to American bourbon and rye, which use new barrels, more about this on the Barrel Maturation page. Typically cheaper Canadian whisky brands will not be much older than 3 years, while the higher-end bottlings can go to 8 years and well above.
In a feature that's unique to Canadian whiskey, a small amount of “flavoring,” may be added to the blend. 9.09% to be exact, or 1 part for every 10 parts. This flavoring can be pretty much anything with alcohol, such as bourbon, fruit brandy, wine or sherry, so long as the final product "possess[es] the aroma, taste, and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky."
This is often pointed to as a sign of Canadian whisky's lower standards, and thus, quality. It is indeed true that flavoring is sometimes added as a way to cut corners and stretch out a whisky. But other timers it is employed as an opportunity to add something new and interesting. I find sherry in particular to be a welcome addition.
Also, keep in mind that tequila and Cognac also allow flavoring, and many scotches and rums routinely use coloring. It's all about how good the juice tastes.
History of Canadian Whisky
Canadian whiskey follows a timeline similar to American whiskey. Though many early Canadian distillers were from England, whereas Scottish, Irish and German immigrants were the first whiskey-makers in the United States. So Canadian whiskey was a little closer to English gin, lighter and mellower, and not as robust and spicy as the Americans. They also used quite a bit of rye, which was abundant because it fared better with the colder winters up north (that's another reason I like rye, it's stubborn and doesn't quit).
Towards the end of the 19th century Canada began to make blended whisky, in the fashion of the Scots who were having success eroding the Irish whiskey market with their own blends scotch at that time. This lighter expression would go on to become the hallmark style of Canadian whisky.
While the Canadian whiskey was continuing to grow at the turn of the 20th century, it was Prohibition that blew the doors open. Once American whiskey was illegal, sales for Canadian jumped 400 percent. Fourteen years later when prohibition was repealed, tastes had largely shifted towards this lighter blended whiskey, giving Canada a major foothold in the market that they still enjoy today, to some extent anyway.
In the last 20 years as tastes have begun to swing back to full flavored straight American bourbons and ryes, Canadian whisky has begun to shift as well. In the next decade few years I imagine there will be a whole lot more to this story.