One of the weird things about being Canadian is that, with the exception of the Tragically Hip and Nardwuar the Human Serviette, you usually have to find stardom in the United States to be appreciated at home.
The liquor nerds of the Great White North often don’t recognize what a treasure they have in Canadian whisky. We stop at American bourbons and Scotch and Irish whiskies when it’s time to restock the home bar.
Unless you have an endless thirst for classic Manhattans, it’s hard to resist the pull of Jim Beam and Johnnie Walker. But interestingly, that’s not the case across the line.
Ontario-based Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries: The Portable Expert to Over 200 Distilleries and the Spirits They Make (From Absinthe to Whisky, and Everything in Between).
He’s wonderfully informative as he talks by phone about Canadian whiskies and the way they are deeply loved down south. And he suggests there’s a reason why mega-brands like Jack Daniel’s tend to get the spotlight on this side of the 49th.
“I think a lot of that is because of marketing,” he opines. “People have done a very good job of convincing consumers that single-malt Scotch is the best. People are doing a good job, especially in the States, convincing consumers that bourbon is the best. But Canadian whisky has been tremendously popular in the United States since the American Civil War. And until 2010, it was the best-selling whisky style—better than Irish, better than Scotch, better than bourbon or any American whisky. Even though bourbon caught up in 2010, Canadian whisky is still hugely popular.”
The origins of whisky in the U.S. and Canada are decidedly different. In the States, whisky production started out on a micro level, just like in Europe, with a single person often overseeing an operation.
“We didn’t start out with these one-person distilleries,” de Kergommeaux says. “Obviously, there were always people making moonshine, just like there is today. But a lot of Canada’s distilleries were big, well-financed millers who made whisky with leftover wheat. By the time people came to Canada, whisky production was already being industrialized in Europe and America. So people saw that it was worth investing in these big operations.”
Today, as with bourbon, most Canadian whisky is made from a base of corn, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning. Distillers established themselves in Ontario, which was a major wheat belt at the time.
“Some German and Dutch immigrants remembered that whisky was made from rye back in Europe, so they’d say, ‘Why don’t you add a little more rye to make it more flavourful?’ ” de Kergommeaux notes. “So they did. And then people would come to the mill and say, ‘We want the rye stuff, we don’t want the common wheat whisky. That’s how it came to be known as rye.”
The terms Canadian whisky and rye are interchangeable. As for what you’re getting when you opt for Canadian Club, Forty Creek, or Crown Royal, there are three touchstones to keep in mind, de Kergommeaux says.
“Canadian whisky starts sweet with caramel flavours that come from the oak barrels,” he says. “Then it’s spicy and peppery in the middle, and finishes bitter, almost like a grapefruit pith, which kind of refreshes your palate.”
He notes that barrels used for making Canadian whisky have often been previously used to make bourbon or other spirits. The heavy tannins, vanilla, and caramel notes imparted to bourbon from fresh unused oak have therefore been washed out.
“That’s why Canadian whisky is a little more elegant, and a little more subtle than bourbon,” de Kergommeaux says.
When Canadian farmers started growing corn in the 1950s that was developed for our climate, production shifted away from wheat. As for the distilling process, used oak will give a Canadian whisky some of the same flavours as rye grain.
“Most Canadian whisky is made from corn, with a small amount of rye added for flavouring. But in Canada, rye means ‘whisky’, so you can have rye whisky that has zero rye-grain content.”
Whisky production is also no longer exclusively a big business, with micro-distillers popping up across the country.
“We’ve always had fabulous whisky up here, but most Canadian are too cheap to buy the good stuff,” de Kergommeaux says with a laugh. “It’s only in the last 10 years or so that people have really started to take notice up here in Canada. Canadians don’t always appreciate how great our whisky is, but it’s getting better.”
Here, from The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries, which you can buy here, is a drink you can make with Canadian whisky.
Black Heart Manhattan
Handful of ice cubes
1 oz Prospector rye whisky
½ oz Odd Society salal gin (or a sloe-gin substitute)
½ oz sweet Spanish vermouth (such as Miró)
½ oz unsweetened 100-percent cherry juice
1 barspoon Fernet-Branca
Pinch of activated charcoal powder
1 lemon peel
1 brandied cherry, for garnish
In a mixing glass, combine ice and all of the ingredients except the lemon and cherry, and stir. Strain into a coupe glass without ice.
Express the lemon peel by twisting it over the cocktail to release some zest and then rubbing it on the rim of the glass. Toss the peel. Garnish with the brandied cherry.