The dominance, popularity, and status of Canadian whisky in the U.S. results from two factors: The Prohibition and the taste. Our country’s ill-conceived alcohol ban not only devastated our national distilling, brewing, and wine-making industries, it also created organized crime as we think of it. U.S. beer-brewing bounced back; California wine bounced back; and Kentucky’s bourbon industry bounced back, in a big way. But decent quality non-bourbon American whiskey was almost unheard of after the demise of Prohibition; the recent resurgence of U.S.-based rye whiskey and other distilling movements are the long-awaited bounce back from their longtime absence.
It was said that, if you wanted a stiff drink during the ban (which started just over 100 years ago, January 1920), it wasn’t a big deal to find one. There was a good bit of homemade stuff. But mostly if you were served a bottle in, say, the Cotton Club, that bottle would have been from Canada. We acquired a taste for it. So for at least two generations or so, with some exceptions, blended Canadian-made brown stuff WAS whisky.
But let’s not ignore the taste.
While certainly not always the case, Canadian whisky’s unique character has traditionally derived from the fact that it is a blended spirit, mixed after distilling from separate individual grains as opposed to other traditions that lean towards a single, multi-grain fermentation, or mash bill. And while many might consider blended whisky inferior to whisky produced via a traditional single mash of multiple grains, they’d be making a mistake.
Canada’s whisky distilling industry started almost as an after-thought. Unused bulk grain heading towards spoilage was brewed up locally by grist mills for sale in the 18th century. Canada’s coastal Atlantic trading location and relationship with England led to its larger distilling efforts being focused on rum, in fact. In 1801, John Molson (a name that’s likely familiar to you) started the first full-on commercial whisky distillery in Montreal.
Regulations hit, but only minimally, and today Canadian whisky must be mashed, distilled, and aged (for no less than 3 years, in wood barrels) in Canada; contain no less than 40% ABV; and can contain additives like caramel and flavoring. That’s a pretty generous amount of leeway.
The tongue-appeal of Canadian whisky is a recognizable smoothness and lightness relying on the blender’s art. But Canada fell hard for rye grain, and its more sophisticated, spicy flavors also help define the spirit’s DNA. In fact, in Canada, the terms “rye” and “Canadian whisky” are interchangeable, even if the end-product only contains a small amount of rye in the mix. There have always been, and continue to be, artisan distillers in Canada who produce unblended single-malts from a traditional mashbill (British Columbia’s award-winning Shelter Point is a fine example and, while it is bottled in Vermont, the popular Whistlepig straight rye product is distilled and blended in Canada), but the best way to delve into what creates Canadian whisky’s somewhat wacky world of its own is to take a look at two of its most notable and legendary brands.
As a young man, I had quite a collection of purple velvet bags left over from bottles of what is the U.S.’s best-selling Canadian whiskey. Crown Royal is a blended spirit (with some exceptions in the line), with a majority of corn distillates, along with rye and barley. There are special editions that mix up the core recipe, as well as occasional unblended and flavored products. But I recently revisited my youthful preference for the standard bottling and, damn, it is still good. Smooth, flavorful and deserving of a neat sipped shot or over some rocks. Crown Royal was created by Seagram’s Samuel Bronfman in 1939 and is currently distilled in Manitoba, blended in Ontario, and owned by the giant liquor group Diageo.
This quaff was created by distiller Hiram Walker and Sons, which, in point of fact, started operations in Detroit, MI, before crossing the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, when Prohibition started. When it was made in the U.S., it was originally called Walker’s Club Whisky (longer barrel aging made it popular in gentlemen’s drinking “clubs”).
Other American distillers, in an attempt to hobble the spirit’s popularity, petitioned that Walker needed to add the label Canadian to his product, since it was a “Canadian” style whiskey. Ultimately, this mandate backfired, but “Canadian” was incorporated into the brand name itself, and it has had much success. After the move to Ontario, CC became a pure and official Canadian whiskey that, owing to its proximity to bootlegger extraordinaire Al Capone in Chicago, also kind of became the official hooch of Prohibition. Today, Canadian Club’s blends and a very good 100% straight rye product, are produced by the Beam Suntory group in the historic Hiram Walker facility in Ontario.