For too long, Canadian whisky has gotten a bad rap. Mention the spirit to a booze aficionado and you’d likely be met with skepticism, if not outright scorn. It’s a spirit that’s been relegated to the category of “fine for mixing,” skipped over as something serviceable but forgettable.
But Canadian whisky is more than Seagram’s 7 cut with 7-Up. While bourbon, Scotch, and even whiskey from Japan have been getting all the attention over the last decade, the world of Canadian whisky has quietly evolved, becoming broader and richer over the past decade. Big-label stalwart brands have begun releasing higher-end small-batch bottles, and a host of craft distilleries have popped up to offer distinctive takes on the classic whisky formula. Canadian whisky is poised for a comeback.
“Canada has done an abysmal job of letting the world know about its connoisseur-quality whiskies,” said Davin de Kergommeaux, the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Whisky. “Most people try a few bottom-shelf Canadian mixing whiskies and then write off the whole category. We’d not think much of Scotch either if we only drank the cheap stuff. It doesn’t help that Canadian distilleries have focused on the cocktail market so its mixing whiskies are widely available and are the whiskies people most associate with Canada.”
Not to mention that the story of Canadian whisky is itself muddled in the popular information. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there about Canadian whisky and people seem quite content to repeat it uncritically,” de Kergommeaux added.
The urban legend goes that Canadian whisky first became fashionable in the United States during Prohibition, thanks to rum-running boats skipping from Windsor, Ontario to Detroit to bring in illicit alcohol. In fact, it was the American Civil War that first caused a boom in the Canadian whisky market. Once distillery operations were interrupted during the conflict, drinkers turned to Canada as a reliable supplier. Canadian Club, for instance, began operations in 1858 as “Club Whisky” because the new style of the spirit was mostly enjoyed in gentlemen’s clubs. (The brand tacked on “Canadian” to the label in 1872 when the brand began impeding on sales of American bourbon, and the U.S. government responded by requiring whiskies to label their country of origin.)
It also had a wave of popularity in the 1950s and 1960s, when blended whiskies were in vogue, a fact that hasn’t helped the spirit’s image as a fusty, outdated drink. (In Mad Men, Canadian Club is one of Don Draper’s go-to liquors, a detail that is both historically accurate and provided a much-needed image boost to the brand, shifting it from passé to vintage.)
These days, there’s much more to the Canadian whisky landscape than the big brands. In 1992, vintner John Hall started Forty Creek, a whisky that began racking up awards for its complex, fruit-tinged Forty Creek Barrel Select. He sold the brand to Campari last year, but highlighted a gap in the market for craft distilleries that others soon capitalized on. In British Columbia alone, a spate of micro-distilleries has popped up thanks in part to an act of the provincial government to reduce taxes for small-production craft liquor operations.
“Within the first year there were about five new distilleries and another seven in 2014,” said Tyler Schramm, who opened Pemberton Distillery in British Columbia in 2009 with his brother and sister-in-law. “Likely, there will be several more opening in 2015. It’s led to a much better understanding of craft spirits in the province, and a growing consumer desire for locally made spirits.” At his distillery, Schramm makes a single malt that incorporates the tradition of whisky in Scotland with the terroir of Pemberton Valley. The result is a hybrid Canadian whisky that is peated like Scotch, aged in bourbon casks, and blended with Coast Mountain water.
If that sounds far away from your definition of Canadian whisky, that’s because Canadian whisky doesn’t really have that many rules. As a style, the only real requirement of Canadian whisky is that it’s made in Canada and aged for three years in wood. Traditionally, Canadian whiskies have been blends, which added to their less-than-stellar reputation in the Unites States: American blended whisky can contain up to eight percent neutral grain spirits, making it more like whisky-flavored vodka than a true whisky. In Canada, however, the blends can’t contain neutral spirits. They’re more often spirits made from different grains and then mixed. Canadian Club, for instance, is blended from corn, rye, rye malt, and malt before being barrel-aged.
The wiggle room in the definition of what Canadian whisky can be is fueling innovation in an industry that has long been stagnant. Craft distilleries’ success has pushed bigger brands to produce varied offerings, like Buffalo Trace’s Caribou Crossing, Crown Royal Single Barrel, and Canadian Club Small Batch Sherry Cask. “We are seeing consumers who are more knowledgeable about brands, mixologists who have a strong desire for unique craft-style whiskies,” said Dan Tullio, master ambassador for Canadian Club. “Canada’s whisky makers have responded with a wealth of new higher-end whiskies.”
And as the market for richer, more interesting Canadian whisky grows, particularly in the higher-end, more distilleries will follow suit. “Canada is starting to move beyond whisky as simply a high-volume commodity,” de Kergommeaux said. “Connoisseurs are discovering Canadian whisky and telling others about it. We have always had many outstanding whiskies here in Canada; now they are taking them, if not to the world, at least to the U.S.”