Canadian Whisky

Why you should put these spirits distilled north of the border on your must-try list

BY WAYNE CURTIS — Winter 2018

n Victoria, British Columbia, last January, in a drab hotel function room overlooking the city’s picturesque harbor, executives and distillers collected various awards for the year’s best Canadian whiskies. The presentation, held during the annual Victoria Whisky Festival, was in some ways unexceptional — men in dark suits and women in nice dresses applauding, recipients offering murmured expressions of gratitude, the dutiful holding awards aloft for cameras. Yet just underneath the surface, one could sense an unexpected, possibly un-Canadian frisson of excitement, for a whole lot has changed since these awards debuted in 2010.

Canadian whisky has long been a sort of wallflower behemoth — omnipresent but unremarkable. It quietly outsold bourbon until recently, when American whiskey surged. Still, stalwarts such as Canadian Club, Canadian Mist, and Crown Royal can be found on virtually every backbar in North America. In years past, many whiskey aficionados made a habit of ignoring Canadian whisky, much as connoisseurs of wagyu steak avoid down-market, strip-mall steakhouses. They considered the whisky much like Canadians themselves — inoffensive, reliable, polite, and uninterested in attracting much attention to itself.

But then things started to change. In 2015, Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible — a respected source on all things whiskey — shook up the whiskey world when it named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the year’s top whisky, beating out many highly regarded bourbons, Scotches, and Irish whiskeys. A rumble of other deep-seated changes has followed: A new crop of Canadian microdistillers blossomed, taking Canadian whisky in new directions and redefining it for a younger generation. Established distillers are hand-selecting and bottling exceptional casks rather than blending everything into a commodity whisky. Plus, a rise in transparency among American whiskey bottlers revealed one particularly noteworthy revelation: One of the most heralded new whiskeys — WhistlePig, a rye whisky bottled in Vermont — was originally distilled in Alberta.

All this has coalesced into a new curiosity about what Canadian distillers are up to — and in response, those distillers are stepping up their game.

Several years ago, a Washington Post spirits writer made a disparaging reference to Canadian whisky as “brown vodka,” throwing a bit of shade that still causes many Canadians to cringe. But the nickname wasn’t entirely without merit. To understand why, it helps to discern exactly what Canadian whisky is and how it got that way.

Canadian whisky took root in 1769 — about the same time the American bourbon and rye industries began to sprout and grow. But Canadian distillers followed their own path when it came to whisky-making processes. While Americans combined different proportions of grains into a vat and fermented them at once — say, equal parts of corn, barley, and rye — the Canadians preferred to make three different whiskies, one from each type of grain, and then aged and blended them much later to create the flavor they desired.

In theory, both the American and Canadian approaches could yield similar-tasting whiskeys, and for a couple of centuries they were likely more similar than not. But over time, tastes diverged and distillation technology evolved. More neutral tasting whisky — distilled at a higher proof in modern stills, which could strip out many of the intricate flavors — started to dominate the Canadian blend. To this distillers added a “flavoring whisky” — typically a more robust liquor made of a rye grain, which boasts lots of spiciness.

Then the Canadian whisky industry took an interesting sideways step in the 1950s, with a regulatory exception that has been both boon and bane. That’s when the Canadians allowed one part of “other ingredients” to be added to 10 parts of whisky — meaning that 9.09 percent of a bottle’s ingredients could be something other than whisky distilled from grains. With this exception, the Canadians could better compete with blended American whiskey, which can contain as much as 80 percent industrial beverage ethanol.

Canadian distillers approached this loophole creatively. Wine and other mature spirits went into the whisky, smoothing it out, giving it appealing nuances, and generally making it more attractive to people who don’t much like whiskey. While this expanded the market, the new-style whisky became unmoored from its traditional flavor profile, putting “brown vodka” in sight.

In the past decade or two, serious sippers worldwide have rediscovered and embraced heritage whiskeys, and have been attracted especially to robust bourbons and traditional ryes that overflow with outsize flavors and potent aromas. This newly demanding crowd largely dismissed Canadian whisky, which had evolved into a lighter, less aggressive sip. It had become the Maxwell House coffee in a Starbucks world. It was ready for reinvention.

Shelter Point Distillery’s impressive operation resides on a dairy farm.

Canada hasn’t embraced craft distilling with the same speed and fervor as its counterparts south of the border. But each time America looks in the rearview mirror it now sees Canada gaining ground, possibly with the thought to overtake. To see how Canadians are again embracing whisky, you’d do well to venture to two remote islands at the opposite ends of the country. A long and scenic drive north of Victoria, far up Vancouver Island, brings you to Shelter Point Distillery. It’s set on a sprawling dairy farm, with 7,000 feet of waterfront and striking mountain views. Proprietor Patrick Evans grew up on the island and was looking for ways to add value to the region’s agriculture. Toward that end, he installed two impressive copper stills to produce a single malt whisky from barley grown on the distillery’s farm.

Evans started planning about a decade ago, but fine whisky takes time — malted whisky generally is exceedingly unhappy if it emerges from the barrel in less than three years. Shelter Point’s single malt is only now finding its way to store shelves, often in limited bottlings.

Some 4,000 miles to the east, on Nova Scotia’s rugged Cape Breton Island, you’ll find Canada’s other premier single malt whisky maker — Glenora Distillery. Set in a vale surrounded by craggy bluffs, it’s reminiscent of a Scottish distillery, right down to the whitewashed main building on a pond. (The premises include a hotel and guest cottages, too.) Production started in 1990, and nearly a decade later, Glenora finally released its first Glen Breton Rare — a malt whisky (it can’t be called Scotch unless made in Scotland) that could stand up to comparisons with products from the homeland. Since then, the distillery has gradually released other much-desired bottlings, including a 25-year anniversary whisky that positively dances with nuanced flavors, such as black pepper and butterscotch.

Glenora Distillery on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton resembles Scottish distilleries. PHOTO BY DEAN CASAVECHIA

While upstarts such as Shelter Point and Glenora have helped draw interest to Canadian whisky — along with several other craft distillers, such as Still Waters Distillery in Ontario, which makes the highly regarded Stalk & Barrel whisky line — the large legacy distilleries are also striving to catch up with the premium market.

When WhistlePig’s 10-year-old rye whisky first arrived in the American market a few years ago, people sat up and took note of its complexity and quality — and for a time thought it an American-made whiskey. It wasn’t. It had been sourced in Alberta, where it had been distilled and aged for use as a “flavoring whisky” in blended Canadian whiskies. Distillery consultant Dave Pickerell tasted
some, liked what he tasted, and later paired up with entrepreneur Raj Bhakta to buy, import, and bottle it. It became a cult rye, snapped up at about $80 a bottle.

When WhistlePig’s Canadian origins became public — following some critical press from those who accused it of masquerading as a Vermont product — Bhakta came clean in a 2015 interview. This accelerated the changing perceptions of Canadian whisky. “That had huge impact,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert. “The lightbulb went off.”

Indeed, Masterson’s 10-Year Rye — another “sourced rye” made by the same Alberta distillery that produces WhistlePig — won Canadian Whisky of the Year at the Victoria festival this past year.

Seeing the shift toward premium whiskey, the major distillers of familiar products such as Canadian Club and Crown Royal have increasingly set up programs to bottle their own best-aged whisky rather than divert it all to blending vats. Crown Royal — the second-most popular whiskey in the U.S., after Jack Daniels — released its vaunted Northern Harvest Rye, garnering Jim Murray’s top award. It also has come out with a line of single-barrel releases, which vary subtly from bottle to bottle but consistently surprise connoisseurs who once wrote off Canadian whisky.

The makers of Canadian Club, part of a large global conglomerate, have also crafted new brands to appeal to premium whiskey buyers. These included Pike’s Creek, a traditional Canadian whisky aged in used rum barrels; and Lot 40, which boasts a taste profile that’s somehow both bold and refined and has been embraced by American mixologists. The same distillery also makes Wiser’s whisky, two of which — Dissertation and Double Still Rye — took home gold medals at last year’s whisky festival.

Canadians tend to have a reputation for being both friendly and generous. But, frankly, there’s evidence of some selfishness when it comes to their whisky. Many of the best Canadian whiskies aren’t exported to the U.S. and never cross the borders — at least not yet. So it might behoove you to make a trip north to scout out some of the best. Whiskies such as Gooderham & Worts Four Grain (made by Corby’s, another major producer) are restricted to sales in Canada, as are other desirable variants.

This will disappoint many — it’s an admittedly inconvenient trip to fly to and venture far up Vancouver Island. Then again, what better excuse to head off on a Canadian adventure, searching out your own private rainbow? It all depends on whether you’re a glass half full or half empty kind of person.

In my experience, those with a glass half full are always happier.

Kentucky Looks North

Buffalo Trace’s Kentucky distillery has one of the most stellar reputations among American whiskey connoisseurs — it’s the source for cult bourbon Pappy Van Winkle, along with other highly respected whiskeys, such as Buffalo Trace and Eagle Rare (both midrange products), and terrific small-batch bourbons, including Elmer T. Lee, Thomas H. Handy, and W.L. Weller.

It’s owned by a larger, New Orleans-based outfit called Sazerac Co., owner of more than a dozen spirits-related businesses. Among its newest ventures: a Montreal distillery that’s getting ready to release a line of experimental Canadian whiskies.

This is not new territory for the folks at Buffalo Trace. The Frankfort, Ky.-based distillery has long been noted for its experimental endeavors. In 2014, for instance, it built a tiny rickhouse, called Warehouse X, that holds a mere 150 barrels spread among five chambers in which it tightly controls heat, sunlight, airflow, and humidity to determine ideal aging conditions.

Sazerac purchased the Montreal distillery — earlier used to make a Dutch-style gin — six years ago and recently added a new still and upgraded other equipment. It plans to take the same anything-goes approach to bourbon as it sets about pushing the limits of traditional Canadian whisky. “Our job is to premiumize the product,” says distiller Drew Mayville, part of the team that will be overseeing Canadian operations. “You’ll be seeing a lot more flavor in terms of the flavor profile.” At press time, the new distillery was expected to be up and running by late December.

The Montreal plans are admittedly ambitious — the company has said it hopes to “reshape consumers’ expectations for how good Canadian whisky can be.” But given what Sazerac and Buffalo Trace have done with bourbon over the past decade, whiskey fans will certainly be watching what emerges. — W.C.

4 Canadian whiskies to try now

Caribou Crossing
This single-barrel whisky, which Sazerac Co. created in 2010, lacks an age statement, but has been culled from among 500,000 aging barrels, each selected for richness and quality. Expect big vanilla notes from the time spent with oak, but also spicy notes from the rye and a touch of dried citrus peel. $50/750 mL; sazerac.com

Crown Royal Hand-Selected Barrel
Crown Royal and its trademark purple bag are known to almost every whiskey drinker. This single-barrel release adds surprising complexity and depth to a familiar flavor. The flavor profile may vary slightly from bottle to bottle, as with all single-barrel releases, but in each expect big gingery notes anchored to toasted wood. $55/750 mL; crownroyal.com

Lot 40
While relatively new to the market, Lot 40 revives an early rye made decades ago by distiller Joshua Booth, a legend at Hiram Walker. It’s a broad, friendly whisky with a pure rye content, but very much tempered by time in the barrel. It’s a great introduction to the new style of Canadian whisky for someone who didn’t find much flaw with the old-style, but doesn’t object to trying something more complex. $35/750 mL; corby.ca/brands/lot40

Masterson’s 10-Year-Old Straight Rye
Masterson’s impeccably aged rye took home Whisky of the Year honors at the 2017 Canadian Whisky Festival, and one sip makes it obvious why. You’ll find the expected peppery bite that marks a straight rye, but it’s also softened with floral notes that give it a bright, buoyant sensibility. You could mix this in a highball, but why? Pour it over a cube of ice and enjoy it, slowly. $70/750 mL; mastersonsrye.com

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