Canadian Whisky is one of those things that as I get older, I crave less and less, but has Canadian Whisky turned a corner? Today, I will delve into Canadian Whisky and why it’s in desperate need of an image makeover.
Canadian Whisky making has a relatively short but colourful history. Though Canadian distilleries operated before the 1920’s it wasn’t until American Prohibition that they really took off. Canadian whisky quickly became a welcomed commodity to an increasingly thirsty and wary American public. During prohibition there was major problems with poison alcohol being sold, because Canadian hooch was being poured into the country American choose the normally safer product. The prohibition years allowed for Canadian Whisky producers to gain a major foothold into the U.S. Market, and Hiram Walker’s Canadian Club Whisky was the undisputed champion of the era. His ability to illegally export his whisky*
Canadian Whisky, is generally called, “Rye whisky” because of the predominate grain used in the spirit making process, but Canada had a dirty secret that went on for years. The vast majority of Canadian Whiskies have so little rye in them that in most other countries they would not be able to put that word on their label.
This is the problem we face today, Canadian Whisky has very few real set of rules that govern it’s production, like Bourbon or Scotch whisky. This lack of rules makes for bland, mass produced whiskies which are better mixed with copious amounts of coke and ginger ale. If you buy Crown Royal you are getting spirit from corn, sugar beet, wheat, barley and if you are really lucky rye. The whisky is then aged for three years in oak barrels that are not regulated. Are they new oak? Are they refill? What is the char level? None of these things are regulated so a producer is free to take every short-cut known to man.
Through the conglomeration, of the liquor business there has been a bastardization of the quality of Canadian Whisky. The Crown Royal** brand has changed hands twice in the past 30 years and once the production was purchased by Diageo the quality of Crown Royal dropped through the floor. Here is a dagger to the hearts of the Crown Royal fans, Crown Royal sucks are you are being ripped off every time you buy the junk. If you buy XR or any of the hilariously overpriced Crown Royal special edition whiskies that cost more than great single malt scotches you have been duped, you have purchased the most overpriced whisky on the market. Sorry…
But there is hope for the Canadian Whisky game. We have some trail blazers who have gone back to traditional whisky making practices and in turn have produced some great products. Here is a few of my favourites.
Alberta Premium is owned by Whisky giants Beam Global***, but it seems they have not fallen into the trappings of some of the other large companies. Alberta Premium is one of the only Canadian Whiskies that actually uses 100% Rye grain. It’s spicy, it’s dry, it offers a solid line-up of age statements and finishes and it’s really well priced. During my time in Alberta I got my hands on the 18 and 21 year old versions of Alberta Premium which cost between 28-40 dollars and those whiskies are absolutely dynamite. They have also released a whisky called Dark Horse which is a hybrid of pot stilled rye whisky and bourbon style corn whisky, aged in heavily charred american oak barrels. It’s a really round sweet drink with lots of complexity.
Forty Creek Whisky is the brain child of John K. Hall, who has created one of the fastest growing, most respected canadian whiskies on the market with the base level Barrel Select version of Forty Creek. Produced out of Grimsby, Ontario, Forty Creek has a reputation for being a sweeter whisky, which is totally founded. But this sweet flavour profile also comes with huge complexity and finesse. Hall has also turned heads with his seemingly never ending line of special edition batch distilled whiskies. Whether it’s their bourbon influenced double barrel, the incredibly sweet yet satisfying, limited edition Port Wood Reserve****, or the upcoming Heart of Gold, Forty Creek takes the flavours of the Niagara Region and infuses them into their whiskies not with cheap tricks but with whisky making knowhow.
Another distillery out of the Niagara Region is Dillon’s. Opening their doors just last year Dillon’s actually doesn’t produce whisky yet. They do produced an un-oaked rye that I will go out on a limb in saying, will be one of the next great Canadian whiskies once it spends some time in oak. Dillon’s batch distills everything in copper and produces a white rye, a grape spirit based vodka and a amazingly fragrant botanical infused gin, along with a whole line of house made bitters and tonic. Dillon’s is the future for Canadian whisky, and that future is a whole lot brighter than the past.
*Geographically Windsor, Ontario was perfect for this. A large mostly undefended boarder leading to the industrial capital of the United States who could easily distribute Canadian Club all over the country. The Windsor area became one of the most popular places to do business with the likes of The Purple Gang and Al Capone when it came to illegal liquor.
**My Uncle Ron was the blender at the Amherstburg, Ontario Crown Royal plant for 30 years. When Diageo took over the brand they slowly cut 350 jobs and turned the Amherstburg production plant into a bottling operation. He noted that Crown Royal had gone down hill in a big way and later in his life he drank Forty Creek whisky because he enjoyed it more than Crown Royal. That is good enough for me not to pick up another bottle of that swill.
***As is Canadian Club.
**** Lot 60 not Lot 61 for your whiskey geeks out there.