By: Tod Stewart
Quiz for distillers: Legally speaking, what percentage of rye grain needs to go into the mash bill of a Canadian “rye” whisky? C’mon, don’t be shy…take a guess? If you are a distiller of rye whisky in the United States, at least 51 percent of your bill better be rye. So, in Canada, where “rye whisky” is the whisky, it’s gotta be at least that, right? Probably way more. Like, even 100 percent. Right? The answer is: None. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Bupkis.
A Canadian whisky can call itself “rye” without having even passed close to the rye fields of western Canada. This likely drives many Canadian whisky aficionados (not to mention craft whisky distillers) bonkers. As it should. It’s akin to discovering your tuna sub sandwich actually contains very little – if any – tuna. (Sorry, have you heard this already?) “So what,” you ask, “is the deal?”
Well, the deal is a rather simple one. Canadian whisky was originally largely wheat-based. At some point (possibly a couple of hundred years ago), it was discovered that rye had more to offer in terms of character and flavor, and gradually more and more rye found its way into the mash mix. Although the amount of rye rarely exceeded about 10 percent (if that), even small amounts yielded a tastier spirit. Even as the shift from wheat as the main grain moved to corn, the term “rye whisky” became synonymous with “Canadian whisky.” This is why you can, legally, have a Canadian rye whisky made from 100 percent corn. To an extent, “rye whisky” has come to denote more of a category than an accurate reflection of pedigree.
The fact that there isn’t more consternation over this situation reflects the “if it ain’t broke, don’t bother fixing it” attitude that may have, at some point, permeated the Canadian whisky industry.
This is indeed a bizarre situation, but in a way, it’s not surprising. The Canadian whisky industry – for the past who-knows-how-long – had chugged along more or less under the radar of whisky drinkers around the world. This isn’t to say Canadian whisky hasn’t always been popular domestically and internationally. There are legions of stories (some probably accurate) of the flourishing underground (or in some cases, underwater) whisky trade between Canada and the Prohibition-era United States, a trade that hasn’t really ebbed since things became legal. According to the Distillers Council of the US, some 18.69 million nine-liter cases worth around $2.2 billion went south in 2020. Canada also exports its whisky to over 160 countries globally. Yet, like all things Canadian in general, Canadian whisky distillers kept a low profile and seemed content to maintain the status quo. There were, of course, a few exceptions.
About 20 years ago (give or take), Corby distillery (one of the “big boys” of the Canadian distillery scene) launched a trio of innovative whiskies under the Canadian Whisky Guild banner. These included Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek and Lot 40. They were beautifully packaged, connoisseur-level ryes. And they turned out to be spectacular flops. This had nothing to do with the quality of the products and everything to do with consumers who just weren’t willing to take a chance on what could only be seen as radical new products. All three disappeared from provincial liquor board shelves shortly after being placed there. Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Lot 40 is now consistently available and consistently held in high esteem by whisky experts. Why did this shift happen?
In hopes of getting an answer, I tracked down Davin De Kergommeaux (not always an easy task). De Kergommeaux is – among other things – the author of a few books, one being Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert (first and second editions) and generally regarded as the authority on Canadian whisky. He sees it as a spinoff of the renewed interest in brown spirits (don’t ask where that interest came from; maybe the blandness of vodka was starting to bore people).
“As connoisseurs got to know scotch and bourbon, they began to look elsewhere for new experiences,” De Kergommeaux maintains. “Japan was first off the mark with really great whiskies, and now India, Taiwan and others have followed. As connoisseurs began to discover Canadian whisky, the Canadian distillers leaped in with both feet, turning out one new high-end whisky after another. [Canada is now] a new treasure trove for the refined palate.”
“We also have to acknowledge the Forty Creek factor. John K. Hall and his Forty Creek whiskies have become known around the world for their consistently high quality. In just a decade, Hall [became] the face of Canadian whisky worldwide, and connoisseurs globally now devise the most ingenious means to get bottles of his whisky. They also began to wonder, ‘If Forty Creek is so great, is there more where this came from?’ and I can only respond, ‘Yes, most certainly.’”
Forty Creek Distillery is but one of the many micro- to mid-sized distilleries that have sprung up across Canada since the early 1990s. Today there are some 300 craft operations scattered among the provinces and territories. And while this has certainly expanded the variety of Canadian whiskies being produced, finding them is a bit of an issue.
Most micro-distilleries have micro-outputs (relatively speaking). Also, the amount of excise levied on Canadian distillers by the federal government (or, in the words of Spirits Canada – essentially an industry lobby group – the “antiquated and jobs killing alcohol excise duty structure”) makes for a less-than-level playing field when it comes to competing with imported spirits. In terms of Canadian whisky, the “big eight” distillers account for the bulk (95 percent or so) of total production.
That being said, the consumer and critical accolades bestowed on some of Canada’s smaller distillers have certainly proved to the larger players that resting on their laurels is not a particularly effective growth strategy. In a short period of time, a few of Canada’s biggest whisky names have released some truly exceptional drams.
A few years back, the venerable Crown Royal brand released the Crown Royal Northern Harvest
Rye. It created something of a sensation when Jim Murray awarded its Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year 2016. Upon its release, I saw a sight I’d never seen before (and likely won’t ever again): average Canadian consumers walking out of provincial liquor stores with full cases of Canadian whisky. Trucks with shipments destined for south-of-the-border sales were diverted back home in an attempt to keep up with domestic demand. The same expression took home Murray’s Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“I’m surprised not to hear more about Canadian Club because they also have some wonderful whiskies,” says De Kergommeaux, referencing another iconic Canadian brand. “The Chronicles range, of course, and also the 100 percent rye, which is the fruitiest all-rye whisky I have tasted anywhere.” (The Chronicles range he refers to are exceptionally mature – 41, 42, 43 and 44-year-old, limited-release expressions that are largely corn-based. I’ve had the pleasure of tasting every release and can attest to their astonishing complexity.)
Calgary-based Alberta Distillers Limited is another “big gun” that has made some unique inroads over the course of its history. It specializes (and always has) in 100 percent rye whiskies, fermented using proprietary house-cultivated enzymes and distilled in Canada’s largest pot still. Its flagship Alberta Premium brand has always been the flag-bearer for 100 percent Canadian rye. More recently, the brand’s limited age-dated expressions (20, 25, 30, and 40-year-old) and cask strength releases have taken rye whisky to a new level.
Though I haven’t tried a huge range of Canadian micro-distilled whiskies, I can say that the ones I have – including those from Okanagan Spirits in British Columbia, Kinsip, Dillons and the aforementioned Forty Creek in Ontario – have been first-rate. The Glenora Distillery on the east coast (perhaps the original Canadian micro-distillery) breaks with Canadian tradition, crafting its whiskies from malted barley. The result is a sort of unique Canadian/Scottish hybrid, which may sound a bit odd…until you try, say, its Glen Breton Rare 19-Year-Old.
Fantastic stuff. (Okanagan Spirits also produces a single malt under its Laird of Fintry label – definitely worth checking out if you can find it.)
What I’ve talked about here over the past 1,400 or so words barely speaks to the exciting new developments emerging on the Canadian whisky scene. When I asked De Kergommeaux what new projects in the industry particularly caught his attention, he provided me with a list long enough to cause me severe word count overage if I were to print it. Suffice to say, if the Canadian whisky sector has been a bit of a sleeping giant for the past little while, it is now wide awake…and hungrily looking to expand its reach. Stay tuned for more on Canadian whisky – and Canadian distillers in general – in upcoming editions of Beverage Master Magazine.