When is the last time you actually drank Canadian whisky? There’s a pretty good chance it was recently, based on statistics showing just how popular Crown Royal is in America. However, many fans of bourbon and scotch rarely dip their whiskey-soaked toes into the category, but they are missing out. Yes, there are some basic, subpar blends associated with Canadian whisky that may have put a bad taste (literally) in some people’s mouths, but the same can certainly be said for any other whiskey category. So here’s a primer on what makes the whisky from our neighbor to the north worth checking out, and a few recommended bottles to try.
What Is Canadian Whisky?
As you have likely noticed, whisky is spelled without the “e” in Canada, as it is in Scotland and Japan. There are a few basic rules to know about Canadian whisky. To start, it must be aged in wood for a minimum of three years, produced in Canada, and bottled at a minimum of 40% ABV. From there it gets a bit more fluid. Canadian whisky is often referred to as “rye,” but that’s not a specific definition like it is in the US — in fact, some Canadian whisky contains no rye grain at all. This is just kind of a hold-over nickname from the old days when rye was usually a prominent component of the blend.
There are eight major distilleries in Canada, including Hiram Walker and Canadian Mist in Ontario, Gimli in Manitoba, and Alberta Distillers in, you guessed it, Alberta. But there are also smaller craft distilleries that have sprung up in recent years, although nowhere near as many as there are stateside.
The production process differs from American whiskey in some key ways. Instead of using a mash bill of different grains which are fermented and distilled together, most Canadian whisky is produced by distilling and aging individual grains separately and then blending the whiskies together before bottling (there are exceptions to this rule, however). Blending is a major part of Canadian whisky, although there are some single malts available as well. The whisky is usually aged in used casks, often ex-bourbon barrels, but can be matured in new oak or any other type as well.
Then there’s the 9.09% rule which has caused confusion among some drinkers but is really pretty simple. It means that there can be up to 9.09% of another flavoring spirit in the blend, and this spirit must be aged in oak for two years. It could be bourbon, it could be rye, it could be sherry, so it’s really sort of a rectifying process and is based on certain tax incentives distilleries might get by adding an imported spirit. Some producers utilize this rule, others do not.
How to Drink Canadian Whisky
Like any other whisky, you should drink it any damn way you please. There’s no right or wrong answer here. That being said, some whiskies are particularly suited towards mixing, while others might be better enjoyed sipped neat. But if you want to pour yourself a dram of a $12 blend, or use that $150 whisky in a cocktail, go right ahead. The main thing is to try different styles and see what you like best.
To that end, we’ve put together a list of some excellent Canadian whiskies to try now.
1. Canadian Club 100 Percent Rye
This extremely affordable rye whisky will appeal to American rye whiskey drinkers, with some notes on the palate that are familiar. While Canadian whisky is often called rye, it’s usually a blend of grains that comprises the mash bill, but not so with this whisky made from 100 percent rye grain. There is a good amount of spice and oak on the palate, but it’s tempered by notes of vanilla and caramel. Definitely try this one in a Manhattan if you pick up a bottle.
2. Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
BEST BARREL FINISH
Forty Creek is a Canadian whisky brand to check out, with a few different blends in its core lineup. One of these is the Double Barrel Reserve, a whisky that gets more of a secondary maturation period than a finish. The component whiskies – rye, barley, and corn – are each initially barrel aged before being blended together and undergoing another two-year aging period in ex-bourbon barrels. The whisky is rich and deep with notes of pepper, vanilla, butterscotch, and dried fruit.
3. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
BEST FOR COCKTAILS
This release from Crown Royal impressed a lot of whisky fans when it came out a few years ago, and drew people who might not normally be Crown Royal drinkers into the fold. This is a 90% rye whisky, with the remaining 10% undisclosed, and it’s fruity and spicy and full of vanilla notes. Ignore the (now admittedly fading) hype around this whisky, and just give it a try in your favorite cocktail like a Manhattan or Old Fashioned to see how it compares to an American rye whiskey used in the same way.
4. Lot 40
BEST FOR SIPPING
This is another 100% rye whisky from Canada, and one that you should try sipping neat, or perhaps with some ice. It’s distilled in a pot still at the Hiram Walker distillery, and aged in new oak barrels. Each batch has some whisky aged longer than the minimum of three years, bringing a depth to the palate and nose of this whisky. There’s some spice on the front, along with notes of caramel, vanilla, and some fresh fruit.
5. Gooderham & Worts
BEST FOUR GRAIN
What makes Gooderham & Worts stand out is its four grain mash bill of corn, wheat, rye and barley, and is a blend of seven individual whiskies aged in various cask types. This whisky is also produced at Hiram Walker and is blended by Don Livermore, who’s also responsible for Lot 40. This is an interesting bottle to try, and is superior to many other blends that are out there. Sip it neat or mix it up in a cocktail.
6. Pendleton Director’s Reserve
BEST AGE STATEMENT
This whisky was aged for 20 years before being bottled in Oregon and cut with glacial spring water from Mt. Hood. While this might be a lot more expensive than other bottles of Canadian whisky, it’s still much cheaper than a similarly aged scotch or bourbon (which might not be all that good anyway). Save this one for sipping, although it would work well in a cocktail if you feel like splurging.
7. WhistlePig 10
WhistlePig practically invented the premium rye whiskey market when it started years ago by sourcing 100 percent rye whiskey from Canada and finishing it in different barrel types in Vermont. The 10-year-old is the core expression, and it remains a good one. Although new releases are coming out that have been distilled in Vermont, this comes from the distillery’s aged Canadian rye whisky stock, and it’s delicious. There are also 12 and 15-year-old expressions that are barrel finished and are sourced from both Canada and Indiana, but start with this bottle to see what the brand is all about.
BEST NEW RELEASE
This bottle has been available in Canada, but it’s launching here in the US for the first time this spring (it might take a few weeks for online retailers to have it in stock). We got to taste the cask-strength version of this 100 percent rye whiskey made at Alberta Distillers over the past two years, and that high-proof whisky packed a punch. This is tamed down to 80 proof, but the reduction in ABV doesn’t mean less flavor. This whisky should be widely available and affordable, with a recommended price of 25 bucks.