Despite the popularity of Canadian whisky (Yes, those pesky neighbors to the north drop the “e”.) in the United States, most of us don’t give it much thought. In fact, I suspect many of us are unaware that the best-selling Canadian whisky in the U.S., Crown Royal, is distilled in Canada. But, there it is right on the label. Americans purchased roughly 85 million .750 liter bottles of Crown Royal in 2019.
Until the surge in bourbon sales earlier in this century, Canadian whisky was actually the best-selling whisk(e)y style in the U.S. It had enjoyed that distinction since the 1860s. Not a bad run for liquor with such a low profile, eh?
Rules? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Rules.
Unlike bourbon, single-malt scotch and tequila, Canadian whisky has few rules. The most obvious one is that the spirit must be distilled in Canada. It must also age in Canada for a minimum of three years in wood barrels. Any wood will do. New, used, charred or not charred, anything goes. It must be bottled at no less than 40-percent ABV or 80 proof. It’s perfectly okay to add coloring or flavoring. What?
Like bourbon, the primary grains forming the backbone of Canadian whisky are corn, rye, wheat and malted barley. There’s a big twist, however. Unlike bourbon, in which the grains are mixed into a mash then distilled and aged together, for Canadian whisky, each grain is distilled and often aged separately then blended together to arrive at the final product.
This sort of wild-west approach allows Canadian whisky makers a lot of latitude, resulting in a much more diverse array of whiskeys within the Canadian whisky family. There are bourbon styles, rye styles and single malt styles, as well as styles that defy pigeonholing.
If you now have a hankering for Canadian whisky, but want something other than the more familiar Canadian Club and Crown Royal, here are three of my favorites. Cheers! (Yep, Canadians use it, too.)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain Whisky
This blended whisky has been around since 1832; although, ownership has switched hands more than once. Currently it’s distilled by Hiram Walker & Sons in Ontario. Comprised of corn, rye barley and wheat, it is a hefty (for Canadian whisky) 90 proof. All four grains are distilled and aged separately using new oak barrels and used bourbon barrels. Spicy is the predominate flavor with hints of cinnamon and ginger. The mouthfeel is big with a finish that’s long and dry. The cinnamon hangs on for a while. Price: $40-$50
Pike Creek 10 Year Old Whisky
Corby Distillers in Pike Creek, Ontario is rather secretive in what exactly comprises its Pike Creek 10 Year Old Whisky. Rye seems to play a big part, but otherwise, we are left to guess what other grains might be in the blend. It is aged 10 years, at least some of that time is in rum barrels. In fact, the dominate flavor of this whisky is rum. I’m sort of partial to that. Angel’s Envy Rye is my favorite rye and it’s finished in rum barrels. Rye also takes front-row seat in Pike Creek’s flavor profile that includes spice, caramel and vanilla. It’s 84 proof. Price: $30-$40
Legacy Small Batch Blended Canadian Whisky
You may well call, “foul” for this pick, but I want to stress that the juice is distilled and aged in Canada before being shipped to Buffalo Trace Distillery in Kentucky for bottling. Hey, they can’t do that and call it Canadian Whisky, can they? Yes they can. Few rules, remember? But, that’s not even the best part. It’s unavailable for purchase in Canada. You read that correctly: It’s not sold in Canada. And, there you have most of the available information on this 80-proof spirit. We don’t know what’s in it, exactly where it is distilled or an exact age. On the tongue it has a spicy undertone with floral and melon notes. Not particularly complex it’s smooth enough for sipping. And, it’s extremely affordable. Price: $22-$25
Russ is a long-time bourbon and craft-beer drinker who also produces the BEER2WHISKEY channel on YouTube.