Canadian Whisky, defined

by Davin de Kergommeaux

Say the word whisky and the first thing that springs to mind is single malt.

But Canadian whisky, too, is one of the most sought-after spirits in North America. The evidence? Nine Canadian distilleries export a total of more than half a billion dollars worth of whisky each year. And in America, where nearly 85 per cent of all Canadian whisky is consumed, more Canadian whisky is sold than all the single malt and blended Scotch combined.

So how did Canada come to have its own style of whisky?

Early settlers brought tiny stills with them from their European homelands. These settlers were not just the Scots and Irish, as many assume. More commonly, it was the Dutch, German and English immigrants who, rather than let their excess grain go to waste, chose to distill it into whisky to avoid loss and spoilage. Dutch and German settlers were the first to grow rye grain in the rocky soils of just-cleared land, and, before long, Canadian-made whisky had earned the name rye. Anyone who has eaten rye bread knows its fruity spiciness, and it’s these same flavours that define Canadian whisky.

And the Scots? Yes, their Scottish-style whisky was certainly part of the early Canadian whisky story, but their malt whisky soon fell from favour, replaced by spicy rye, which became all the rage.

Real Scotch can only be made in Scotland and today we know only two varieties. Blends comprise 90 per cent of the Scotch market; Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal are perhaps the best known. But it is single malts – those smoky, perfumed Islay Bowmores, fruity Speyside Macallans and grassy, austere Lowland Auchentoshans – that capture the imagination of whisky aficionados.

Each single malt is made in a single distillery where the only permitted grain is malted barley. The malts are distilled in onion- shaped copper stills then aged in oak barrels. The single malts that we buy, though, are actually mixtures of malt whisky. They are all from the same distillery, yes, but from many different barrels.

Until recently, mixing malt whiskies together was called vatting, but according to the Scotch Whisky Association, that practice is now known as blending. It’s a bit confusing because the most typical style of Scotch whisky is called blended Scotch. Traditionally, blended Scotch is a mixture of many strongly flavoured single malts and young, less flavourful grain whisky made primarily from wheat and corn.

Younger whiskies are usually less tasty than older ones since most of a whisky’s flavour comes from the oak barrels it matures in. Knowing this, whisky makers use different kinds of barrels to achieve different flavours, then vat (oops! I mean blend) these different whiskies together into single malts or blends.

Sometimes, during blending, a few drops of bitter spirit caramel are added. This deepens the colour. To avoid haziness, fatty acids can be removed by chilling the whisky and filtering it. Some traditionalists protest that this changes the flavour, though most experts disagree. Personal choice perhaps?

Scotland is not alone in making single malt whisky. Arguably, Japanese single malts, such as Karuizawa and Yamazaki are as good as even the best single malt Scotches. That said, there are still many who have yet to discover one of the world’s finest single malts, Glen Breton, which is made right here in Canada.

We tend to associate Canadian whisky with well-established names such as Black Velvet, Crown Royal and Canadian Club. And so we should. Each year in Alberta over 100 tanker trucks laden with Black Velvet whisky leave the Lethbridge distillery, bound for bottling plants in the United States. Like most Canadian whisky, Black Velvet is made by blending a base whisky distilled from corn with rich flavouring whiskies made from corn and rye.

Fans of Mad Men, the AMC television series, and HBO’s Boardwalk Empire know Canadian Club well. Bottles of it are highly visible in episode after episode. Canadian Club had a strong market in the U.S. long even before the likes of Nucky Thomson used it to slake Prohibition-induced thirst. Canadian whisky’s major market has been the United States ever since the American Civil War (1861- 1865) disrupted American whisky distilling – more than 50 years before Prohibition.

Crown Royal is another one of North America’s favourite whiskies. Hillary Clinton loves Crown Royal. A blend of up to 50 different whiskies, Crown Royal’s signature is its sour-mash Bourbon flavours. A more robust version called Crown Royal Black is rich in vanilla and spice while retaining the signature Bourbon notes of the original. Officially, it is only available in the U.S., but a few sought after bottles of Crown Royal Black have recently been spotted on Alberta liquor store shelves.

The most popular whisky in the world, though, is good ol’ Jack Daniels, a Tennessee Whiskey. But this is really a form of Bourbon which has been distilled then filtered through a long column of sugar-maple charcoal somewhere in Tennessee.

By law, Bourbon is made from at least 51 per cent – but no more than 80 per cent – corn and aged for at least two years in brand new oak barrels. What gives Bourbon its scrumptious, sweet, vanilla taste are the flavours extracted from this new oak.

Yes, the world of whisky is a wide, sometimes wild one, and some of its most interesting specimens are made right here in Canada. Connoisseurs have long known that. Now here’s your opportunity to say that you do, too. Why not taste some and see.

International whisky judge Davin de Kergommeaux likes his whisk(e)y neat.