Food & Drink

It’s Time to Give Canadian Whisky a Chance

Vince Talotta / getty images

It wasn’t long ago that Canadian whisky (rightly) carried the nickname “brown vodka.” Due to different regulations north of the border, rotgut whisky could be distilled at a flavor-killing high proof, cut with caramel flavoring and dyes, and even blended with other spirits like rum and brandy. Poor blending practices earned Canada the reputation of the land of bad rye, with the phrase “lighter-style Canadian whisky” becoming a euphemism for tasteless, bland whisky. When the craft whiskey movement hit the U.S., burgeoning whiskey connoisseurs immediately issued a blanket ban on all Canadian hooch, demonizing the lot and banishing the category back to the Great White North.

But it’s time to reconsider Canadian whisky and welcome it in from the cold. Unlike your ex, it really has changed.

First, let’s clear up a few misconceptions. First off, the whole rye thing. Historically, Canadian whisky used a lot of rye, so the term “rye” became interchangeable with all Canadian whisky. Yet, the fact that Canadian rye doesn’t come with legal restrictions like American rye (which must be made with 51 percent of the namesake grain) has inspired distrust in many true rye fanatics. Canadian ryes are actually surprisingly diverse, clocking in at wildly different grain percentages. And now, non-rye whiskies from our northern neighbor are marketed with different labels, correctly portraying their ingredients and appealing to a wider whiskey audience.  

Another peccadillo about Canadian whiskies is that they are mostly blends. Like blended scotch, though, blended Canadian whisky gets an unfair reputation as being a poor quality spirit. Just as single malts in Scotland are often blends of individual batches from within the same distillery, individual Canadian distilleries will blend finished whiskies made from rye, corn or other grains, rather than create a single mash bill with the same components. This means the blender has a lot more power to adjust the balance, allowing companies to put out more nuanced, subtle and consistent products.

Canadian distillers haven’t just been sitting around for the last two decades taking American abuse. They’ve been quietly upping their game, with many new craft distilleries opening shop and bigger houses aging stocks close to 20 years. Even name brand Canadian distilleries like Crown Royal and Alberta Distillers (makers of Canadian Club) have put out some serious , quality whisky recently.

Don’t believe us? That’s just fine. We’ll let the Canadian whisky speak for itself. Here are a few bottles you should pick up immediately.

Crown Royal / Instagram

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye ($45)

Jim Murray crowned this Canadian whisky as his World Whisky of the Year in 2016 in his esteemed Whisky Bible, launching the northern whisky into American consciousness a bit like he did with Japanese whisky after featuring the Yamazaki Sherry Cask the year before. “To be honest, I had been considering actually demoting Canadian whisky from having its own chapter in the Bible,” Murray admitted in his award description. “Then Crown Royal Northern Harvest pops up out of nowhere and changes the game.”

Northern Harvest barely resembles Crown Royal’s standard offerings, with way more rye spice than the flagship Crown Royal Deluxe. Waves of caramel and vanilla give way to unusually eloquent rye that excites the palate with floral and peppery high notes without turning bitter or overly charred. At $45, this bottle is the perfect introduction to quality Canadian spirits.

Note: Murray’s pick caused a good deal of contention because of differences between batches of Northern Harvest. The original stock (L5085 N3) was snapped up immediately following the Whisky Bible award, and the following batches did not receive the same level of praise. Whatever blending issue afflicted Northern Rye seems to have been resolved, though, with later batches recovering the lost balance and delicate rye that infatuated Murray in the first place. Northern Harvest is still a great whisky, but be aware you’re not tasting the same whisky that won the award.

Lot 40 ($49)

A spirit with a cult following, Lot 40 is a superstar Canadian rye that was discontinued in the early 2000s, setting fans scrambling to buy up disappearing bottles. The uproar caused the Hiram Walker distillery to revive the whisky (after it was bought by Pernod Ricard affiliate Corby), and you can now find a good supply of Lot 40 across the U.S. The 100-percent rye (90 percent grain, 10 percent malted rye) puts the spotlight on Canadian spice, with pure, heady flavors of dark pumpernickel, accute sweet-sour citrus, and nose-tingling pepper. Lot 40’s extremely forward flavors are perfect for bold rye cocktails, but drinking a pour over ice will wake up any American whiskey snob.

FortyCreekWhisky / Facebook

Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve ($70)

Oddly enough, Forty Creek managed to leapfrog most of the continental U.S. and make a splash in Texas. While the name is well known in the Lone Star State, it deserves more attention across the country. A lot of the brand’s quality has to do with its creator. In 1992, Canadian vintner John Hall noticed the supreme whiskies coming out of Kentucky and Scotland, and decided to create a quality Canadian whisky to compete on the global stage. He succeeded with Forty Creek Barrel Select, a blend of rye, nutty barley and sweet corn whiskies. That last ingredient dominates the initial taste, enshrouded in warm blankets of rich toffee, honey, vanilla and black walnut.

The distillery’s Confederation Oak Reserve is one of the finest examples of high-end Canadian whisky. Blended from the same component whiskies that go into the Barrel Select, this special release marks the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada in 1867 (aka Canada 150). The blend was aged in barrels made from 150-year-old Canadian white oak trees harvested within 40 miles of the distillery (where cooler climates cause the wood to grow denser than its American white oak cousin, affecting the flavors the wood imparts to the whisky). The flavor of the oak clearly stands up in the final product, with rich vanilla and walnut, some damp smoke and must, sweet flavors of date, fig and raspberry, and a clean finish of light pepper spice.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch ($25)

Alberta Distillers’ most well known product in the States may be Canadian Club, but their lesser known offerings are certainly worth trying. Alberta Dark Horse, released by Beam Suntory in the U.S. as Dark Batch in 2015, takes advantage of Canada’s lax liquor laws that allow blenders to mix in up to 9.09 percent of other spirits. In this case, Alberta Distillers mixed about 91 percent rye (itself a near 50/50 mix of high-proof rye and lower proof, more flavorful rye) with 8 percent Old Grand-Dad Bourbon and 1 percent oloroso sherry. The resulting blend is incredibly aromatic, tasting both of malty spice and deeply jammy, ripe fruit, with subtler notes of cola, chocolate and cinnamon. The finish is sweet and spicy, reminding you that you are, in fact, drinking a rye.

JP Wiser’s 18 Year Old ($50-65)

JP Wiser is the perfect example of a classic Canadian distillery that has risen to meet the challenges of the modern whisky market. Like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky II, the distillery has been training and improving since Americans last paid attention to our northern neighbor. The brand spent that time aging this knockout (sorry). With notes of green apple and fresh pine accompanying wood, vanilla and toffee, we can call this aged beauty a “classic light Canadian whisky” and mean it as a compliment.

Stalk and Barrel Single Malt ($70)

Single malt, single barrel, non-chill filtered, uncolored, free of additives, and individually numbered, this offering from new kid distillery Stillwaters hits every mark on the whisky snob checklist. Made from 100 percent Canadian barley, the Stalk and Barrel single malt totally dominates the game. The incredibly balanced offering is packed with notes of banana, ginger and chocolate, in addition to vanilla and oak, with a gentle malty nose and lingering fruity finish. While the brand’s rye—similarly made from single barrels of 100-percent rye and non-chill-filtered—is equally deserving of praise, it’s the barley option that proves Canadian distillers can make great products beyond rye. The distillery also offers a cask strength version ($100), perfect for delusional whisky snobs who continue to deny the power of the Canadian whisky revolution.

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