Depending on where it is made around the world, whisky takes on a particular character and namesake. Whisky that comes from Canada is known as ‘Canadian whisky’ (spelled without an e), or is sometimes called, ‘rye.’ So what makes Canadian whisky, Canadian whisky?
Some forms of alcoholic beverage, like Icewine and Champagne, have strict laws dictating the methodology or location of their production. Unfortunately Canadian whisky is not one of those products whose namesake is protected by legislation, making it a little bit harder to define. Nevertheless there are some generally agreed upon rules in the industry that are considered the norms for Canadian whisky or rye. Let’s have a look.
What Makes Canadian Whisky Unique
1) There is a common misconception that Canadian whisky is distilled from 100% rye, or from a minimum of 51% rye. This is not actually the case. Canadian whisky can be made from any grain, particularly corn, wheat, barley and rye. Some American whiskies actually use a greater percentage or rye in their mash bills than Canadian producers. What’s particular about the grains that go into Canadian whisky production is that they are all mashed, fermented, distilled and matured separately. This allows each grain to be treated in a manner that brings out the best potential in its character, allowing the distiller to blend optimal single grain spirits together to make a whole that is better than the sum of its parts.
2) Canadian whisky is a single distillery product. Distillers do not buy whisky from each other for blending.
3) Canadian whisky must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years before release.
4) Canadian whisky must contain a minimum of 40% alcohol by volume.
5) Canadian Whisky is generally lighter and smoother than other styles of whisky from around the world.
6) Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada, eh.
Despite what many believe, the production of spirits in British North America didn’t begin with whisky, but with rum. Rum was made in the Maritimes because the settlers desired a cheap spirit for personal consumption and inexpensive molasses from the Caribbean was easy to come by. Whisky production was taken up by settlers who moved west of Montréal because at this time in history, large cargo ships from the Caribbean could not navigate past this point in the St. Lawrence River. Europeans who settled west of Montréal began distilling whisky from wheat because it was too expensive for them to receive shipments of molasses over land.
The hallmark style of Canadian whisky came into being in the early 1800s. German and Dutch immigrants to the New World (not Scottish and Irish, as is commonly thought) arrived in Upper Canada and desired a more flavourful spirit than the wheat based whisky that was already being produced. They accomplished this by adding a small amount of rye based whisky to the blend. The result was a more flavourful whisky that was generally preferred by everyone who tried it.
Despite containing less actual rye than some American whiskies, the rye influence in Canadian whisky is greater. When rye is cultivated at the outer limits of its potential growing region (in colder climates, farther from the equator) its flavour is stronger, meaning the impact of northern rye is greater than the impact of southern rye. The impact of rye in Canadian whisky is further increased by distilling it separately from the other grains, allowing its flavours to fully develop on their own before becoming a part of the blend.
By: Michael Twyman, Sommelier and Wine Smart Guide for Niagara Vintage Wine Tours and Bootleggers.