A Journalist’s Primer on Canadian Whisky
January 10, 2016
A 26-ounce Canadian whisky primer for journalists, editors, and publishers
Davin de Kergommeaux
1. The story of Canadian whisky offers a distilled and bottled history of Canadian settlement and commercial enterprise.
2. When Jesuit missionaries arrived here in the 1600s they left no record of distilling, but they did try (with limited success) to make wine for use in their liturgies.
3. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries when large groups of settlers arrived in Canada they often brought small stills with them.
4. Despite what you might expect, when the early Scottish and Irish settlers began distilling here in Canada it was rum and not whisky that they made.
5. The history of distilling in Canada, like many things Canadian, varies province by province. For example, the shift from distilling rum to whisky began as settlers moved west into Ontario. Why? Because of its distance from the sea. This made it expensive for producers to acquire molasses, (which they preferred over grain) as sea-going vessels transporting Caribbean molasses to Canada could not navigate beyond Montreal.
6. Whisky making in Canada is really an imported Scottish tradition, right? Not quite. The first commercial whisky distillers were mostly English and German. Not surprisingly, there were Americans of English or German descent who were keen to expand business opportunities here in Canada. As for those Scottish and Irish immigrants, they made no contribution to creating the Canadian whisky we know today. They were, however, enthusiastic consumers of rum.
7. There is much conjecture that United Empire Loyalists arriving here from the U.S. late in the 18th and early 19th century were responsible for introducing distilling to Canada. Nice story, but not one supported by the historical record. There is no evidence that this happened or that they ever distilled commercially.
8. Although Scotch whisky enthusiasts will swear that Aeneas Coffey invented the column still, Coffey stills were not the norm here in Canada. Those early Canadian column stills were of American and European design, adapted to suit Canadian conditions.
9. Canadian whisky was, from the start, an integrated commercial enterprise. The early distilleries were generally associated with flourmills from which they sourced their grist.
10. With an abundance of locally grown wheat, it’s not surprising that for the most part, in the early days, the grain of choice for making Canadian whisky was wheat. In those days, wheat whisky was so common that it was actually called “common” or “straight” whisky.
11. When and how was the switch made from common or straight whisky to rye? It was German and Dutch immigrants who wanted more flavour in their whisky. They suggested adding small amounts of rye-grain flour to the mashes. They called this new whisky style “rye” and it quickly became so popular that “common” wheat whisky all but disappeared.
12. Several key figures were responsible for establishing the Canadian whisky style. James Gooderham Worts arrived here from England in 1831 and William Gooderham arrived the following year. Another immigrant from England was Henry Corby who arrived in 1832. Then, in 1841, Joseph Seagram was born here. He was of English descent but his whisky style was influenced by his German-Canadian customers. In 1857, J.P. Wiser crossed the border in to Canada from the U.S., bringing his German heritage and American distilling methods with him. Two years later and also from the U.S., Hiram Walker arrived, bringing with him his English family heritage and expectations of quality whisky. Gooderham, Worts, Corby, Seagram, Walker: these are the dynastic and iconic names of Canadian whisky.
13. Canadian whisky was and remains a southbound cross border enterprise. Early on, commercial Canadian distillers made inroads into American markets, and the U.S. quickly became the primary market for Canadian whisky. This is still the case today as American drinkers buy about 75% of the whisky that Canada produces.
14. In 1865, two years before Confederation, Canadian whisky was the best-selling whisky in the U.S. period. And it remained that way until 2010 when bourbon overtook it. It is now number 2 in the U.S. market, and practically neck-and-neck with bourbon. Canadian whisky is still the best selling whisky in North America.
15. Where there’s booze there’s legislation (and taxation) and Canada leads the way. In 1887 Canada passed the world’s first whisky ageing law and in 1890, Canada became the first nation to implement legislation requiring that whisky be aged. More than a quarter of a century later the British government followed suit. The Scotch ageing legislation of 1916 was actually modeled on Canada’s. This is not an assertion but a fact. I have researched the official correspondence that confirms this.
16. Canada’s whisky ageing legislation was intended to facilitate tax collection, and it had a dramatic commercial impact. It meant that it was no longer economical to operate small distilleries, leaving whisky production exclusively to the larger distilleries, most of which were already ageing whisky anyway.
17. Prohibition may have had a moral tone to it in the U.S., but it also threatened the formerly lucrative cross-border sales of Canadian whisky. In 1920 when the U.S. declared Prohibition, Canada’s largest market suddenly dried up, creating serious financial difficulties for most of Canada’s commercial distilleries. They continued to export some whisky to the U.S. but in volumes so reduced that Corby’s, Gooderham & Worts, and Seagram’s faced near bankruptcy. Hiram Walker’s distillery fared slightly better but not for long. It was eventually sold for about half its commercial value. Moreover, much of the whisky reaching the U.S. from Canada was Scotch and Irish whisky imported to Canada for sale in the U.S.
18. Fast forward to today. Canadian whisky sales are in a resurgence. The most recent statistics (from 2013) indicate that Americans bought almost 17 million 9-litre cases of Canadian whisky that year.
19. And where does Canadian whisky come from? There are eight large-scale distilleries in Canada and each one of them is undertaking expansion and/or modernization projects because of the continually increasing demand for Canadian whisky. Production is racing to keep pace with demand.
20. Canada’s major distilleries span the country and include three in Alberta (Highwood, Black Velvet, and Alberta Distillers), one in Manitoba (Gimli), three in Ontario (Hiram Walker, Canadian Mist and Forty Creek), and one in Quebec (Valleyfield.)
21. These are distinct distilleries. Each one follows its own production processes and methods making it meaningless to talk about whisky “regions” in Canada.
22. What is it, then, that makes Canadian whisky so distinctive? Here is a 5-point overview of key production factors that, when taken together, distinguish Canadian whisky from all other whisky styles.
a. Like single malt Scotch, Canadian whisky is generally the product of a single distillery. With occasional exceptions, Canadian distillers do not exchange barrels or buy whisky from each other. Thus, Canadian whisky can perhaps best be described as “single distillery whisky.”
b. In general, unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canadian whisky makers do not use mash bills. In Canada each grain type is milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, and matured separately, and only then mingled together as mature whisky. American distillers combine their grains before making whisky. Canadian distillers combine them afterwards. Like all things Canadian, there are exceptions: Canadian Club and Black Velvet distil their spirits separately, like everyone else, but mingle these spirits before maturing them.
c. Regardless of grain type, Canadian distillers generally make two whisky streams which they later combine after maturation. This is similar to how blended Scotch is made.
One stream (called “base whisky”) is distilled to a high alcohol content and, although it still includes many grain-derived congeners, when matured it facilitates the full expression of congeners derived from the wood. (Congeners are the chemicals that give whisky its flavour.) Some distilleries make only one type of base whisky, while others make several. This base whisky is most often matured in barrels that have already been used one or more times. The first use reduces the influence of oak caramels, tannins, and vanillins, allowing other wood-derived congeners to contribute to the flavour in greater proportions. This is one source of the “elegance” of Canadian whisky.
The second stream (called “flavouring whisky”) includes whiskies that are distilled to a low alcohol content in order to emphasize grain-derived congeners. These flavouring whiskies are commonly made from rye, wheat, barley, and corn – and each is distilled and matured separately. Flavouring whiskies are generally matured in new virgin barrels or in a mix of new and used barrels.
d. Each type of grain spirit within each stream is matured in optimal conditions for that particular spirit. This requires the use of different barrel types and chars for each grain, as well as different periods of maturation depending on the characteristics of the particular spirit.
e. The addition of non-whisky flavouring − the so-called 9.09% rule − is sometimes talked about on chat boards, although it is poorly understood. This is a practice that is not nearly as prevalent as some people suggest. It is more of a footnote to a discussion of the elements of Canadian whisky production.
In a nutshell, to aid U.S. producers, American tax law provides financial incentives for foreign spirits that include some American-made spirits. For high-volume bottom-shelf whiskies this is a substantial tax break. For lower-volume whiskies it is often not worth the effort. Thus, some Canadian whiskies made for the U.S. market include American spirits even though the version of the same whisky made for the Canadian market (and the rest of the world) often will not. As well, in some cases, regardless of the intended market, small amounts of foreign spirit will be added to enhance certain flavours.
This is further complicated by the use of the words “wine” and “sherry” to describe some of these additives, even though the actual liquid used bears little or no resemblance to what the general public perceives wine or sherry to be. Moreover, all spirits added to Canadian whisky under this rule must have spent at least 2 years maturing in wood.
23. In addition to the eight Canadian distilleries mentioned above, two small Scottish-style distilleries (Glenora and Shelter Point) have been established in Canada in the past two decades. Recent years have seen a burgeoning of a craft distilling movement in Canada and there are some 30 of them at the last count. About half a dozen of these micro-distilleries are already making − or are planning to make − whisky.
24. One issue that confuses some whisky writers is that unlike in the U.S. and the U.K., Canada does not unify all of its whisky laws, rules, and regulations in one tidy legislative place. Distilling in Canada is a matter, first of all, of provincial regulation even though many aspects of its production and export fall under federal regulation. Consequently, two levels of government and many provincial and territorial government departments and agencies, share these responsibilities. Each of them makes rules specific to its areas of legislated responsibility. To complicate matters further, provincial rules vary across the country. While it is not incorrect to rely on the basic definition of Canadian whisky from the Food and Drug Act, it is incorrect to draw the conclusion that this is the only regulation that whisky makers must comply with in Canada.
25. The Food and Drug Act includes this definition:
Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky
i. be a potable alcoholic distillate, or a mixture of potable alcoholic distillates, obtained from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products saccharified by the diastase of malt or by other enzymes and fermented by the action of yeast or a mixture of yeast and other micro-organisms,
ii. be aged in small wood for not less than three years,
iii. possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky,
iv. be manufactured in accordance with the requirements of the Excise Act and the regulations made thereunder,
v. be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada, and
vi. contain not less than 40 per cent alcohol by volume; and
b. may contain caramel and flavouring.
26. Finally, a key resource for all these matters of history, production, commerce, regulation, and − perhaps most important of all: the delicious taste of Canadian whisky − my book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, published by McClelland & Stewart 2012 and 2014 is a well stocked bar of valuable information.
This primer is a carefully researched overview of key points about Canadian whisky to assist journalists and others writing about it. These points may be quoted freely with credit to the author. Davin de Kergommeaux is also the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, the definitive book about Canadian whisky.
These notes were first published in this format, September 3, 2014.