The Essence of Canadian Rye Whisky photo

The Essence of Canadian Rye

November 5, 2011


Follow as it Goes on the Road to Find the Essence of Canadian Rye Whisky.

Location: Victoria, BC
Venue: Grand Pacific Hotel – Victoria Whisky Festival
In the company of: 15 experienced malt whisky aficionados
Goal: To find the essence of real Canadian rye whisky
Method: Read on!

So what exactly gives Canadian rye whisky its flavour? With notebooks at the ready and eager to try whatever was placed in front of them, a group of malt whisky aficionados gathered recently at Victoria’s Grand Pacific Hotel to sample and assess a range of classic Canadian rye whiskies. Our goal? To identify the contribution of rye grain to the flavour of Canadian whisky.

But whisky anoraks that we are, first we embarked on a preliminary discussion of the centuries-long history of Canadian rye before getting down to the tasting challenge before us. Remember: the group’s expertise was in malt. Our mission: to categorically discern the distinguishing rye flavours found in Canadian whisky. But why people experienced in malt, you ask? Why? Because we wanted tasters who had enough experience to move beyond judging whisky by its label, who were curious enough to want to learn more, and whose palates were well enough tuned to discern and appreciate new whisky flavours.

To begin, 1963 Crown Royal Fine De Luxe Canadian Rye Whisky
Before focusing specifically on rye grain, we began by synchronizing our palates with a brilliantly well-balanced and rye-rich Canadian blended rye whisky, Crown Royal Fine De Luxe from 1963. Like most Canadian whiskies, Crown Royal Fine De Luxe is a single-distillery whisky, this one produced at the now-defunct Waterloo distillery. A blend of perhaps as many as 50 individual whiskies, some more than 30 years old, Crown Royal Fine De Luxe is without doubt a masterpiece of the blender’s art. Not until Crown Royal XR was released in 2006 has such a whisky been available to today’s whisky lovers. Most notably, this whisky, in addition to the luxuriant corn-derived mouthfeel, showcases the full range of typical rye spices including cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger; the breadth of undefined fruitiness; the sweet floral notes bordering on pansies, violets, and lilacs; and the almost fragile brittleness found only in Canadian rye. This is truly a great rye whisky, blended from great rye, great corn, and great barley distillates.

Different approaches to making rye
Canadian and U.S. distillers take two very different approaches to making rye whisky. Although the two whisky styles are sometimes indistinguishable in blind tastings, more often than not they are really quite different. People who attempt, for whatever reason, to prove that one is better than the other often point to the whisky-making processes and the proportion of rye grain used in the mash to support their argument. In reality, although they are different, neither rye whisky style is superior to the other. They certainly have many things in common and each most certainly has its own charms and its own hard-bit aficionados.

That said, the recent so-called “rye renaissance” that never really happened, drew attention to the fact that in North America, Canadian rye whisky consistently outsells all of Scotch whisky, Irish whisky, Bourbon, and American rye combined. That’s a huge margin of difference. Maybe that’s why some wags, determined to prove that Canadian rye is not really rye whisky at all, have derisively dubbed it “brown vodka,” thus succeeding only in revealing their own sadly undeveloped connoisseurship. Perhaps their efforts would be more usefully devoted to proving that oranges, being 100% citric fruit, are superior to apples which contain an unspecified percentage of citric acid.

U.S. Standards of Identity established for rye whisky, focus on the actual percentage of rye grain used in the mash rather than the flavours imparted to the whisky by rye grain. In the U.S. rye whisky must be made from a mash of at least 51% rye grain. Since rye is expensive, produces relatively small yields of alcohol, and is difficult to work with, very few modern American ryes contain more than the requisite 51%.

But American rye whisky has been around since long before the post-Prohibition times when these standards were established. Among many others, 18th century German and Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania used rye grain to distil whisky, just as they had done in their homelands. Large commercial rye distillers in the Monongahela River valley in Western Pennsylvania made whiskies of particularly great renown. But since the rye grain that the small Pennsylvania farmers distilled at home was grown primarily for baking, the “excess grain” which they made into whisky may not have been whole-grain rye at all, but simply the refuse left over after milling rye into flour.

Certainly, that was the case in Canada, even at the commercial level, where as long as 200 years ago, large distilleries and home distillers alike turned the leftover waste of wheat milling operations into whisky. Grinding wheat into flour removed most of the starch, leaving behind a waste byproduct, called middlings. These middlings were not useful for baking bread so could simply be discarded, fed to animals, or distilled into whisky. However, since much of the character had already been taken away with the flour in order to make bread, whisky distilled from left over middlings was not particularly flavourful. It did the trick on a cold winter’s night alright, but unlike Monongahela rye, it certainly would not have encouraged anyone to become a connoisseur.

Contrary to popular assumption, most of the commercial distillers in early Canadian history were neither Scots nor Irishmen; more commonly, they were English. While it is certainly true that many Scots and Irish did make whisky in their miniscule farm stills, none of what they produced ever amounted to anything even resembling a lasting contribution to the heritage of Canadian whisky. But just as they did in Pennsylvania, Dutch and German settlers in Canada knew that rye grain was so full to bursting with flavour that even the leftovers made a much finer whisky than wheat middlings did.

The distinctive fruity-spicy-floral flavours we commonly associate with rye bread come through clearly in whisky that has been made from a mash incorporating even a little rye grain. And so these Western European immigrants suggested that Upper-Canadian distillers might want to add a few shovels-full of rye to their mashes to pick up the flavour. It worked marvels and by the late 18th and early 19th centuries a whole new whisky style, “Canadian rye,” had been born.

Once the practice of adding a bit of rye to flavour the mash had been established, whisky made in the old way, that is from wheat middlings alone, came to be known as “straight whisky” or “common whisky,” while whisky with a bit of rye added was distinguished simply as “rye.” The more flavourful rye variety soon captured the market, quickly displacing common whisky. The word “rye” became so well established as a synonym for whisky even back then, that as a result, in the less agrarian world of today, whisky is the first thing that most Canadians think of when they hear the word “rye.” In fact, many Canadians have no idea that there is also a grain that goes by the same name. In Canada, rye whisky is defined by its flavour rather than the amount of rye used in the mash.

But back to numbers. To those who equate rye whisky with a minimum content of rye grain, the logic sometimes seems to be that if 51% is good, then 100% must be practically twice as good. But just think about this for a minute. We all love chocolate, but a chocolate bar made from 99% chocolate is very bitter indeed, and best consumed along with something sweet. In the right hands a little rye, like a little chocolate, can go a very long way as well. Yes, there are 100% ryes made in Canada, and great care is taken to distil and blend these so that they retain just the right balance of rye flavours without going over the top. What is more, in 1883, when Canada became the first nation in the world to require that whisky be aged, Canadian whisky makers quickly discovered that spirits, and especially high abv spirits, would extract some of these same rye-specific fruity-spicy-floral notes from the oak barrels all by themselves.

WhistlePig and the spiciness of unmalted rye
To begin our discovery of the essence of Canadian rye whisky, we decided first to sample WhistlePig Rye. While Alberta Premium is probably Canada’s best-known 100% rye whisky, Alberta Premium is a blend of rye spirits, some distilled to very high strength, so much of the flavour of Alberta Premium comes from the oak barrels rather than the grain. We chose instead to taste WhistlePig which is distilled to a much lower strength and so derives more of its flavour from the rye grain itself. There are similarities to Alberta Premium, however, in the flavour profile of WhistlePig Rye, but in our search for the essence of rye flavour we chose to eliminate any variables we could.

Although it is distilled in Canada, by Canadians, from Canadian rye grain (at an undisclosed distillery), WhistlePig is labeled “Straight Rye,” a nomenclature that refers to the U.S. definition of “straight whisky.” By U.S. definitions “straight whisky” is made from spirit that is distilled to an abv not exceeding 80% then diluted to no more than 62.5% abv before being put into new charred white oak barrels for a minimum of two years’ ageing. In the U.S., straight whisky is not simply “common whisky” as it was, at one time, here in Canada.

WhistlePig Rye is a fine example of a whisky made from 100% Canadian rye. No other grains are used to make WhistlePig, and none of the rye that is used is malted, so the flavour is 100% unmalted rye. It’s a big, unblended whisky, exhibiting typical rye flowers, and fruits, but it is especially rich in rye spices including cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon. While WhistlePig is a hugely voluptuous whisky, frankly, it is just a little bit rough around the edges and in need of some corn or barley to broaden its palate and provide some balance. But in WhistlePig are found, undiluted, the typical unmalted rye nose and palate: spices first, with fruit and flowers continually poking their heads through. Rye, it seems, is all about spices, fruit, and flowers.

Although we began with WhistlePig because it is made from 100% rye, percentages of rye grain used in the mash have less to do with that final flavour of the whisky than the quality of the rye grain that is used and how it is handled before mashing. In whisky, the flavours imparted by the rye grain depend to a large extent on whether the rye has been malted. Malting grain adds another step to the whisky making process and is quite costly. But malted rye is much more flavourful, more floral, and fruitier than unmalted. I dare say though, in the wrong hands, a whisky made with 51% malted rye could become quite undrinkable unless at least a portion of it was distilled to a very high abv. In Canada, only one distillery, Hiram Walker in Windsor, uses malted rye. Alberta Distillers, well known for its 100% rye whiskies, never uses malted rye. It never has and if current practices prevail, it never will.

Lot No. 40 and the floral character of malted rye
To get a full appreciation of the effects of malting on rye grain, we sampled Lot No. 40 from Corby Distillers. Lot 40, which has been off the market since the late 1990s, is distilled in a copper pot still at Hiram Walker’s plant in Windsor using malted and unmalted rye. Hiram Walker’s has perfected the distillation of malted rye, as Lot 40 so amply demonstrates. Yes, Lot 40 has the spiciness of rye, but rather than the dominant spiciness found in WhistlePig, Lot 40 exhibits more fruity and floral notes, expressing, most particularly, large and delightful aromas of lilacs and spring flowers. Sweet and rich, on the palate it tastes more than anything, like rye bread. Malting, it seems brings out the flowers.

Wiser’s Legacy: bringing it all together
Armed with this new-found information we concluded our session by sampling Wiser’s Legacy, a new whisky, released in 2010, but based on a century-old original J.P. Wiser recipe. Wiser’s Legacy incorporates both malted and unmalted rye. Wiser, a German from New York, had used rye grain judiciously to flavour most of the whiskies he distilled at his Canadian distillery in Prescott Ontario. Maintaining that tradition, so have the blenders who have followed in his footsteps. In Wiser’s Legacy we taste the blender’s art at its zenith, with its enormously broad palate that features the full rye whisky spectrum. Legacy displays unmalted rye spices directly front and centre, while also showcasing the fruitiness and the floral notes that the process of malting brings to the fore. Each is distilled in the same copper pot still that was used to distil Lot No. 40 at Hiram Walker’s distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

We had come full circle. Beginning with Crown Royal Fine De Luxe, a historic blended rye, we set out to discern the flavours that malted and unmalted rye contribute to whisky, using the purest expressions available. Finally, we completed our exploration of the flavours of rye with Wiser’s Legacy, a modern rendition of an original old-time recipe that vividly demonstrates all the essences of Canadian rye whisky at its best.

What did we learn?
So what else did these tastings and discussions reveal about Canadian rye? Rye is the defining flavour of Canadian whisky. The essence of rye is “baking spices” in a fruity, floral amalgam. The essence of malted rye is flowers, supported strongly by fruitiness and spice. In Canada, “rye” has been synonymous with “whisky” for several centuries. North Americans drink more Canadian rye whisky than all other major whisky styles combined. And rye flavours can also be extracted from oak. Oh yes, and speaking of flavour, in the right hands a little rye can go a long, long way.

So will this marathon team-tasting session be repeated? Not exactly. And for one good reason: some of these fine whiskies are just too difficult to come by. However, will present a similar session in Toronto on May 14 at an event called The Spirit of Toronto which is held in the elegant and suitably large Roy Thomson Hall. The people organizing The Spirit of Toronto have already lined up some very spectacular vintage Canadian ryes to tantalize your taste buds. See you there? Hope so.

More information about WhistlePig Rye here.
A detailed review of Lot No. 40 here.
A detailed introduction to Wiser’s Legacy here.
Information about the Victoria Whisky Festival here.
Information about The Spirit of Toronto here.


19 Responses to “The Essence of Canadian Rye”

  1. J. Wheelock:

    It was great to finaly meet you in Victoria. Please let’s stay in touch. The next time you are in Calgary, please join us for dinner and we can “emancipate” some of the private stash…

    Cheers large!

    • Davin:

      Hi J.
      Lookin’ forward to it!

  2. Mike:

    How wonderful to get some real, concrete info on Canadian whisky instead of just the usual marketing-speak. Another element I seem to find in young Canadian ryes (Alberta Premium and Hiram Walker Special Old come to mind) is a hard, flinty, mineral flavour. Did you come across this at all in your tastings?

    • Davin:

      Flint – that’s exactly the best way to describe that mineral flavour in some of these younger ryes. Yes, there is quite a mineral tone in some of these ryes but we didn’t find it in WhistlePig or in Lot No. 40. It’s pretty clear in Alberta Premium though, and I also find it in Canadian Club 10 year old.

  3. Hi Davin
    What were the whiskies that you evaluated – are the results posted on your blog?

    • Davin:

      Hi Tess,
      For this session we looked at 4 whiskies: Crown Royal Fine De Luxe from 1963, WhistlePig Rye, Lot No. 40, and Wiser’s Legacy. There are reviews of all but the Crown Royal posted elsewhere on the site – links are at the bottom. For this session we just stayed with the high-level aromas and flavours that differentiate the whiskies and that all could appreciate. For more nuance see the reviews.

  4. Tess:

    Thank you so much for your reply. I will check out the individual reviews.

    • Davin:

      Review of the 1963 Crown Royal is coming as well, but this week is devoted to WWA tasting notes for Whisky Mag.

  5. dbk:

    Wonderful review, Davin, and congratulations on the award! It is much deserved.

    Many bourbon and American rye drinkers seem to enjoy WhistlePig. Would you say that, despite being a Canadian whisky, it is more “American” in style than, say, Wiser’s legacy and other prototypical Canadian whiskies?

    • Davin:

      Hi dbk,

      First, let me thank you for your very kind comments on another board.

      WhistlePig was made in typical Canadian whisky fashion as a component of a blend. WhistlePig itself, is in fact a blend of many barrels just as most Bourbons and single malts are. Without getting into a long discussion, which I am saving for another time, there are many similarities between Canadian and American whisky making processes, but also differences. Canadian ‘flavouring whiskies’ are not made to be sipped unblended and so are not really equivalent to American Bourbons or ryes. Similarly, Canadian base whiskies are not intended to be sipped unblended, so despite being quite flavourful in many cases, can have a rather narrow band. I think a critical analysis of WhistlePig could lead you to the conclusion that good as it is, a little corn would broaden the palate. Some years ago there was a lot of talk about Bush Pilot’s which was an unblended Canadian corn whisky. It is almost the exact opposite of WhistlePig. Some day, just for fun, I will try blending the two because I think they would really complement each other. Incidentally, I will post a review of Bush Pilot’s here next Monday.

      As far as WhistlePig being ‘American style,’ sometimes I think it is too bad that individual consumer products get lost in the shuffle of protectionist trade agreements. Canada used to make a lot of bourbon. Real bourbon. And much of it was sold in the U.S. as bourbon, sometimes with American distillers labels on it. We didn’t de-commission those stills when our trade negotiators agreed to accept the name ‘Bourbon’ as designating an American whisky. They are still used to make bourbon-style whiskies for blending. We also use bourbon-style mashes, sour mash processes, and carefully maintained bourbon-style yeast strains.

      Thanks for your comments.


      • dbk:

        Awfully informed and thoughtful as always, Davin.

        I suppose the main reason I wondered about the “Americanness” of WhistlePig’s style is that the whisky is purportedly aged in new charred oak barrels, which struck me as prototypically American in style. Interesting, then, that you say that Canadian distillers made (and still make) de facto bourbon. That makes sense to me: I’ve always felt that Forty Creek’s flavour profile was the result of a mash bill that struck a bourbon-style balance (i.e. corn heavy), which I enjoy immensely.

        • Davin:

          Thanks dbk.
          We also use charred new oak barrels in Canada for some whiskies which will give them that typical vanilla-rich bourbon quality.

  6. Fen:

    I noticed the article mentioned Hiram Walker using a malted rye in their whiskys. I think this might be in regards to Hiram Walker Special Old Canadian Rye Whisky, but I know little about this whisky. I’m particularly interested to know its blend? What types of grains does it include? I could not find any information on this and I though I’d ask here.

    Great article and website.


    • Davin:

      Hi Fen,
      Thanks for your comments.
      The specific formula for Special Old is proprietary information, but yes, Hiram Walker’s do use malted rye, if fact they developed their own processes and are world leaders in processing malted rye.

  7. Austin:

    Where does one turn to find this amazing history? Can you recommend any good books on the subject?


    • Davin:

      Hi Austin,
      Except for the brief chapter I wrote in Dave Broom’s book, none of the whisky books presently on the market cover Canadian whisky with any degree of accuracy. There is a new book currently in press; it will be released in the Spring of 2012. In the meantime this website is really your best source.

      • Austin:

        That’s great news about the forthcoming book. I had indeed noticed that this website has more about Canadian whisky than any other website.
        The more I learn about our fine spirit the more I reflect on how “Canadian” it really is. From the blending of different styles to the understated history, to the worldwide fondness but not fanaticism, it suits the Canadian identity very well.

        Thanks for what you do,

  8. IsleOfWhisky:

    Great article! Although I’m having a hard time swallowing the fact that Canadian Rye is capable of outselling all those categories. Is that based primarily on figures in Canada? Or America too? Because I have worked in retail for a very long time and hardly see Canadian whisky flying off the shelves. Actually I find Canadian whisky one of the harder sells.

    Also, Canadian whisky reps have very little presence I our store compared to other whiskies. The Scots damn near invade us, distillers from America always pass through, and the Irish, well they are always around in NYC.

    In addition, after returning from my recent trip to Canada, I found so many more brands than in the States. Are they being exported?

    For example, we sold Forty Creek years ago, but discontinued it cause it sat on the shelves. Now I have brought it back in an effort to build the category based on education and not misconception, but it is hard. I would love to see more Canadian experts telling us how it really is.

    I sincerely appreciate anything you write on Canadian whisky. Thanks!

    • Davin:

      Hi ,
      Yes most people are surprised. Figures from Distilled Spirits Council (US). There is a lot of whisky up here that does not get exported, but also a lot that gets exported but is not availble here.


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