Why is Canadian whisky called rye?

October 4, 2016


Since Canadian whisky is mostly made from corn, why is it known everywhere as “rye?” History, culture, and national pride blend in the distillery. Two centuries ago, Canadian flour millers began making whisky from their excess wheat. This was when wheat was the predominant grain for Canada’s pioneers. Along the way, someone decided to spice up their whisky by adding a small amount of rye grain to it and a distinctly Canadian whisky style was born.

This tangy new whisky packed more flavour than common wheat whisky and almost everyone preferred it. Customers started demanding “rye” – wheat whisky with a small amount of rye grain added. Eventually, the word “rye” entered the Canadian lexicon as a synonym for whisky.

In the twentieth century some Canadian distillers began using corn to make their whisky. Driving across the Ontario corn-belt today, you would never suspect that these hardy varieties of corn were not even developed until the 1950s. Before that, when corn was used for whisky-making it was imported from the U.S. But why corn? Quite simply, corn produces more alcohol than wheat does. And by adding even a small amount of rye-grain whisky, distillers can still maintain that traditional and distinct Canadian whisky flavour.

In the mid-twentieth century, whisky makers in the States decided that their “straight rye” had to be made from a mash of at least 51% rye grain. Some whisky fans took this to mean that Canadian rye, made with smaller amounts of rye grain, is not “real rye.” But that makes no sense. Rye grown on the fringes of cultivation is a lot spicier than that grown in more southerly climes.

Moreover, these American regulations arrived nearly 150 years after Canadians had already defined what rye whisky meant to them. In Canada, rye is a flavour and some of the same congeners (flavourants) derived from rye are also found in well-seasoned oak barrels.

There is another twist to the tale. In the U.S., distillers blend the grains before mashing them, in what they call a mash bill. In Canada distillers generally mash the individual grains separately then bring them together as new spirit or matured whisky. So, 51% rye or not, today the concept of a mash bill is essentially meaningless in Canada. American distillers make it their way and Canadian distillers theirs.

And there’s more: When corn is fermented it produces large amounts of alcohol. Fourteen percent alcohol is the norm in a corn mash but often it goes higher. Rye on the other hand produces in the range of 8% alcohol, often less than that. So a mash of 51% rye and 49% corn is still producing a lot more corn whisky than it is rye. Thus, Canadian distillers who blend at the liquid stage rather than as dry grain get proportionally more impact from the rye grain they use.

In the U.S. “straight” whisky must be aged in brand new charred oak barrels. These barrels are so loaded with flavours of their own that they can overpower the influence of the grain. Even though rye grain is spicy and rich in flavour, American distillers use a high percentage of rye to ensure that its natural flavours can survive the burst of oak flavours from inside the barrel.

In Canada, though, rye whisky is aged in a mixture of barrels that have already been used one or more times, as well as in new ones. Re-used barrels bring additional flavours to the whisky that are not detectable in whisky that has been aged in new oak. Some of these flavours taste like rye. And because the oak flavours are more subtle overall in re-used barrels, it takes a relatively smaller amount of rye grain to get a great surge of rye flavour.

Today, as micro-distilleries spring up across Canada, many hope to revive the “tradition” of all-rye Canadian whisky. But it’s a tradition that exists more in the imagination than in reality. Canada’s early settlers grew rye grain as a stop-gap, because they knew that it thrived in poorly cultivated, recently broken soil. As well, rye grew tall and was easy to harvest by hand under primitive pioneer conditions. But as soon as rough land became tilled fields, farmers switched from rye to more bountiful wheat, and distillers stopped using rye grain, except in small amounts for flavouring.

So is Canadian whisky really “rye”? You bet it is, and more recent U.S. definitions notwithstanding, that’s the way it has been for some 200 years now.

Click here to read this article as it first appeared in 2013 in Whisky Magazine #112.


31 Responses to “Why is Canadian whisky called rye?”

  1. Wow, nicely and clearly explained.

    Question; what are the influences on the whiskies in case grains are blended together as a mash bill, or mashed seperately in order to be distilled together or mashed separately and distilled separately and even aged separately before getting ”married” together following the aging ?

    What are the advantages depending of the choice distillers are choosing?

  2. Davin:

    Basically, if you mash and distill them separately they can exert much greater influence on the final flavour. But it is a mistake to look at any individual variable in isolation as so many different things affect flavour. I just spoke with an Irish distiller who told me that a skilled distiller can use rye, oats or corn to make whisky and no-one can tell the difference from the flavour.

  3. Mike:

    I call Canadian whisky rye (more out of laziness than anything else), but I find it somewhat misleading when a company uses the word “rye” on the label of a whisky that does not actually contain any rye. Then you throw American straight rye into the mix, and it is a pretty confusing picture for novice consumers. I would rather see the term “rye whisky” reserved for whiskies with a certain percentage of rye. Otherwise it just seems like a blatant misnomer.

    • Davin:

      Yes, this is why it is important to know the history. Rye whisky had a specific meaning, but in recent years marketing people have done a good job of confuse us with statements about grain content, that at first, seem quite plausible, but historically, are incorrect.

  4. Tim:

    What would we do without you Davin? Thanks for your passion and pride in our Canadian heritage.

  5. Yello to Mello:

    I see nothing wrong with what the marketing people are doing, making it seem a distiller is reviving tradition. It still is confusing when comparing the American straight rye.

    Its sometimes easier for artisan companies to market something as a lost tradition rather than something new and innovative.

    Even bigger companies trying to make themselves seem smaller scale and old fashioned than they really are (Jack Daniels) and even the newer Maple Leaf/Schneider’s commercials and they’re #1 company the protein business in Canada.

    • Davin:

      Yes, marketing people can position their whisky however they want. Their job is to sell whisky and if it turns out to be good whisky I guess some people don’t really care how it is presented. In many cases I think they just don’t really know the stories. Still, it’s unfortunate when the history gets so oversimplified that it becomes false. One of the reasons whisky is still gaining in popularity is that it is perceived as an authentic product so to me it makes sense that the stories should be more than just plausible, they should be verifiable too.

  6. Mike:

    Here’s a question: should we call Canadian single malt whisky rye? Why or why not?

    • Davin:

      Canadian distillers have produce quite a few malt whiskies over the years and they always called them that. I believe it was the late 1700s when Molson distillers was exporting malt whisky from Canada to England. Since then, Seagrams and Walkers made pure malts. Walkers discontinued theirs less than a century ago. MacLarens made malt whisky and of course there was Perth Old Malt. So, for historical reasons I think Canadian distillers should continue to call their malt whisky what it is – malt whisky. Incidentally, the term “single” is a relatively new invention.

  7. David:

    interesting history lesson, i’m wondering what Canadian Whisky uses more rye in their blends. i enjoy CR but also Bourbon whiskey as well. I’ve had straight rye and find it quite spicy compared. thanks

    • Davin:

      Alberta Premium uses 100% rye and if you can taste typical rye notes in it I’d be surprised. The amount of rye grain used is less important than how it is distilled.

  8. [...] September 3). Why is Canadian Whisky Called Rye. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from Canadian Whisky: Tagged on: bourbon, liquor, rye, scotch, whiskey, whisky By Michael Kinnunen | October 10, [...]

  9. Angela Collins:

    Thx. The info was an interesting read.

  10. [...] Click here to learn why Canadian whisky is called rye. [...]

  11. I’m all for pride, but your article is very biased. What do you propose distillers call a product made from a majority rye? What “makes no sense” is naming a style after an ingredient that is often not used at all. Canadian whiskey is a style, not Rye. That’s like calling all Bordeaux “Malbec” because technically and historically there was more of that variety in the blend, even though its used very little in the region today.

    • Davin:

      I’m just giving the history of why Canadian whisky is called rye and noting that this goes back well over 200 years and long before anyone ever thought about actual grain content. Rye was a flavour, plain and simple. Similarly, regardless of how others have later chose to re-define the word, “straight,” in Canada straight whisky referred to whisky made without rye. Let’s not open that semantic can of worms.

      • So I’m clear, a whisky made in Canada, that contains no Rye, could be called either straight whisky, rye, or Canadian whisky and they would all be correct?

        My inclination is always towards consumer empowerment. When a consumer wants a whisky with a pronounced spice character and are familiar with products made with a larger proportion of Rye (either spirit or malted grain in the mash), do you feel that a bartender offering Canadian Club or Crown Royal is doing them any favor?

        If it wasn’t obvious, I enjoy semantic cans of worms.

  12. Davin:

    No,the term “straight” fell out of use in Canada over a century ago.

  13. Diana M:

    Ok, I have a question… The first bottle of Alberta Springs, Canadian Sippin Whiskey we purchased was in Oregon in 1987. Our next purchases were in Michigan 1991-1996, and I have not been able to find a bottle since. I went into Canada in 1999, but all I could find was the Alberta Springs Rye, and to me it just did not taste the same. I keep looking for it, and I actually have a friend in Alberta tonight, and thought I would Google it, since it’s been such a long time. So, What Happened to Alberta Springs?? I was buying it when it was in the wooden gift box’s, and I know the box didn’t say anything about rye, and I thought that I had looked at the label from an older bottle also….

    • Davin:

      Same whisky, different label/package.

  14. Varjak:

    There’s no question that Canadian Whiskey is ‘real’ rye most of the time; but the rest of this reads as somewhat defensive. Maybe Canadian rye (the grain) is ‘stronger;’ but so much less is used (and sometimes none) that it would have to be exponentially stronger to account for that. There is something to the separate mashing; but again, what matters is the final vatting. Again, most Canadian blended whiskeys don’t use that much rye-based spirit (there are exceptions of course). So even if the roughly 50% rye in a mashbill yields less alcohol, it’s still more than putting 5-10% rye spirit in a blend.

    I do think Andrew has a point. Someone who expected something like Sazerac Rye getting ‘Canadian Rye’ would probably be shocked.

    This write-up also leaves off something I’ve read in several whiskey books and publications. The proliferation of the term ‘rye’ was also encouraged by Prohibition in the USA. When American whiskey (mostly Bourbon) was no longer available, lots of Canadian whiskey came in and at the time it had some rye in it as the article above mentions. So people began referring to Canadian whisky as rye and it stuck, no matter what was actually in it.

  15. Varjak:

    I forgot to mention, this is a great site. I learned a lot already and killed a Sunday afternoon perusing it. Thanks.

  16. [...] [...]

  17. [...] Definition of a canadian whisky [...]

  18. Doug:

    why is gibson’s sterling called Canadian whiskey .or is it Canadian rye whiskey .how much rye goes in the mixture as oppose to other grain .thank you

  19. Teri S:

    Interesting read! American Whisky makes me sick some within 1 or 2 shots but I can drink Canadian Whisky neat with no issues, VO & Mist are my usual go to, I recently tried Hunter Rye and found a new favorite. I just wish I could find a whisky with a true Rye bite. Any suggestions?

  20. Dez:

    Thank you for this! I was always confused as to what constitutes a Rye Whisky and this cleared it up for me.
    Interestingly, because Crown Royal was so ubiquitous back home, I always thought of it as a medium quality beverage, especially after seeing it in giant bottle form in Costco in LA. After a recent trip back to Canada I tried a variety of different Crown Royales and man, for a blended whisky (which I had in my head was inferior), they have some really nice, flavourful options. I particularly enjoyed the “Norther Harvest” Rye.

  21. [...] with most whiskys from Canada, Canadian Club is known as "rye" whisky due to tradition rather than straight facts. Fleming was likely using Canadian Whisky's reputation as [...]

  22. Mahmoud Ali:

    Percentages do matter as it is a mathematical term that represents the amount of rye content in a whisky. However it is acceptable to say that Canadian-grown rye distillate is spicier and therefore has a bigger impact on the flavour profile. The latter does not excuse the refusal to engage with those who want to know the rye content of a Canadian rye.

    • Davin:

      It is an overly simplistic question though to ask the percentage of rye, as the contribution of rye to the flavour depends on how it is fermented (alone, in a ash bill) and how it is distilled (concentrated or stripped out), and how it is matured (new wood or used).

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