Canadian Whisky

For a long while now, Canadian whisky has been the top preference of the bottom shelf. Out of approximately 200 million bottles that are sold in the United States every year (ranking it behind American straight whiskey – bourbons, rye’s, and Tennessee – as a category), about 50% of that end up as  shots and highballs at your local dive bar. Proof positive of the good sense of the price-conscious American drinker: Canadian whiskey is a much better product than it’s American blended equivalent.

Generally, American blended whiskey is made by diluting straight whiskeys like bourbon or rye with vodka: un-aged neutral spirits and water. Blended whiskey from Canada, however, is made from Scotch and Irish blends, in which the diluting agent is instead a true whiskey, albeit a very light one, that has been aged in barrels – base whiskey, they call it. In Canada, the straight whiskeys mixed with this are, of course, not Scottish malts or Irish pot still whiskeys, but rather local “flavoring whiskeys,” many of which bear a familial resemblance to our bourbons and ryes. A smoother and richer blend is the result.

Since it’s not 1950, specializing in blended whiskey is no longer a great commercial strategy. The American market has now left this category to our northern neighbors, with a focus instead on higher-priced, higher-intensity straight whiskey, whether it’s small batch, cask strength, wine-barrel finished, or just plain bourbon or rye. Just about all the rye that previously went into American blend, for example, is now being sold as straight whiskey. Up until now, this all seemed to be fine with the Canadians. They continued focusing on their standard shot-grade blends, along with a couple of very popular, equally traditional high-end ones, letting the whole 21st-century whiskey renaissance pass them by.

Finally, Canadian distillers are realizing that’s not a smart idea. For the first time in years, we’re starting to see interesting new whiskeys out of Canada: straight whiskeys (those flavoring whiskeys bottled without blending), richer blends, whiskeys aged in innovative ways.

For example, the brand “Lot No. 40” ($57), is a legitimate rye (by law and tradition, Canadian whiskeys are allowed to call themselves “rye” even if there is no rye in them). It’s made from a mix of malted and unmalted rye and it’s spectacular: dark, spicy, and very, very grainy – liquid pumpernickel.

“Collingwood” ($27) is a traditional Canadian blend that has had staves of toasted maple put in the barrels for a time. These give it pleasant maple notes.

Canadian Club and Crown Royal I thought I knew all too well until taking another look at them. The regular Canadian Club ($15) might be a little spirit, but it’s clean, smooth, and pleasant. Then there’s the Small Batch Classic 12 ($22) from Canadian Club, which throws off appealing hints of maple and fig newton and fresh split oak. Crown Royal Reserve ($40) is similar to Crown Royal but adds dark chocolate rye to the mix making it elegant and perfectly balanced.

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