The History of Canadian Whiskey

Canadian whiskey has a long and storied history. The first whiskey distillery in Canada was opened in Quebec City in 1789. The recipe was brought over by Scottish immigrants, who made their whiskey similar to how they did back home. The Scottish tradition is also why you’ll see Canadian whiskey spelled without the “e,” like whisky.

By the 1840s, there were over 200 whiskey distilleries in Canada. The increase in whiskey consumption led to Canada’s version of Prohibition; unlike America, Prohibition in Canada was handled on a provincial level, with different regions passing (and subsequently repealing) their Temperance acts at different times. A country-wide Prohibition went into effect from 1918-1920, partially as a wartime measure.

By the time America’s Prohibition came around in 1920, many Canadian distilleries were back in business. This led Canadian whiskey to feature prominently in liquor-smuggling rings. In particular, Hiram Walker’s distillery in Ontario was directly across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan.

They became responsible for a high volume of whiskey passing into the United States on small, fast smuggling boats. Canadian whiskey was of a much higher quality than the homemade stuff most Americans were sneaking during Prohibition, and that reputation has carried over into modern times.

What’s Special About Canadian Whiskey

So, what makes Canadian whiskey stand out? Partially it’s the rye content. Canadian whiskey became well-known for containing 90 to 100 percent rye, which is why many Canadians refer to Canadian whiskey as simply Canadian rye.

Not all Canadian whiskey is rye whiskey though, and traditionally it’s made from corn and sometimes even wheat. Canadian whiskey is also typically blended from two or more single-barrel whiskeys, which tends to give it a smoother, lighter flavor.

Canadian whiskey can also be incredibly complicated, however. With a large number of distilleries currently operating across the country, the varieties and flavors are endless. Here are five of the top Canadian whiskey brands.

Best Canadian Whiskey Brands

Crown Royal

Though Crown Royal is currently a staple in most American liquor stores, the brand started out small. In 1939, King George VI and his wife Queen Elizabeth became the first reigning monarchs to visit Canada. In honor of their visit, Samuel Bronfman, then-president of Seagram, set out to craft a Canadian whiskey suitable for the royal couple. After experimenting with many different blends, he ended up with a mix of 50 whiskeys which became known as Crown Royal.

At first, only ten cases of Crown Royal were created, and they were stocked on the train containing the King and his entourage. As the King toured across Canada, rumors of this special-made whiskey spread and demand increased.

Soon, Seagram started selling Crown Royal in stores, where citizens lined up for a taste of this kingly whiskey. In 1960, Crown Royal was released in the United States, where it quickly became the ubiquitous brand in the purple velvet pouch we all know and love.

The Crown Royal Blended Canadian Whiskey you find in stores today is modeled after the original blend from 1939. Its recipe contains a combination of at least 50 different whiskeys. Its smell and taste are both cloyingly sweet with notes of caramel and citrus.

It has a long, lingering finish that suggests the taste of candy corn and maple syrup. Crown Royal Deluxe is a medium bodied whiskey with just a minor burn. It contains 40 percent ABV and typically costs about $25 for 750 ml.  

Lot 40

Lot No. 40 was initially a limited release that has seen a resurgence in the 2010s. It was created in the late 1990s in a line of premium whiskeys under the Canadian Whisky Guild series. Joshua Booth was the ancestor of one of Hiram Walker’s distillers. He was a Canadian pioneer, distiller and even a politician. It gets its name after the plot of land on Joshua Booth’s historic Ontario farm.

The low availability of Lot 40 led to its status as a whiskey legend. What few bottles remained after it disappeared in 2000 were treated as collector’s items and sold for top dollar. Due to this high demand, Pernod-Ricard, the original owner of the Lot 40 distillery, re-released Lot 40 in 2012. The brand is still available in stores and still enjoys its reputation as a premium whiskey.

The 2012 edition Lot 40 is 100 percent rye. Technically 10 percent of that is malted rye. It’s considered one of the best rye whiskeys made in Canada, and it’s easy to see why. It has a complex nose and palate of rye, sugar, dill, citrus, caramel, and cinnamon, and the finish is long and woody.

Overall, it’s a well-balanced, medium-to-full-bodied rye whiskey that’s rich and smooth and perfect for drinking straight. Lot 40 is 86-proof and can be found in stores for around $50.

Forty Creek

Forty Creek was a privately launched distillery owned by John K. Hall. Hall was a winemaker for four decades and owned Kittling Ridge Wine & Spirits before deciding to get into the whiskey game in 1992. The distillery was purchased by the Campari Group in 2014, but it’s still made in Grimsby, Ontario.

There are currently six different whiskey blends under the Forty Creek label, all of which still bear John K. Hall’s name. Forty Creek is highly esteemed and has won many awards for its excellent Canadian whiskey brand.

Forty Creek Barrel Select is considered their entry-level Canadian whiskey, and while it doesn’t live up to its higher-end brethren, it’s still a decent example of what the brand is capable of. The taste is sweet and syrupy, with butterscotch, caramel corn, candy corn, and toffee dominating the palate. It’s got a medium finish with lingering notes of vanilla.

If you’re looking for an easy-drinking Canadian whiskey with a light burn, Forty Creek Barrel Select is a great start. It contains 40 percent ABV and costs about $20.

Alberta Rye

Alberta Distillers in the largest rye producer in North America, and the oldest distillery in Western Canada, producing for over 60 years. The distillery is smack-dab in the center of prime rye country, where the long, bleak winters give way to abundant crops of rye. Alberta is currently owned by Beam Suntory, of the eponymous Jim Beam Bourbon and also Skinnygirl wine.

Alberta Rye Dark Batch whiskey is a blend of 91 percent rye whiskey, 8 percent bourbon, and 1 percent Spanish sherry. It comes highly recommended as a cocktail whiskey, with Beam Suntory itself publishing numerous recipes on its website.

This whiskey is too strong for an average sipping whiskey. It has an intense heat that comes through in both the smell and the taste. However, the texture is buttery, with heavy woody notes and layers of complexity that give way to muted fruit and raisin sweetness.

The overall experience of Alberta Rye Dark Batch whiskey is unique and exciting, but it’s not for the faint of heart. It has 45 percent ABV and can be found in most stores for about $30.

JP Wiser’s

JP Wiser’s whiskey beats out Alberta Rye as the oldest continually producing Canadian whiskey. It was established in 1857 by John Philip Wiser and introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. JP Wiser’s Rye whiskey is only available in the United States, but their De Luxe blend is their top-seller in Canada.

JP Wiser’s De Luxe is hard to find in the US, which is unfortunate. It has a smooth coffee and chocolate body with a spicy and dry finish. If you’re visiting Canada in the near future, you can pick up a bottle for around $30.

JP Wiser’s Rye whiskey is cheaper and has a vastly different character. The nose is faint with just a touch of butterscotch. The flavor is incredibly smooth, without much burn, and lightly sweet with hints of cereal and caramel. The finish is disappointingly short and leaves a faint bitterness on the tongue.

If you want to try a whiskey from the oldest continuously-running distillery in Canada, but you can’t leave the country, JP Wiser’s Rye is inexpensive and inoffensive. It costs roughly $15 in stores and contains 40 percent ABV.

Runners-Up

If you want to check out a few more examples of Canadian Whiskey, here are some quintessential Canadian whiskey brands that rank a little lower for us.

Canadian Club

Overview: Medium-bodied with a gently sweet flavor and notes of winter spices and dark sugar.

40 percent ABV, available for about $25.

Caribou Crossing

Overview: Smooth and velvety with light spice and floral undertones, and a surprisingly long finish.

40 percent ABV, available in stores for $50.

Canadian Mist

Overview: Simple and smooth for easy drinking, and excellent in cocktails.

40 percent ABV, only $10 in most liquor stores.

Conclusion

The best Canadian whiskey brands all share similar characteristics: they’re blended, high-rye, and complex. With multiple varieties available from each brand, there truly is something for everyone in the great white north. Experienced whiskey lovers and newbies alike can appreciate the resurgence of Canadian whiskey on the American market.

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