The thought of whiskey conjures thoughts of the heather-covered moors of Scotland or the copper pots of Irish distillers. For some, it refers to a uniquely American version of this old distilled liquor – bourbon.
Canadian whiskey isn’t the first product universally thought of when you reach for a dram, but it holds a significant share of the whiskey market in North America and around the world. And it has a history as fascinating as that of its cousins.
Are you a Canadian whiskey convert? Maybe you’re looking for a new refined spirit to delight your guests at your next party.
Wherever your interest takes you, learning about the unique history of this Canadian spirit is bound to help you become a more discerning whiskey drinker.
The Origins of Canadian Whiskey
The history of Canadian whiskey is intimately tied up with the history of Canadian settlement.
Whiskey began to take off when Canada became a popular destination for whiskey brewing immigrants from Scotland and Ireland began to arrive in droves in the 18th and 19th centuries. These immigrants were often poor and didn’t have much, but many arrived with small stills.
Yet, even when they began distilling alcohol in the new colonies, these settlers weren’t distilling whiskey – they were making rum.
When the immigrants arrived, they were concentrated on the eastern seaboard where the shipping industry thrived. Molasses was produced in droves in the Caribbean colonies held by Britain and France. It was much cheaper than grain, which needed to be used for immediate consumption.
As the immigrants began to move slowly westward and inland towards Toronto, their access to molasses was cut off. It was much easier to buy it at ports than it was hundreds of miles inland. The vessels that brought barrels of the sugarcane waste product weren’t able to move further into the territory than Montreal.
Even then, the Scottish and Irish settlers weren’t the backbone of what would become the Canadian whiskey industry.
Rather, it was the enterprising English and German immigrants who would become the first commercial distillers in Canada. As for the Scottish and Irish, they kept distilling and consuming rum.
Whiskey wasn’t an enterprise that began with local, small batch distillers. It was a commercial enterprise from the very beginning. The availability of local wheat and partnerships with local flour mills, who provide the grist, made it easier to produce whiskey on an industrial scale.
The first distillery was built in 1769 in today’s Quebec. Over the next century, 200 more distilleries would open across Canada.
One of these distilleries would change the whiskey game forever.
The Legendary Hiram Walker
In 1858, Hiram Walker purchased land in Ontario alongside the River Detroit.
Walker was born in New England in 1816 before moving west to Michigan in the 1830s to leave behind the life of poverty he had been born into. After a bit of trial and error, he started a grocery business in Detroit that would be met with some success.
Walker was also interested in distilling. He made his own cider vinegar to sell in his shops to avoid selling other peoples’ products; the profit margin was higher on his own products than those he had to sell at a markup.
In the 1850s, Walker decided to take his interest in distilling further still – into whiskey. He made his first barrels in 1854 and again, he was met with success because his skill as a distiller meant he made a high-quality whiskey.
Life in Michigan was good, but the temperance movement was beginning to take hold. Moreover, a great opportunity was present: The Great Western Railway, a railroad on the Canadian side of the River Detroit was about to open. The provinces of Canada were about to be open to Americans.
In 1856, Walker purchased a farm about 11 and ½ miles up the River Detroit from the town of Windsor. For £300 he had purchased an unprecedented opportunity: a brand-new market for his popular whiskey in Canada.
At the time whiskey distillers sold their product in the same style as the Scots: straight from the barrel it was aged in. Walker took this a step further and sold his whiskey in branded bottles bearing his name.
Walker’s Club Whisky was born and it immediately took off. It was the first brand of Canadian whiskey to be sold around the world including across the river in the United States. It was so popular in the United States that Walker was forced to add “Canadian” to the name of his whiskey.
Walker’s legacy lives on in Walkers Canadian Club Whisky, but the entrepreneur’s contributions to the area aren’t forgotten either. Walker was the town patriarch of what is now called Walkerville. By 1898, his distillery employed nearly all of the local population – 600 people. Everyone lived on site; those who refused to live in one of the purpose-built cottages built by Walker were often denied work.
The town of Walkerville was incorporated in 1890 to prevent creeping and being incorporated into nearby Windsor. Walker himself provided fire and police services, streets, running water, and street lighting while fostering a strong civic service committed to prosperity.
Whiskey Standards: Canadian Whiskey vs Canadian Rye Whiskey
When whiskey first took off in Canada, it was made with local wheat.
Wheat was abundant and it was so easy to access that it was called “common whiskey”.
Today, whiskey is no longer made with wheat alone – a rye mash is added to the process to add flavor. That change is thanks to the Germans who began to increasingly move to Canada during the 1600 and 1700s. Wheat may have been abundant, but it made a fairly boring whiskey.
Germans knew about the wonders of rye and began to add rye to the whiskey mash. It was so good that it quickly took over the market.
Although people use the terms Canadian whiskey and Canadian rye whiskey interchangeably, there is a significant difference in standards.
Unlike American standards, which require rye whiskey to include at least 51% rye in the mash, there’s no legal standard for Canadian whiskey. In technical terms, you can say there is no mash bill, which represents the recipe of grains and cereals used to create the mash, which starts the process of fermentation.
Instead, there’s only one set of legal standards for Canadian whiskey.
First, all whiskey must be aged for at least three years in Canada. The wooden barrels used for aging must not hold more than 700 liters – though, it doesn’t matter where the barrels are from or how they have been treated.
The spirit produced must also be mashed as well as distilled in Canada.
There are no rules about the alcohol content of the spirit: unlike in other countries, the alcohol content must be over 90%. However, 90% spirit isn’t exactly drinkable, so it’s always blended down to somewhere around 40%.
The flavors and colors suffer because of the blending. Unlike other distillers, Canadian producers are allowed to add artificial flavors and caramel colors to make up for any damage during the blending process.
When it’s finally ready to be bottled, the ABV must reach at least 40%.
The result? There’s plenty of room to manoeuvre for distillers. This is why you’ll see such a varying style and standard of Canadian whiskey on the market even today.
The Faces of Canadian Whiskey
Canadian whiskey includes a wide range of styles or brands because of the loose standards and the sheer number of producers who have been working on their craft over the past two centuries.
Canadian whiskey has also always been very popular: 90% of it is exported to the United States. This is great news for anyone who wants to move away from bourbon but doesn’t want to fork out cash for the cost (and craft) of Scottish spirits.
In fact, some of your favorite spirits might actually be Canadian whiskeys.
Here are a few to check out:
Lot 40 is distilled by the Hiram Walker & Sons Limited company – yes, that Hiram Walker.
The Lot 40 blend is a Canadian rye whiskey. People love it because it is similar to a Scotch single malt but with the added twist of a malted rye.
The rye ensures its bold and spicy that provides it a distinct and attractive taste.
If you’ve never had a rye, this is one to start with.
Stalk & Barrel Single Malt
Traditional whiskey (and we mean whisky) lovers who want to avoid the trappings of the added rye would do well with the Stalk & Barrel Single Malt.
Made from barley, it’s aged in old bourbon barrels, just like a Scottish malt is.
Unblended, unfiltered, and unbeatable in the Canadian whiskey market.
Canadian Club 100% Rye
The masters of the Alberta Distillery offer a mystery of a whiskey: it’s made of 100% rye, but no one knows how old it is. It’s probably blended in old bourbon and whiskey barrels. The taste certainly spicy. But otherwise, it’s one to keep an eye on.
Canadian whiskey has a history that tracks the history of the land it comes from. With a product that is distinct from other whiskeys, it’s certainly worth trying.
Have you tried any Canadian whiskey? What’s your go-to bottle?