There is a slight difference between Canadian and American whisky. Even though a few Canadian distillers use mash bills, a majority of them distill grains individually, barrel and age them separately and blend the aged products with each other after they mature.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, settlers made ‘common whisky’. They distilled all the grain which was available or those left over after the harvest. In 1890, Canadian distillers mainly made bourbon or rye whisky, similar to that made in the U.S., but within a few decades, they began to distill the grains separately. They did this because they wanted to have more control over the flavor of the finished liquor and more blending options. In the early 1900s, Canadian whisky makers found that they could achieve maximum flavor from distilling some grains separately and using individual distillates as part of a wider flavor palate.
However, according to Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux, it was rum they were making in the 18th century, not whisky. The westward expansion made distillers realize the importance of ingredients which were easily available; molasses came from the Caribbean and as settlers shifted away from the coast, grains like corn and rye started being grown. Canadian whisky’s style began developing in the mid-1800s. Rye grows well in cold conditions like those common to Canada, and so any Canadian whisky with rye in it started to be called ‘rye whisky’.
Newer methods kept emerging, and Canadian distillers chose those that could give them the ability to respond to market demands quickly. During Prohibition, they had to adjust to suit the American taste for whisky. These were all building blocks. During the Noble Experiment (aka Prohibition), the Americans, – who had become Canadian whisky’s biggest market – started to buy alcohol illicitly and took what they could get. During the 1960s and 1980s, the same consumer base began to prefer lighter spirits like vodka and unaged rum or ‘softer’ whisky.
Whisky, especially bourbon and rye, along with cocktails, started once again to gain popularity in the 1990s. People now wanted more prominent and bolder flavors. They began to demand more of a range of flavors, which was a significant shift from when they wanted the same style or brand.
In 1939, Seagram’s owner Sam Bronfman made the liquor, Crown Royal, to celebrate King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Canada, and deemed it the whisky fit for royalty. To date, it is the most popular and highest selling Canadian whisky. And even though some techniques have changed over the years, the flavor profile remains the same, because of its master blenders. Crown Royal has five different kinds of whisky, two which are 100% corn, two which are a mixture of corn, rye and malted barley, and one which is 95% rye and 5% malt.
According to Kergommeaux, “Each grain has the potential to contribute specific unique characteristics to the whisky”. Every grain maximizes potential when the grains are used to emphasize these features. However, not all distilleries do this in one specific way. All the big ones take the benefit of at least one flavor-enhancing feature of individual processing, which begins at milling time. Kergommeaux says that “Different grist sizes can be used to get the most out of corn, wheat, rye and barley. Most distillers use hammer mills with different screen sizes for the different grains, so corn grist may be larger than rye grist”. Each grain’s flavor can be enhanced by using specific yeasts, which is exactly what Crown Royal does, they select yeasts that make the best use of the flavor profiles of some grains.
Kerommeaux gives Hiram Walker the credit of ‘barrel blending’. Barrel blending is when individual grain distillates are batched together before they are put into the barrel, a recipe of different barrel blends is then used to make a formula, which is how Canadian Club whisky was first concocted.
Hiram Walker opened his first distillery in 1858. He would select the grains of rye, rye malt, barley malt and corn grains. The first three were the flavoring grains which were pot distilled. The corn, on the other hand, was column distilled, and each of these were aged individually until the 1950s. But due to the American demand of Canadian Club whisky, they started to blend the distillates before they were aged. The mash bill has remained the same since 1858.
Types of Canadian Whisky Variations
It is false that all Canadian whisky is soft and light. The flavor is strong and is gaining widespread appreciation and there are more types of Candian whisky than distilleries in Canada. Crown Royal Blender’s Mash has big, bold flavors and that’s just one example.
Signal Hill Spirits has used the historical foundation of Canadian whisky to make a new brand and flavor profile. When the partners of the company first merged, their dream was to have a distillery. But many factors led them to hire Michael Booth, who was the retired master distiller for Hiram Walker. Booth had many connections in the liquor world and was able to get the owners access to whisky stocks at his previous place of employment as well as grain shares and more. The brand started up with plans to have a distiller turned into a hybrid of non-distiller producers, with the creative option to make whiskies to specific wants at one of the biggest distilleries in Canada. In the 2019 New York International Spirits Competition, their flagship whisky came in second place.
Even though they don’t have a distillery, Signal Hill Spirits was still able to regulate the process to get the exact whisky that they wanted. They wanted their whisky to be approachable, sweet without the sugar, and with lots of flavor without the burn. And they achieved this through barrel management by picking the best whisky for cocktails.
The term ‘blended whisky’ in the United States has a very different definition, one which has GNS, or grain neutral spirit. However, advice from Canadian whisky makers and experts is not to let blended whisky stop you from undergoing an experience that is truly amazing.
The flavors, the layers and the artistry, together make and maintain the best flavor profile. Throughout Canadian history, distillers and blenders have been using their expertise and creativity to produce whiskies with a wide range of flavors. Today, the story of Canadian whisky shows the array of possibilities even more so.