For more than 200 years (longer than it has been a country), Canada has been producing whisky. So how did it all get started? By a beer maker, of course.
In 1801, John Molson (Go Habs Go!) bought a used rum still and started distilling a mash made from wheat. The resulting product didn’t go over very well, because, apparently wheat based whisky tastes horrible. William Gooderham and James Worts attempted the same thing in Toronto in the 1830’s, also with limited success. It wasn’t until a Detroit businessman, Hiram Walker, started producing a rye-based whisky in the 1860’s in his Windsor, Ontario, distillery, that Canadian whisky started to gain popularity. Co-incidentally, with the onset of the American Revolution, many of the American bourbon distilleries got destroyed or stopped producing, leaving the door open for Hiram to start shipping his product south of the border.
American Prohibition also helped Canadian whisky gain popularity south of the border. In the early 1900’s the whisky smuggling business was booming, with help from the Purple Gang from Detroit, and later, old Al Capone himself, who smuggled millions of dollars worth of Canadian whisky across the border.
Why is Canadian whisky so popular? Like Canadians themselves, it’s mild mannered and understated, making it a great choice for mixed drinks. And in the early days, it had some pretty high level supporters. Queen Victoria, not known for her loosey goosey ways, reportedly drank Canadian Club every day. Lady Randolf Churchill, Sir Winston’s mother, was also a big fan, and is credited with the invention of the rye whisky-based Manhattan cocktail.
So what makes Canadian whisky unique? For starters, the grain portion and the rye portion are distilled independently and then blended before aging. Next, unlike Bourbon whiskey, Canadian whisky can be aged in any sort of barrel, which allows different flavors to be introduced during aging. And last, it’s distilled at a very high initial rate (about 85%), giving it a light taste. And it’s trendy. With the onset in recent years of labels such as Forty Creek, Alberta Premium, and Pike Creek, Canadian whisky production has grown to more than 50 million liters per year. 80% of that goes directly into the good old USA. In 2016, Jim Murray, (one of the world’s most renowned whisky gods) named Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as the world whisky of the year. Wow!
I recommend that you give it a try. It’s different than scotch and bourbon. It’s light and sweet and easy to drink either on its own or in a variety of great mixed drinks.
Next time, we’ll finish off the ‘introduction to whisky’ series with a look at Irish whisky. Then we’ll shift gears and start into a wide range of stuff all designed to enhance your whisky drinking experience. Cheers!