Canadian whisky is distilled, aged, and bottled in Canada. That definition is easy to understand; like single-origin coffee, tea, or chocolate, the product comes from a single geographical origin.
Canadian whisky stands in a category of its own. It is a uniquely Canadian product with a mellow taste profile that isn’t as ‘harsh’ as Scotch.
What is Canadian whisky?
Canada gives whisky producers a lot of freedom to express themselves in their products—all they have to do is adhere to a few simple rules:
- The whisky must be made from cereal grains in any combination a producer sees fit,
- Prepared, distilled, and matured in Canada,
- Aged for a minimum of three years in wooden barrels of any type that’s smaller than 700 liters,
- The final product must have the character, taste, and aroma associated with Canadian whisky,
- Producers must bottle the final product at a minimum of 40% ABV,
- Producers are allowed to add caramel flavoring and coloring to the final product, and
- Producers are allowed to add up to 9.09% of other spirits that have aged for a minimum of two years.
Canadian whisky is mostly a blended whisky that uses a base spirit distilled to around 95% alcohol (190 proof), aged in wooden casks for three years, and blended with a lower proof but containing lots more aroma, taste, and congeners.
We’ll look at the rules governing Canadian whisky and how this influences what distillers can and cannot do with and to their whiskey. Next, we’ll look at the unique processes involved in the Canadian whisky process. Finally, we’ll debunk some common myths and offer some thoughts on Canadian whisky’s taste profile.
Rules Governing Canadian Whisky
Although ‘Rye’ is interchangeable with ‘Whisky’ in Canada, there’s no law stating what the mash bill should be. Many whiskies sometimes contain a small amount of rye or none. The government doesn’t prescribe producers in this regard.
The whisky must be distilled, aged, and bottled in Canada. The mash bill must be grain (barley, rye, or corn are the main ingredients), and most Canadian whiskies use a corn-heavy mash bill.
All a distiller has to do is ferment the grains, distill them, and age the resulting product in wooden barrels smaller than 700 liters (184.92 gallons) for a minimum of three years.
The government doesn’t dictate what kind of barrels they need to use either, so it is up to the distiller to choose their barrel(s) of choice for aging. The final product must be 40% ABV (80 proof).
You can read the complete set of (relatively short) rules here.
The 9.09% Rule
This is where Canadian whisky gets interesting. The 9.09% rule is infamous and allows whisky producers to add a maximum of 9.09% of non-whisky liquor to their whisky. They’re still allowed to label it Canadian whisky.
9.09% is also one part to eleven parts. The 9.09% rule is sometimes also called the Sam Bronfman clause.
But, producers cannot start adding all kinds of yummy things to their whisky because, according to the law, quoting briefly below:
- “It shall possess the aroma, taste, and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.”
- “Can contain caramel coloring or flavoring.”
So what do producers add if you cannot add yummy things like chocolate sauce or cheesecake flavoring? So glad you asked!
Producers may add expensive and yummy stuff like wine, sherry, bourbon, or cognac to Canadian whisky. The 9.09% rule gives Canadian whisky a superpower and secret weapon over other whiskies.
To put this in context: Alberta Rye Dark Batch (known as Alberta Premium Dark Horse in the US) uses this rule: 91% rye whisky, 8% Old Grand-Dad Bourbon, and 1% sherry to create a unique whisky.
The bourbon and sherry somewhat tame the rye with sweetness, hints of fruit, and vanilla. The 100% rye whiskies used are a high-proof column still whisky that’s aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 12 years, and a second lower-proof pot still whisky is aged in virgin oak barrels for six years.
Alberta Distillers is the largest producer of 100% rye whisky in North America and one of very few in the world capable of using an all-rye mash bill.
The 9.09% rule also allows whisky producers to save money. Instead of purchasing barrels that previously aged port, rum, sherry, or wine, they can add one-eleventh to the actual whisky to impart the taste without spending money on expensive barrels.
Now that we’ve covered the rules governing Canadian whisky let’s further examine this unique spirit and see what else we can discover.
Canadian Distilleries and Their Processes
Besides some micro-distilleries, Canada features eight large distilleries that make up the bulk of their whiskey products.
The eight distilleries are spread across three provinces:
- Quebec (Valleyfield),
- Ontario (Canadian Mist, Forty Creek, and Hiram Walker),
- Alberta (Alberta Distillers, Black Velvet, and Highwood).
Each distillery follows its recipes and techniques, making it difficult to pin down a standardized process or taste profile.
Fermentation and Distillation
Instead of using a mash bill, Canadian distillers ferment and distill each grain individually—Crown Royal is an exception because it uses five mash bills for its final blending.
Canadian producers like distilling their corn to neutral grain spirit levels—190 proof, or 95% pure alcohol. This doesn’t mean Canadian whisky is flavored vodka either—the base spirit is aged in the barrel for three years to develop character and taste when blended.
This allows producers a palette of flavors to adjust according to their needs and consumers’ tastes.
Although there isn’t a standard Canadian distilling process, the distilleries share commonalities, as we’ll see below. Let’s put something straight off the bat—Canadian whisky isn’t Pandora’s box filled with chaos.
Another thing, a blended whisky is not sinful or a substandard product either; if anything, it allows you to sample a wide variety of tastes and aromas in a single glass.
While there are no rules governing the type of barrel producers may use, many producers purchase ex-American bourbon and rye barrels to age their spirits. These once-used barrels allow the American bourbon to absorb tannins, sugars, and vanillins found in the newly charred barrel.
Still, Canadian producers are after the secondary flavors. Lignin in the barrels delivers secondary flavors such as floral notes, fruit tastes, and rye spices. Only a used barrel can give these flavors.
Distilling and aging the various grains separately allows the producer to tailor how they age their spirit grains. For example, a rye distillate might be ready in three years. Still, the barley or corn distillate needs longer to attain the taste the producer seeks.
After aging, the base spirit distilled to a high proof will have a light flavor. The blended whisky, distilled to a lower proof and thus retaining more flavor, aroma, and congeners, among others, is added to the base to produce the final product.
You can think of Canadian whisky as a blend of single-grain whiskies coming together in the final product.
Some Common Misconceptions
Let’s dispel some common myths and misconceptions about Canadian whisky and put them to rest.
- No law governs the grains that producers must use in Canadian whisky. Canadian whisky is also called by different names: Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky, or Rye Whisky. Although rye whisky is a catch-all name for whisky in Canada, it doesn’t mean the product is produced from rye or even contains rye.
- The Prohibition in America did not ‘create’ Canadian whisky. Some Canadian whisky did cross the border into the US because all the distilleries were closed south of the Canadian border. Just like Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky did suffer due to Prohibition—Harry Hatch, a salesman, had the means to buy four of Canada’s five largest distilleries (Corby, Gooderham & Worts, Hiram Walker, and Wiser’s). The fact that he could buy those distilleries didn’t bode well for Canadian whisky during Prohibition, so it was not created during or through America’s Prohibition.
- Perhaps the most upsetting myth is that Canadian whisky is just ‘brown vodka’ and too ‘light’ to be considered whisky at all. This misconception probably stems from the idea that Canadian producers use the base whisky, which is distilled to neutral grain spirit levels (around 95% ABV or 190 proof), like vodka, to produce their whiskies. The law clearly states that Canadian whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years; during that time, the base whisky will get its flavor from the barrels. So, it is not whisky-flavored vodka.
Thoughts on Taste
When comparing Canadian whisky to Scotch, you’d be surprised to notice how mellow it is. Of course, rye will add some spiciness to the taste.
The flavor is unmistakably unique due to the rye component. It is the perfect introduction to the world of whisky for a novice because it isn’t as ‘harsh’ as Scotch.
Remember we mentioned the 9.09% rule is Canadian whisky’s secret weapon? Canadian whisky holds its own when mixed into many cocktails and doesn’t hide behind other flavors.
If you’re interested in trying Canadian whisky, look at this list for various options, such as the best budget-friendly option, the best for sipping, and many other options that will let you fall in love with Canadian whisky.
If that list doesn’t convince you, you can always turn to the Canadian whisky expert; Davin de Kergommeaux’s website might do the trick.
You can think of Canadian whisky as a ‘single grain,’ blended whisky—yes, it isn’t made from a single grain like a Scotch single malt—but the similarities are there.
Single grains are distilled and matured individually (the ‘single grain’ part) and blended together before bottling (the ‘blended whisky’ part).
You could also think of Canadian whisky as a marriage between American and Scotch whiskies: the American part is that it either contains American spirits like bourbon or is aged in ex-bourbon casks from America.
For the Scotch part, think of the single malt line: a single distillery producing a single whisky from a single batch of grains. Also, remember that Canada had many Scottish immigrants in the past (Nova Scotia means ‘new Scotland,’ need we say more?).
They brought their love and knowledge of Scotch and helped build a proudly Canadian product.