The Canadian Whisky Landscape is Transforming

Discover the Diverse Range of Styles

It wasn’t that long ago that Canadian whisky was sometimes referred to as “brown vodka,” the negative moniker pointing the finger at the typically smooth and light character. Today, the Canadian whisky landscape is transforming because distillers are listening to what consumers are looking for, experimenting with different grains, finishing barrel enhancements, and even providing some single barrel offerings. The results have been impressive, with a more diverse range of Canadian whisky styles than we’ve ever seen before.

We have reason to be thankful that Canadian whisky regulations are rather broad, making it relatively easy to initiate changes while still maintaining category inclusion. To be classified as Canadian whisky, it must be mashed and distilled in Canada, made from fermented cereal grains, aged for no less than three years in a small wood barrel, possess aroma, taste, and character typically associated with Canadian whisky, and bottled no less than 40% abv. Other than these simple regulations, the rules of Canadian whisky are rather loose.

Several hundred years ago, because rye was widely grown in Canada, distillers started adding small amounts of rye grain to their corn or wheat-based whiskies and the spicy result was a smashing success. People started to request these “rye-flavoured” whiskies by simply referring to them as “rye”. Interestingly, Canadian law allows the use of “Canadian Whisky,” “Canadian Rye Whisky,” or “Rye” on the label, even though the amount of rye grain typically used is usually minuscule or may even contain no rye grain whatsoever. In the US, regulations are a little more detailed and if it states “Rye” on the label it must contain 51% or more rye grain.

Somehow, many Canadians still refer to all Canadian whisky as “rye”, which is quite possibly the root of common confusion in what grains make up the majority of the mix in most Canadian whisky.

Between 2009 and 2015, American rye whiskey sales in the US rose over 530%, prompting some Canadian whisky producers to increase their inclusion of rye grain substantially, bringing these whiskies closer to the flavour and spicy character of American rye whiskey. After all, approximately 70% of Canadian whisky is sold in the US market, and with the resurgence of cocktail culture, robust, spicy whiskies tend to play to the modern palate.

Adapting to changing tastes and trends can occur slightly faster in Canada, because unlike the US producers, Canadian whisky distillers do not use mash bills. Each grain type is milled, mashed, fermented, distilled, and matured separately, and blended together as already matured whiskies. In the US, distillers combine all the grains before the whiskey is made, so the final result takes much longer to assess because of the combined maturation time. As Canadian whiskies are matured separately, the individual maturation times are irrelevant because the matured whisky only needs to be blended. Of course, there are exceptions to the common Canadian practice, and a couple of producers prefer to blend their individual distillates before maturation, making them a little slower to adapt to the changes in the market.

Canadian regulations state that Canadian whiskies must “possess aroma, taste, and character typically associated with Canadian whisky”. This could hardly be vaguer, but it pleases the producers because it allows them broad creative freedom in the art of blending, even allowing for up to 9.09% of other non-whisky ingredients to achieve a desired profile. It’s doubtful that we will see producers marketing the addition of perhaps, port, sherry, or colouring agents because of the misconceptions this would lead to. Many years ago it was common place to use ex-port and ex-sherry barrels for maturation, and the slight influence of flavour was and is popular today, so the addition of small amounts of these ingredients is used more often than not.

To top it all off, we have award-winning bottles between the $30-40 range and 20+ year bottles for approximately $100. The affordable price point of Canadian whiskies makes it easy for us to taste all that our distilling community has to offer, so go out there and try something that you haven’t had before.