Canadian whisky has long been considered the humble cousin to backwoods-cool bourbon, smooth triple-distilled Irish and sophisticated single-malt Scotch. It was mostly bottled as popular (but relatively light and nondescript) blends and consumed with ginger ale or cola.
But our loosey-Canada-goosey production regulations are the envy of other countries. Unlike strict Scotch or American bourbon, they allow more room for innovation. And while other whisky-producing countries are facing shortages of aged spirit, our brands have stocks of liquid gold.
“The fact that we have so much single-grain whisky sitting in warehouses aging for a very long time means we can react very quickly to demands from the market to make the whisky people want now,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky and founder of the Canadian Whisky Awards. Canadian Club, for instance, is annually releasing fortysomething-year-old whiskies for less than $300 a bottle. A 40-year The Balvenie single-malt Scotch is around $10,000.
The world is catching on that we make great whisky in Canada. Here are three bottles that deserve room in your bar.
Lot No. 40 Canadian Whisky
The World Whiskies Awards called the “big-bang” cask-strength version of this whisky a masterpiece, naming it the best Canadian rye this year: a 100-per-cent rye grain whisky with a whiff of orange peel and a hugely spicy, warming finish.
“Funny how Canadian whisky can be called rye and have no rye grain, let alone rye flavour,” says Don Livermore, the master blender at Windsor, Ont.-based Corby Spirit and Wine. Livermore is embracing the comeback of bigger, spicier styles. “I’m putting rye away like crazy,” says the barrel-aging specialist, who holds one of the world’s few doctorates in distilling. “That’s me looking into a crystal ball and guessing what people will drink in the next five to 10 years.”
If wheat-based whisky can be as soft as a Tim Hortons doughnut and corn whisky as buttery as hoecakes, this rye gives you the full pumpernickel experience in a bottle. That clear flavour connection to the ingredients is the kind of transparency spirits drinkers are looking for now. “People want to know where their food is coming from. Where does your flavour come from?” says Livermore, who has designed a dizzyingly detailed whisky flavour wheel that dials the tastes you like back to the grain, yeast or barrel they originate from.
The master blender is behind other award-winners, too: smooth, sipping whiskies such as the J.P. Wiser’s 35 that was the Canadian Whisky of the Year in 2018, rum-barrel-finished Pike Creek and grain-forward Gooderham & Worts blends of corn, rye, barley and wheat whiskies. “The Canadian whisky barons left us with a legacy of diversity,” he says. “I just want to see Canadian whisky grow.”
$36.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $40.49 in Manitoba, $37.95 in Ontario, $38 in Quebec, $40.29 in New Brunswick, $40.11 in Nova Scotia, $39.98 in Newfoundland; corby.ca
This triple-barrelled, seven-year-old flavour bomb was named best new whisky at the 2019 Canadian Whisky Awards. Its stylishly clawed bottle symbolizes “the attitude with which we’re approaching whisky – almost breaking and entering,” says Andres Faustinelli, the Venezuelan-born master blender at the Okanagan, B.C., headquarters of Mark Anthony Spirits. At a time when most Canadian whisky brands are owned by multinationals, the home of Mission Hill Winery and Mike’s Hard Lemonade is on the map as a place where modern booze trends are born.
“It’s all about innovation,” Faustinelli says of making whisky in a winery, by what he calls a reverse process: starting with the robust flavour profile they wanted and working back. That meant sourcing a 100-per-cent corn whisky, something “that would allow me to add layers, and give that sweet entry base when you sip it.” It then aged in red-wine casks that previously held Bordeaux-style blends, adding “a dry finish that allows you to keep coming back for another sip.” A short finishing time in new Hungarian oak barrels delivers the final claw, giving Bearface “a spice element, a rich texture and a meatiness,” he says.
“You have a white canvas when it comes to whisky” in Canada, says the former stock analyst, who worked in the international booze trade and then as a California winemaker. “I don’t want to try to make a Scotch, not to make a bourbon, but to try in an open environment to see what kind of whisky we can make here.”
$39.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $39.44 in Saskatchewan, $39.99 in Manitoba, $39.95 in Ontario, $39.75 in Quebec, $40.29 in New Brunswick, $39.99 in Nova Scotia; bearfacewhisky.com
Forty Creek Copper Pot Canadian Whisky
The words copper pot are a whisky-nerd handshake: That’s the type of old-fashioned still that produces character-filled spirits ripe for smoothing out during long barrel-aging. Here, the copper still is a patina’d old hulk that churns out bartender candy: the Copper Pot Canadian Whisky blend is a peppery sipper with notes of cherry and citrus, with Forty Creek’s smooth-as-caramel finish.
Master blender Bill Ashburn has had a hand in every batch since the Grimsby, Ont., distillery started in 1992. “John Hall made it cool to drink Canadian whisky again,” de Kergommeaux says of the brand’s game-changing founder. As with Hall, Ashburn started as a winemaker and believes “the whisky is made in the blending tank.” Wheat, barley, rye or corn are fermented, distilled and barrel-aged separately in the Canadian tradition, then made into several distinct blends.
He’s a “stone wall” when it comes to revealing exact recipes, but Ashburn has gone from producing barley-forward blends that would taste familiar to Scotch drinkers to bottlings rich in crème brûlée, salty caramel and dark mocha notes.
We’ve come a long way from the days when Canadian whisky “was brown vodka,” as the taciturn Ashburn puts it. “Our goal is to make the whisky that you buy every few weeks. But even whisky snobs have no problem drinking our products.” And that shot of wisdom hits on the sweet spot of Canadian whisky’s current success.
$26.99 in British Columbia, various price in Alberta, $32.24 in Saskatchewan, $40.99 in Manitoba, $31.45 in Ontario, $31.28 in New Brunswick, $30.89 in Prince Edward Island, $30.99 in Nova Scotia, $32.58 in Newfoundland; fortycreekwhisky.com
Join wine critic Beppi Crosariol and other Globe and Mail journalists this July aboard the Globe Portugal Cruise. For itinerary and booking information, visit globedourocruise.com.