Before I set foot in Canada, I genuinely believed that I possessed, as a spirits writer, at least a competent working knowledge of what makes for “Canadian whisky.” I had read articles on the subject, and sampled quite a few Canadian blends and rye whiskies over the years. Certainly, I’d never given this particular corner of the whisky world the same kind of attention that I typically reserved for American whiskey and scotch, but I was confident that I knew what Canadian whisky was, and generally how it was made.
And yeah, I was wrong. Indeed, more wrong than I even realized it was possible to be. The things I didn’t know about Canadian whisky can, and have, filled plenty of books. This is simply not the spirit that I thought it was; the spirit I expected it to be. Canadian whisky, as a subject, is a whole lot more complex than meets the eye.
Many of these things, I discovered in the course of a recent press trip to the Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd. distillery in Toronto, generously sponsored by the U.S. importer Hotaling and Co., and the Canadian Corby Spirit and Wine Limited. The rest, I pieced together while reading more about the subject after returning from the short trip, and the more I absorbed, the more fascinating Canadian whisky has become to me. It’s a segment that is both highly regulated and obtusely labeled; vastly consumed but not often respected. And in the last few years, Canadian whisky has in many ways been coming into its own on an international stage.
Much of that growth, especially in terms of the growth of esteem for the segment, is thanks to the more recent products now produced at the massive Hiram Walker distillery, which is the largest in terms of production capacity in all of North America. Countless brands of both Canadian and American spirits are produced within its cavernous confines, but employees like Master Blender “Dr. Don” Livermore are most proud of the ones they created on site, including the likes of Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whisky, Pike Creek 10 Year Canadian Whisky and the revived version of historic Canadian brand Gooderham & Worts, whose founders are closely tied to the legacy of Canadian whisky itself. In fact, Hiram Walker and Sons Ltd. has now won “Distillery of the Year” twice running at the Canadian Whisky Awards, with Livermore taking home the inaugural “Blender of the Year” award in 2019 as well.
Gooderham & Worts is one of the historic whisky brands that has been revived at Hiram Walker.
All in all, this feels very much like a nascent time for Canadian whisky as a segment, but in order to truly appreciate it, we have to once and for all understand what exactly makes for “Canadian whisky,” dispelling some misunderstandings and myths in the process.
I can hardly blame people for being confused by Canadian whisky definitions and regulations, when I myself was very much in the dark about the subject until recently. It doesn’t help when you have a stronger grasp on what definitions mean in the U.S. or Scottish whiskey/whisky industries, because Canada is very much its own beast. Therefore, I’m going to give you a comprehensive definition here of what it means when you see “Canadian whisky” on a label, starting with the fact that they obviously spell it “whisky” as a national standard, in the same style as Scotland.
A. If a product in Canada is labeled as “Canadian whiskey,” then you automatically know that it means a few things. Namely, it means that every liquid inside that bottle, regardless of what it is, has seen some kind of wood aging. Distillates produced by the distillery, whether they’re corn, rye, wheat or barley-based (more on that in a moment) must spend at least three years in the wood. The first form of these regulations went on the books in 1890, in fact, making Canada the first country to mandate whisky aging—not necessarily as a quality control measure, as one might assume, but because it made it much easier to catalog whisky production for the purpose of government excise taxes.
B. As a result, unlike in American blended whiskeys, such as Early Times or Ten High, Canadian whiskies, even Canadian blended whiskies, cannot contain any portion of unaged grain spirits. With that said, Canadian blends often feature significant portions of distillate that are aged in used rather than newly charred (“virgin”) oak barrels, which contributes a significantly different profile. In this way, the Canadian whisky aging process contains elements of what is common in both the U.S. and Scotland. Canadian distillers are free to determine which types of wood and barrels to use (with an upper limit on how large they can be), rather than required to use newly charred oak, as in the case with American bourbon in particular.
C. Canadian whisky is typically the product of a single distillery, as in single-malt scotch, rather than containing liquid from various distilleries (although there’s an exception I’ll get to below).
D. One of the biggest differences between Canadian whisky production and U.S. whiskey production is the fact that Canadian distilleries almost universally choose to ferment, distill and age each grain distillate separately, rather than create specific mash bills, as is done in almost all American distilleries. This means they mash, cook, ferment, distill and age 100% corn whisky, 100% rye whisky, 100% wheat whisky, 100% malted barley whisky and more, and then age them separately as well before blending them together to create a final product. This may seem counterintuitive, but it actually conveys tremendous advantages to the distillery by allowing them to create new blends on a whim. Think about it—what happens when a new style of blend gains favor very quickly? Do you want to have to wait to distill and age a new mash bill to hope to take advantage of the trend? Or would you rather be able to court the trend by simply mixing together some of your vast reserves of varietal grain spirits? If “wheat-based blends” suddenly become the hottest thing on the whisky market next year, then you can be certain that Canadian distilleries will have the tools to put those products out into the market.
E. The other, biggest difference to someone used to the American model of distillation is that many Canadian whiskies (especially blended whiskies) contain some spirit that has been distilled a single time, and some spirit that has been distilled multiple times. The “double-distilled” portion of spirit has been distilled to a very high level of alcohol before entering the barrel, removing “impurities” but simultaneously stripping it of most of its grain-derived flavors. This is referred to as “light whisky,” and helps achieve the lighter flavor profile and mouthfeel that customers tend to associate with Canadian whisky. The single-distilled whisky, on the other hand, retains more of the grain-derived notes, and is referred to as “flavoring” whisky. The combination of numerous different types of “double-distilled/DD” and “flavoring” whiskies are used to create classic Canadian whisky blends, whereas more modern styles such as the Lot No. 40 Rye produced at Hiram Walker are solely, 100% rye whiskey, running through the column still only once before aging in oak, and would come close to qualifying in the U.S. as “straight rye.”
A pot still used for Lot No. 40 Rye at the Hiram Walker distillery.
F. One of the oddest additions is the “9.09% rule,” which states that up to 9.09% of the liquid in the bottle can also be “non-whisky flavoring,” typically in the form of fortified wines, sherries or separate spirits, provided those spirits are ALSO aged in wood for at least two years. In practice, this essentially means that in order to enhance the flavor of a whisky that wants to evoke something like port, a small portion of actual port can be added to the final blend, provided it has also been aged in wood for several years.
G. Ultimately, what this all means it that the words “Canadian whisky” imply some things with certainty (aged at least three years in wood), while leaving a whole lot of room for variation. Case in point: Both a 3-year-old, double-distilled, 100% corn spirit aged in used bourbon barrels, and a 10-year-old blend of single-distilled corn, rye and barley whiskies aged in newly charred oak and with a portion of sherry added can both accurately be described as simply “Canadian whisky.”
In short, the field of Canadian whisky is very wide-reaching in its implications.
Many of these intricacies of Canadian whisky became clear to me while recently visiting the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario, a facility that is rather breathtaking in its sheer capacity and volume of output. I have been to some decently sized distilleries in the past, but it’s safe to say I’ve never seen an operation like this one, which can boast row after row of fermenters, stills and grain warehouses that cover an area so large, you practically need a tour bus just to get from building to building efficiently.
Everything here is operating on a massive scale to keep the fermenters and stills working around the clock. Grain warehouses are so cavernous, and their containers so large, that one can hear the pinging of sonar directed at their interiors, just to measure how much grain is left in each container. Given that production is occurring 24 hours a day, five days a week, they literally can’t afford to allow a break in the flow of raw materials to slow down one aspect of production, lest it impact all the others. All told, the distillery is capable of distilling around 180,000 liters of alcohol within a 24-hour period, spread out across innumerable brands.
A dipper of fermenting whisky mash … which tastes a lot like sweet oatmeal, turns out.
The oddities of corporate ownership likewise add to the unusual sights one witnesses at the distillery, especially apparent in the divide between the highly visible Canadian Club blended whisky brand, owned by Beam Suntory, and the majority of Hiram Walker products (Lot No. 40, Pike Creek, Gooderham & Worts, J.P. Wiser’s) that are possessed by Pernod Ricard subsidiary Corby Distilleries. This makes for the unusual scenario in which giant, competing alcohol companies produce their wares within the same facility (Canadian Club is contract distilled here under the watchful eye of “Dr. Don”), even as Beam Suntory operates a small but lushly appointed Canadian Club brand center in the middle of a series of buildings owned by their competition. It’s a bit like a small, independent kingdom that is entirely surrounded by a different nation-state.
That vast scale, on the other hand, makes some of the small-scale, DIY touches all the more unexpected. The distillery found its own way to control rogue Canada geese, for instance, by rigging up a series of metal cables near the encroaching Detroit River—not as a net to keep geese out, but as a deterrent that unnerves the pesky geese by impeding their ability to take off to the North, as they are prone to do. Eventually, this reticence to enter the area at all serves to keep the geese away without any direct confrontation, in a strategy so effective that other distilleries have visited to take notes on applying the technique to their own goose woes. Such is the odd balance at Hiram Walker between vast resources and down-to-earth inventiveness—it feels like the best of both worlds.
The view of the Detroit skyline from the roof of the Hiram Walker distillery grain warehouse, just across the river.
Visiting the rickhouses, likewise, is an experience that is unusual even to those who have visited other whiskey aging facilities in the past. The wide temperature swings of southern Ontario make for some truly strange-looking barrels, which hang on to the heat of summer long into the fall and then retain their winter ice for months after winter has receded. In spring, great clouds of fog apparently roll from the rickhouses as the cold barrels come into contact with warmer air from outside, and the barrel bands themselves show layer after layer of rust to reflect these extremes in climate. Those who have only visited Kentucky bourbon distilleries would probably find the entire experience more than a little unusual, but like seemingly everything else concerning Canadian whisky, the experience is nothing short of unique.
Ultimately, the true highlight of the Hiram Walker distillery visit was receiving an opportunity that allowed me to put everything I’d learned about Canadian whisky during the trip into direct practice, in service of creating a whisky that had never existed anywhere else before. Which is to say: I got to blend my own whisky, and it was pretty damn cool.
Participating writers on this excursion each had an opportunity to nose more than 60 distillates, all produced within the confines of Hiram Walker for one reason or another, and appearing in both double-distilled and single-distilled variants. Tacking on various types of barrel finishes, from rum and port to sherry and wine, and then adding intricacies created by different types of wood finishes (French and red oak) and lengths of time spent aging, it made for a dizzying array of options, all of which were on the table for potential blending. The creative possibilities were functionally endless, with each participant coming at the exercise from a completely different angle.
A boggling array of choices for blending.
As for myself, I started my own concept from a concrete idea of what I wanted to achieve, and then attempted to work backward to bring it into existence. I imagined a Canadian whisky with major influences from Spain and the Caribbean, combining the complementary flavors of rum and oloroso sherry to create a product that would be exceedingly rich, fruity and nutty in profile, with hints of complementary spice. To create it, I ultimately chose to work off a base of several whiskies, one aged in amber rum barrels and another aged for 21 years in oloroso sherry casks, sprinkled with spice influences from a smaller portion of Canadian rye aged in particularly aromatic French oak.
Was the result everything I hoped it would be? Well … yes and no. The resulting whisky was indeed very rich and very assertive, but if anything, the value of such an exercise isn’t in the product you create in your first attempt but in the lessons you pick up through the experience. The whisky I made was undeniably tasty, but it was also a bit too big and too brash for what I realized I really wanted. In other words, it was likely exactly the kind of whisky you’d expect a first-time blender to create—if I was doing it again, I’d swap in some more of the French oak rye and dilute the entire concept down at least a tad, in the pursuit of a more balanced and subtle dram. But that’s why you engage in these exercises—to learn and grow your understanding of spirits. And if there’s one thing I can say for sure, it’s that I understand Canadian whisky a whole lot better now than before I set foot in Canada.
Turns out, you can indeed teach an old dog new drams.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.