Canadian Whisky Is Way Better Than You Think
Whisky math problem: If 70 percent of Canada’s whisky is exported to the U.S., but historically 90 percent of the good stuff has stayed in Canada, what percentage of Americans think Canadian whisky sucks?
I puzzled over this after sipping one too many whiskies in the afternoon—the very activity I had traveled to Victoria, B.C., this past January to do.
If you’ve never been to Victoria, here’s what you need to know: It’s a stately town located on Vancouver Island off the southwestern edge of Canada, known primarily for its formal gardens and tranquil atmosphere. It’s also home to the annual Victoria Whisky Festival, where the Canadian Whisky Awards are given.
It’s taken decades to get to a place where hearing “Canadian whisky” and “awards” in the same sentence wasn’t reason for a spit take. Canada’s native hooch is known to be mellow, best served mixed—think Canadian Club and ginger ale, or a 7 and 7 (Seagram’s 7 Crown and 7 Up)—and fairly forgettable, no matter how many purple velvet bags it comes in. Expert booze hounds have derided the category as “brown vodka,” or worse.
Thanks to innovators like winemaking veteran John Hall, who started Forty Creek Whisky in 1992—and sold it to Campari America in March 2014 for $120.5 million—that’s no longer true. The best Canadian whiskies are complex affairs, ringing with maple, stone fruit, and lively baking spice long after the liquid has gone down the gullet.
Hall scooped up eight medals for various bottlings at this year’s event, plus a Lifetime Achievement Award on top of that. A few sips of Forty Creek’s Double Barrel Reserve (with its fleeting, sherry-like notes of dried fruit and nuts), and it’s clear why you should be paying attention to Canadian whisky.
If you’ve never deliberately sought out a bottle of Canadian whisky, I don’t blame you. But the time is right to expand your horizons. There have never been more excellent bottles available to U.S. consumers as there are now.
Of course, Forty Creek isn’t the only contender. American bourbon maker Buffalo Trace launched luscious Caribou Crossing and dry, woodsy Royal Canadian about five years ago. Master blender Drew Mayville, a 30-year veteran of Canada’s Seagram’s, aquired 200,000 barrels of whisky from a defunct Canadian distillery and applied the brand’s experimental mindset to it. The result: spirits that bridge robust, spicy bourbon and lighter Canadian standards.
“Canadian whisky flies under the radar all the time,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert. “Canadians, we don’t brag about what we do.” But that mild-mannered mentality is only part of the issue.
The truth is, Canadian whisky has an image problem. It was your dad’s (or granddad’s) drink in the 1960s and ’70s. It hasn’t matured with the times (so to speak).
Compounding that: The U.S. may be Canada’s biggest customer, absorbing 70 percent of its whisky, according to the Association of Canadian Distillers, but many of the country’s best bottles never cross the border.
Take Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% rye, released in October 2014—a far cry from Don Draper’s liquor cart. Redolent of apricot leather, with a dry chocolate note on the finish, it’s a huge step up for what’s generally regarded as a bottom-shelf brand. And it’s only available domestically. Another example: Forty Creek Cream, a Baileys-style cream liqueur with a Canadian whisky base, which rightly took this year’s award for Flavored Whisky of the Year. But you can’t have any, sorry. Campari confirmed there are no plans to bring Forty Creek Cream to the U.S.
Another part of the problem is that Canada’s market has a history of remarkable opacity. Compared with most other whiskies, Canadian counterparts rarely include mash bills (the mix of ingredients: rye, corn, wheat, etc.) or age statements on their labels. A minimum three-year barrel rest may be mandated, but traditionally, Canadian whiskies are blends, so each bottle may contain a variety of ages and grains and barrelings.
Innovation has also been slow to come to Canadian whisky.
Unlike in Scotland, where production is shared by about 100 distilleries, in Canada more than a quarter of a billion bottles of whisky are filled by an oligarchy of just eight distilleries. Craft producers, often a catalyst for change, haven’t been able to juice the system either—the small-batch/single-barrel phenomenon that has entranced U.S. whiskey drinkers over the past decade has largely bypassed the Canadian market. It’s only about five years old now. By the end of 2014 about 30-odd craft distilleries were operating in Canada, de Kergommeaux estimates, compared with the U.S.’s several hundred.
Forty Creek’s Hall was among the first to notice the small-batch gap, poising his whisky to challenge what he dubbed the “the same old, same old” of the industry.
Newcomer Still Waters Distillery from Ontario, which makes both blends and single malts, also has distinguished itself as a craft distiller to watch. Its Stalk & Barrel rye whisky, which hints at marzipan and fig, was named the 2014 New Whisky of the Year. (Yes, Scotch-lovers, a handful of Canadian single malts exist—though don’t look for anything super peaty. This is still Canada.)
Better in Texas
Even Crown Royal, the biggest and stodgiest of the country’s distilling giants, recently brought out a single-barrel offering—the first major Canadian brand to do so. It’s delicious, like bananas Foster in glass. And it’s sold only in Texas.
Fun fact: Texas is Crown Royal’s biggest market, and one of the biggest markets for all Canadian whisky, so the company is not leaving a single bottle for domestic sale. Frankly, after years of keeping all the good stuff up north, it seems like the only fair solution.
But for the rest of it, oddly, Canadians don’t seem to know how good they have it.
The final night of the festival included a massive tasting of whiskies from around the world. I watched in amazement as hundreds of local whisky-lovers stampeded … right toward the Scotch single malts.
What are you doing?! I wanted to screech. Instead, I could only shake my head—and make a beeline to sample every bottle on Forty Creek’s table, behind which Hall stood, all alone. As I sipped on a dram of his limited-release Evolution, mulling over the interplay of rich chestnut and dried fruit, it was clear that with whisky like this, he wouldn’t be alone for long.
Canadian Whisky Buying Guide
Royal Canadian Small Batch Canadian Whisky
The relatively dry and restrained coffee, tobacco, and oak profile has a brush of brown sugar on the finish. $30; thewhiskeyexchange.com
This smooth and enjoyable caramel bomb is ideal for sipping over ice. $50; astorwines.com
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel (Coffey Rye)
Sold only in Texas. Tastes like bananas Foster in a glass: rounded, warming notes of banana, maple, and caramel. Note: It’s bottled at cask strength (51.5 percent alcohol by volume), so add a generous splash of branch water. $55; goodygoody.com (Texas only)
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve
Described as “high-end sipping whisky,” it lingers with toasty notes of vanilla, pecan, and spice. $55; winechateau.com
It’s in limited supply but worth hunting down for big, bold maple, hazelnut, and brandied cherry flavors. If you can’t snag this unicorn, the regular Collingwood bottling also makes a fine pour. $70; acespirits.com