July 1, 2017 marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation as a nation, a fact that if you’re not Canadian may well have escaped you (and if you are Canadian, it’s been hammered into each of our minds relentlessly since at least January of this year). As a proud son of Canada, I think now is perhaps the perfect time to highlight my affection for one of our great and lasting contributions to the world at large, Canadian whisky.
The reputation of Canadian whisky both at home and abroad has ebbed and flowed dramatically over the last 150 years. Often misunderstood, occasionally maligned, and virtually always residing in the long shadows cast by its American and Scottish cousins, Canadian whisky has nevertheless steadfastly remained both commercially popular and ubiquitous on back bars around the globe. With the announcement in November of 2015 that Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye had been selected as Jim Murray’s 2016 World Whisky of the Year, for better or worse, Canadian whisky was thrust further to the forefront of global consciousness than it had been since U.S. prohibition. While Northern Harvest itself remains a subject of some debate and controversy, credit should be given where it’s due to Murray for catching the rising tide of the return to quality, craft and ingenuity in a style of whisky that had previously been in danger of being lost to history. Mass production, poor marketing and a general apathy on the part of Canadian consumers had led to a dumbing down and stagnation of our whisky in the latter part of the 20th century, and the burgeoning whisky renaissance brought about by mavericks like Forty Creek’s John Hall and Hiram Walker’s Dr. Don Livermore had only just begun.
While the history, archaic regulations and other trivia that flesh out the backstory of Canadian whisky are by no means foreign to me, I feel woefully underqualified to do them adequate justice here. I will instead defer to Davin de Kergommeaux, Canada’s premier whisky authority, who has authored a number of books and articles on the subject. You’ll find Davin’s comprehensive and invaluable primer on all things Canadian whisky right here.
My Top 10 Canadian Whisky Recommendations
Now that you’re more properly versed in the subject, I’ll move on to the true purpose of this post, which is to highlight 10 of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Presented in no particular order:
Honourable Mention: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Best whisky in the world? Far from it. Best Canadian whisky? Certainly not. Bad whisky? Not at all. For reasons stated above, I certainly can’t be angry at all the attention (negative and otherwise) heaped upon this release from Canada’s most recognizable brand. As a fellow who spent much his late teens and early twenties downing countless Crown & Gingers, Crown Royal as a whole will always hold a special place in my heart. Dive in with reasonable expectations and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised (or at the very least moderately underwhelmed).
One of the most recent releases on this list, Union 52 is a blend of 16 year old Wiser’s whisky and a 52 year old undisclosed Highland single malt. Experimentation like this is exactly one of the things that makes whisky from Canada so great, and I found the stuff to be truly awe inspiring. While it’s becoming increasingly hard to find, a little bird tells me those lucky enough to live in my home province of British Columbia can still get their hands on some if they do a little digging.
While Canada has been dipping its toes in the single malt waters with varying degrees of success for a number of years, for my money it wasn’t until the inaugural release of Shelter Point Single Malt in 2016 that things started looking truly promising. Fruity, characterful and with a complexity that belies it’s tender age, this malt is reminiscent of a feisty young Speysider. Hailing from a beautiful farmhouse distillery located on the island on which I was born and raised, I couldn’t be prouder or more pleased with this whisky.
3) Lot No. 40
This release from Corby has garnered a great deal of attention both at home and abroad as of late, boasting numerous Canadian Whisky Awards and a recent release in the U.K. via The Whisky Exchange. Lot 40 is an example of a return to form for an increasingly rare style of 100% rye whisky. Bold and spicy stuff, and perhaps the best pure rye going today.
A full year before the release of Crown Royal Northern Harvest, Canada’s other most well known brand released a rye whisky of their own, and arguably to better effect. While not quite on the level of Lot 40, Chairman’s Select remains well-made rye at a shockingly fair price of less than $25 CAD a bottle (around € 17) in Canada.
While this whisky has more recently moved to a rum-finished version, the Pike Creek 10 I’m more familiar with is the previous release done in port barrels. Port-finished whiskies of any stripe can be a bit dicey, as the winey overtones can sometimes take over entirely. Pike Creek always managed to straddle the line quite effectively, and balanced big spicy, fruity and sweet tones without becoming cloying or overbearing.
I sampled this at the tail end of a long night of single malt and bourbon tasting with friends, and even through the blur and stacked up against a plethora of fantastic whiskies, this puppy left an indelible mark. Big, sweet, velvety and luscious whisky that’s sadly hard to come by any longer. Scoop it up if you come across it.
The four grains in question would be corn, rye, wheat and barley. It’s also bottled at 44.4% ABV just in case the whole four thing wasn’t clear enough. A deftly balanced and well-executed sipper to be sure, despite the slightly silly gimmick.
A blend of mostly rye, along with some corn whisky and a splash of sherry added into the mix. You read that correctly, Canadian whisky laws allow for up to 9.09% of non-whisky spirits or wine to be added to the finished product before bottling. As Davin de Kergommeaux mentions in the primer I linked to above however, this is a far less prevalent practice than some may have you believe. In the case of Dark Horse, this freedom to tinker creates some lovely results. Bold, juicy and punchy with oodles of rye spice and rich sherry undertones.
The oldest Canadian whisky I’ve had the good fortune to taste. No corn or sherry here, this is 100% rye. Released in limited quantities back in 2012 at the hilariously inexpensive price of $49.95 CAD (less than € 34), this whisky is now as rare as hens teeth. A good friend of mine was able to secure a bottle through a mutual acquaintance shortly before my exodus to the Netherlands, and was kind enough to share. Damn fine stuff, and a testament to all the great things Canadian whisky is capable of given ample time and care.
There is perhaps no more fitting way to round out a list of whiskies to celebrate 150 years of Canada’s confederation (there was actually a J.P. Wiser’s One Fifty released specifically to celebrate the occasion, but sadly I just missed it). Forty Creek has a host of releases well worth seeking out (Copper Pot Reserve and Double Barrel Reserve being two of my favourites), but this particular bottling warrants inclusion if for no other reason than it’s the only whisky I’m aware of that is matured in Canadian white oak. It’s admittedly been a number of years since I’ve had the pleasure of tasting Confederation Oak, but I do recall it being a rather sweet, sour, slightly peppery and overall highly pleasurable affair.