Book Review: Canadian Whisky, The New Portable Expert (2nd Edition)

photo by Maggie Kimberl

photo by Maggie Kimberl

Admittedly I know very little about Canadian Whisky. So when I received a review copy of Davin De Kergommeaux’sCanadian Whisky, The New Portable Expert (Second Edition), I happily accepted the opportunity to learn more about the whisky traditions of our neighbors to the north. It turns out almost everything I thought I knew about Canadian Whisky was completely wrong, or at least lacking in the cultural and historic context needed to make sense of it all. Canadian Whisky, like American Whiskey and particularly bourbon, is an agricultural product developed over generations in response to specific needs and market demands. All are made from grains. Generally speaking, the similarities end there.

Canadian Whisky grew up in its own culture with its own problems to solve, climate to deal with and resources available. As a result, it is actually quite different from bourbon, and the lack of understanding of this fact has led to misunderstandings about this distinct product of Canada. Here are five things I learned about Canadian Whisky from Canadian Whisky, The New Portable Expert:

  1. A lot of Canadian Whisky is distilled in parts and then blended later after maturation (as opposed to American whiskey, which distills a mash of different grains). This means they are making whisky that is 100% corn and putting it in one barrel, whisky that is 100% rye and putting it in another barrel, and whisky that is 100% malt and putting it into another barrel. When these whiskies are mature they blend them together to get the finished product. This leads me to the next point.
  2. Blending has a different connotation, which has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of what Canadian Whisky actually is and is not. In the United States, blending can be a bad word when it comes to whiskey, because to many Americans unfamiliar with the process, "blended whiskey" is often associated with whiskey that has some percentage of neutral grain spirit blended into it. American whisky drinkers have taken this unique perspective and wrongly applied it to Canadian Whisky, which never contains grain neutral spirit despite it saying “blended” right there on the label.
  3. Canadian whisky producers have as much trouble working with corn as bourbon producers sometimes have with rye. I remember a Master Distiller telling me once that in rye whiskey production, the drying house held up the whole operation when things went awry because rye is very sticky. Canadians apparently have similar troubles with corn whisky, finding that corn mash turns into a gelatinous slurry during mashing and fermentation.
  4. CBW, or corn based whisky, is basically a bourbon mash that has always been made in Canada, most notably at Crown Royal. In fact, up until 1964 there had been Bourbon made in Canada for decades. Corn is one of the most common ingredients in Canadian Whisky. Recent news of Crown Royal’s “Bourbon Mash” has caused quite a stir, with critics saying it should not say “Bourbon” on the label if it has never been bourbon (which is accurate and they have been made to surrender the label). But what’s more, at the end of the day this isn’t even a new or original product. It’s just the same old Crown Royal.
  5. I really need to try some more Canadian Whiskies. I’m somewhat insulated here in Bourbon Country. I can (gently) throw a rock (cotton ball?) and hit 20 bottles of Pappy, but the only Canadian products I remember ever having are Crown Royal (whose 100% rye impressed American judges enough to win gold in the 2016 NY International Spirits Competition), Canadian Mist, and Seagram’s 7 Crown. After some of the wonderful descriptions De Kergommeaux gives products like Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve, Pendleton, Canadian Club 30 year old, Collingwood, and more, I really need to seek out more experiences with a wider variety of Canadian Whiskies. Perhaps I can appeal to some of the producers to attend Whisky Live Louisville this year?

Canadian Whisky, The New Portable Expert By Davin De Kergommeaux is on shelves now.