The Building Blocks of Canadian Whisky
Historians and blenders discuss the legacy of Canadian whisky
Canadian whisky is made slightly differently from its American counterparts. While some Canadian distillers do use mash bills, most distill grains individually, barrel and age them separately, and blend the aged products together after maturation. Early settlers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries made what was known as “common whisky” — distilling whatever grains were available or leftover after the harvest. As late as 1890, Canadian distillers were mainly making a mash called “bourbon” or “rye whiskey”, similar to what was produced in the states, but within a few decades, they were distilling the grains individually. The purpose was to give distillers better control over the flavor profile of the final product, and more blending options. Canadian Whisky producers discovered in the early 1900s that they could get the most flavor variation from distilling some grains individually and then using the separate distillates as part of a wider flavor palate. This was thanks to the enzyme technology they developed in the early 1900s to help them distill the grains that didn’t have great enzymatic potential on their own—mainly the corn and rye—without the addition of malted barley.
According to Canadian Whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert (see our review here), Canadian distilleries in the 18th century were always part of a larger commercial enterprise, often associated with gristmills. De Kergommeaux also points out it was rum, not whisky, that early settlers were distilling, but westward expansion gave rise to the necessity for ingredients that were more readily available—molasses came from the Caribbean and as settlers moved farther from the coast, grains like corn and rye is what was being grown. Canadian Whisky’s signature style was beginning to be developed in the mid-1800s. Rye grows best in cold northern climates, and because of its prevalence, any Canadian Whisky with rye in it began to be called “rye whisky.”
“If you go back way back to when Canadian Whisky first started, it was probably moonshine,” says Hiram Walker Master Blender Don Livermore. “We started probably before yeast was known to create alcohol. Through the years you can see that even in Canadian Whisky in 1890 there was a mash bill being made called ‘bourbon’—probably whatever grains were available in the region.”
As new methods emerged, distillers opted for the ones that would give them the ability to respond to market demands fastest. “As Canadian Whisky evolved over the years and enzyme technology came about, blenders and distillers were given more latitude,” continues Livermore. “Distillers landed on distilling grains separately so it could be adapted better later to tailor to consumer demands.”
During Prohibition, Canadian distillers had to adapt to suit American consumer palates for whisky they couldn’t get stateside, but Canadian distillers have always used these building blocks to meet with changing consumer demands. During the so-called Noble Experiment, when Canadian Whisky’s largest consumer base, the Americans, began buying Canadian Whisky illicitly, consumers were likely taking whatever they could get. But later, during the 1960s to the 1980s, that customer base reached for lighter spirits such as vodka and unaged rum, or whiskeys with a “softer” flavor palate. As whiskey, particularly bourbon and rye, began to become popular again in the 1990s along with the classic cocktail renaissance, consumer demand trended toward bigger, bolder flavors. Now consumers are demanding a wider variety of flavor profiles than ever before, a change from the mid-to-late century when many consumers tended to stick to only one brand or style.
In 1939, Seagram’s owner Sam Bronfman developed Crown Royal to commemorate King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Canada, billing it as a whisky fit for royalty. It remains the most popular and highest selling Canadian Whisky today. While some of the processes have changed, the flavor profile has remained as consistent as possible thanks to its master blenders, who consider themselves stewards of the brand’s legacy. Crown Royal produces five different whiskies, two that are 100% corn and two made from corn, rye, and malted barley, and then a 95% rye with 5% malt.
“The idea is to create all those building blocks so that the blenders can maintain consistency and also create new blends,” says Crown Royal Director of Whisky Engagement Stephen Wilson. “We do both, and that’s very unique for us. Part of the reason is that’s the way we’ve always done it. When you think about blending, we’re creating all these different building blocks to give the blenders as many options as they can have. The main idea is to maintain consistency as much as possible.” Crown Royal recently released a French Oak Cask Finished expression as part of their Noble Collection, an elegant whisky with subtle fruity notes coming from the barrel.
Sometimes the distillates are placed into new barrels, while other distillates are placed into a variety of used barrels. Then these foundational whiskies are constructed in multiple different configurations to create Crown Royal’s blends.
“We have two Master Blenders who focus on Crown Royal,” says Wilson. “They are carrying on the traditions of Crown Royal right now as the stewards of the brand. They are making these whiskies like they have been made since 1939 when the Crown Royal brand was created, but even longer than that even.”
It’s good to have options — they simultaneously give blenders the ability to maintain consistency and also to create new blends.
“Each grain has the potential to contribute specific unique characteristics to the whisky,” says de Kergommeaux. “It maximizes this potential when the grains are handled in ways that emphasize these characteristics. Not all distilleries do this the same way, but pretty much all the big ones take advantage of at least one flavour-enhancing quality of individual processing. These start right at milling time. Different grist sizes can be used to get the most out of corn, wheat, rye and barley. Most distillers use hammer mills with different screen sizes for the different grains, so corn grist may be larger than rye grist. The flavours of different grains can also be enhanced by using specific yeasts. Crown Royal does this—selecting yeasts that optimize desired flavour profiles for some grains.”
According to de Kergommeaux, Hiram Walker came up with the idea ‘barrel blending’—batching together the individual grain distillates before putting them in the barrel, and then using a recipe of different barrel blends to create the formula that would become Canadian Club.
“Hiram Walker began in this area as a grain merchant and eventually earned enough money to open up his distillery in 1858,” says Tish Harcus, Canadian Club Brand Ambassador. “He would distill carefully selected rye, rye malt, barley malt and corn grains. The ‘flavoring grains’, which are the rye, rye malt and barley malt, were pot distilled. The corn was column distilled and each was aged separately until the early 1950s. Because of the demand of Canadian Club whisky in the USA, they began blending the distillates before aging, which saved them a step in the bottling process. Today the bulk business at this distillery is so big that we stopped ‘pre-barrel blending’ roughly eight years ago.”
Much of Canadian Club’s main production has remained the same for decades. “The mash bill has not changed since 1858,” says Harcus. “The four grains are all 100% pot and column distilled then, according to the mash bill, certain ratios are used to create the Canadian Club Portfolio of whiskies. It is my understanding that our base Canadian Club Premium 1858 [which won gold in the 2019 NY International Spirits Competition] still has the highest amount of rye and rye malt than any other standard Canadian whisky. The distillery in Walkerville produces 100% corn and our Beam sister plant in Calgary, Alberta produces 100% rye whisky.”
Canadian whisky variations
It is a misconception that all Canadian whisky is soft and light-bodied. While that flavor profile has both held strong and is gaining a new sense of appreciation, there are more styles of Canadian Whisky than there are distilleries in Canada. Crown Royal Blender’s Mash is a great example of a bigger, bolder flavor profile in Canadian whisky, and that’s just one end of the spectrum.
One of the many misconceptions about the category covered extensively in de Kergommeaux’s work is a lack of regulations about what can be labeled as Canadian whisky. As he explains, there are regulations, though the regulations are just not packaged up in one place, but rather can vary from province to province for things that are not covered under federal regulation. There are strict quality controls in place, but there is also a lot of latitude in the small details.
“I wouldn’t want to be a whisky producer anywhere else in the world,” says Livermore. “It’s the most creative, innovative whisky made anywhere in the world. They don’t tell me I have to use a mash bill but I can if I want, I can age in whatever kind of barrel I want, and I can distill any way I want to. We have a lot of options. Canadian whisky is adapting to bring back a lot of those lighter flavor profiles because that is what customers are looking for now.”
Signal Hill Spirits is a great example of a company using the historical foundations of Canadian Whisky to build a new brand and flavor profile. When these business partners first got together, the dream was to build a distillery. But a convergence of factors found them hiring Michael Booth, the retired master distiller for Hiram Walker. Booth’s connections gained them access not only to the whisky stocks at Hiram Walker, but also grain shares and more. The venture turned from a whisky startup with plans to build a distillery, to a hybrid of a non-distiller producer with the creative option to have whiskies made to exact specifications at one of the most noteworthy Canadian distilleries. Suddenly building a new distillery didn’t seem like such an immediate goal.
Says Signal Hill Spirits co-Founder Jonathan Hemi. “Hiram Walker has all these resources, many of which they don’t really use. We were able to buy in to their grains and have access to different barrels to allow us to make the blend we want. We have been really lucky. We were able to make 40 different blends with Michael Booth and Don Livermore. It’s a really unique situation for us. The barley is pot distilled and the corn is column distilled and they are aged separately. We use a combination of first-run new barrels, first-run Canadian barrels, and some others.” Their flagship whisky won silver in the 2019 NY International Spirits Competition.
“The plan was originally to build our own distillery, but thanks to the relationship with Hiram Walker our short term plan is to continue to work out of Hiram Walker with Michael Booth,” says Hemi. “He tests every batch and blends every batch. He’s there at the bottling facility.”
Despite not having a distillery, Signal Hill Spirits was still able to control enough of the process through blending to get exactly the whisky they wanted — something that would stand out in a cocktail. “We wanted our whisky to be more approachable,” says Hemi. “Customers want a lot of flavor and no burn. We wanted it to be sweet without adding sugar, and we achieved that through barrel management. We picked the best whisky for cocktails because that’s how customers are using it.”
Those familiar with Canadian Whisky have always known that there’s a broad range of flavor profiles under the Canadian Whisky umbrella—truly something for everyone. But when asked what is the most common misconception about Canadian Whisky, Livermore quipped, “That it’s brown vodka. [But] there’s no GNS in Canadian Whisky.”
“The detriment to Canadian Whisky is that we haven’t gone out and told our story yet,” he continues. “Many people think it’s always light and smooth, but that’s not always the case. We can make anything from light whisky to heavy, bold whiskies used for cocktailing. We need to go out and tell our story—we have done a poor job.”
Part of that misconception stems from the very different definition of “blended whiskey” in the United States, which often does contain GNS, or grain neutral spirit. “At the end of the day, don’t let the phrase ‘blended whisky’ deter you from experiencing something that is really quite lovely,” says Wilson. “Think about the layers and the artistry that goes into creating and maintaining that flavor profile [of separately distilled grains] year after year.”
Throughout Canadian history, distillers and blenders have used their artistry to create a wide range of flavors. The current state of Canadian whisky illustrates the breadth of possibilities even more so.