The Whiskey Chronicles: Canadian Whisky

Canadian Whisky

(Photo by Rich Vana)

Previous Chapters of The Whiskey Chronicles


Canadian whisky is a lot like the country that it comes from.  At first glance it might be mistaken for something American, though further inspection reveals it to be something its own, something uniquely Canadian.  Canadian whisky has a unique, and occasionally troubled, relationship with American whiskey; the two have quite a bit of shared history as well as political disagreements, but Americans continue to love Canadian whisky and Canadian distillers continue to love selling it to them.  Drunk on its own or mixed in cocktails, Canadian whisky is familiar everywhere and disliked by almost no one.  That doesn’t mean, however, that Canadian whisky is without its critics.  Because of its composition, there are some who automatically dismiss it as an inferior imitation of better American whiskeys, while millions of American whisky lovers disagree and demonstrate as much with their wallets.  What is indisputable is that Canadian whisky is smooth and drinkable, it is a versatile cocktail ingredient, it is readily available, and nearly always affordable.

As in the United States, early distillation in Canada did not produce whisky; rum was the drink of the 18th Century.  Whisky was not made in Canada until the 1780s.  A great many people came to Canada from Scotland at this time, but interestingly, they were not the ones who began making whisky in Canada.  The Scots arrived in Canada as a result of the Highland Clearances, a time in which people were driven out of their homes by the thousands and forcibly relocated, at first to the American colonies but after American independence they were shipped from Scotland to Canada (This is a chapter of history that will be discussed more completely in later installments about Scotch whisky).  In 200 Years of Tradition: The Story of Canadian Whisky, Lorraine Brown posits the plausible theory that whisky was brought to Canada by the United Empire Loyalists.  The United Empire Loyalists were American colonists who supported the British during the War for Independence.  Having, in their view, lost the war, they moved to Canada, bringing their pot stills and their love of whisky with them.  What is not certain is whether the United Empire Loyalists were the first to make whisky in Canada, though they did begin the cross-border exchange that has affected the whisky business ever since. whisky or whiskey

In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, Canada was not a nation yet and most of the country had yet to be explored and settled.  Settlement extended to the area around what is now, but wasn’t then, called Toronto.  The first big commercial distiller of whisky in Canada at this time was a man whose name is known around the world, but not for whisky: Thomas Molson.  According to Davin De Kergommeaux in Canadian Whisky: the Portable Expert, the Molsons had been making beer in Montreal as early as 1786.  Thomas Molson built Molson’s into the largest distiller in Canada by the middle of the 19th Century, but in 1867 they simply stopped and shut down the distillation side of the business.  Lorraine Brown suggests that the Molson’s stopped making whisky because of a new tax passed in 1867 and because of the growing temperance movement.  It is strange to think that temperance unionists would be a reason to stop making whisky while continuing to produce beer, but people at the time considered whisky as something worse than beer, while today it is understood that alcohol is alcohol.  Taxes and temperance are politically and socially powerful forces and are inextricable from the history of whisky.  Another Canadian distiller that had actually surpassed Molson as the nation’s largest, Gooderham and Worts, was, according to De Kergommeaux, the single largest source of Canada’s tax revenue in the 1860s.  It was at this time that the Canadian government passed a bottled-in-bond act, which enables distillers to defer taxes until the whisky has been sufficiently aged. It would be more than thirty years before the United States would do the same for bourbon distillers.  The Canadian government was collecting a lot of money from whisky in the 1860s because whisky sales were booming.  As described in “Bourbon: Part Two,” the American Civil War interfered with whiskey production so badly that prices skyrocketed to as much as 140 times its antebellum value.  There was demand for whiskey in America, but no supply; Canadian distillers were happy to provide the supply.

After the Civil War, Canadians began moving west in the same way Americans were.  Many of the people going out west in Canada were Americans, and they weren’t always the best representatives of their nation.  Many American traders helped build what became known as the infamous “whisky forts” in the Western provinces.  Theese whisky forts were trading outposts at which low-quality whisky was traded to Native Americans for high prices.  The forts were such hotbeds of lawlessness that their existence and the threat they posed to society led to the creation of the iconic Canadian Mounty.  According to James H. Gray in Booze: When Whisky Ruled the West, the Mounties were not originally called police and their ranks were filled with experienced soldiers.  The government of the United States was furious that the Canadians seemed to be amassing an army on the border and insisted that they stop.  The Canadians, rather than provoke an international incident, changed the name of the group from Mounted Rifles to Mounted Police.  The Mounties did well and the whisky forts and the lawlessness and disorder that accompanied them disappeared.  The whisky forts, along with the social problems of almost universal heavy drinking enabled temperance movements in the late 19th Century to go from strength to strength both in Canada and in the United States.  The U.S. got Prohibition in 1920 and at the same time, some of the Western Canadian provinces experienced prohibition as well, though only at the provincial level.  According to Gray, prohibition in Western Canada had very different results from what occurred in America.  Both drinking and crime actually went down in Canada during that time; there apparently was no Canadian Capone.  Back East though, there were some people who would do whatever they could to take advantage of Prohibition in America, and the best of them was a man named Harry Hatch.

During Prohibition, Harry Hatch worked first for Consolidated Distilleries Limited and then at Gooderham and Worts, and had many connections in America.  It is difficult to know if Hatch or anyone involved in the legitimate distilling industry ever actually did anything illegal or were just very good at finding loopholes.  According to De Kergommeaux, orders for whisky were placed by phone to an office in Montreal that never dealt with anyone involved in smuggling.  Next, whisky would be transported out of the country by a group known as “Hatch’s Navy.”  People involved in different parts of this process didn’t know each other and once the whisky left Canada, it was only the smuggler’s problem if he was caught.  This was a clever system that may have enabled Hatch to sell whisky in Prohibition America without breaking any laws himself.  Though as De Kergommeaux notes, when Prohibition was repealed, Hatch ordered many company records from the years of Prohibition destroyed, an act which justifies some suspicion.  At any rate, American drinkers rarely lacked for something to drink in those days and Canadian whisky, however it got over the border, was part of the reason for that.

Since Prohibition, the Canadian distilling industry has continued apace.  Today, more Canadian whisky is sold in the United States than any other kind.  But what is Canadian whisky?  When William F. Rannie wrote Canadian Whisky: The Product and The Industry, it was only the legal definition in America that defined Canadian whisky specifically as a product from Canada.  However, perhaps reflecting the importance of the American market to the Canadian industry, the Canadian Food and Drugs Act of 1993 does specify that the whisky must be made and aged in Canada and “possess the taste, aroma, and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.”  It is interesting that the law describes what the whisky should taste and smell like.  This differs from the legal definitions of bourbon or Scotch in that where taste and aroma are mentioned in the laws governing those drinks, it is only to specify that those characteristics must come from the raw materials used in production in aging, meaning that there can be no artificial flavoring.  Canadian law allows for the use of caramel and flavorings.  What flavorings are allowed is not specified.  This gives a tremendous amount of freedom to distillers to create a particular type of flavor.  Bourbon distillers control the ingredients in the mash bill in order to get the sort of flavor they are looking for.  Canadian distillers have more options than that.  Because Canadian whisky is blended, there will be several malts in a whisky.  There is a base malt and then there are flavoring malts.  According to Rannie, the ratio is about 9 to 1 base malt to flavoring malts.  The base malt is a grain whisky, usually corn.  It is appropriate to call the base malt a grain whisky, because the law requires that it be aged at least three years; grain neutral spirit cannot be used as the base for a Canadian whisky.  Rye and barley malt whiskies will be added for flavor.  These same ingredients are also found in bourbon, but in Canada the ingredients are made into whisky separately and then blended with each other, as opposed to all being included in a single mash bill.  In addition, Canadian whisky may contain color and flavor additives; straight bourbon may not.  Another important feature of Canadian whisky is its lightness of flavor, which adds to its drinkability.  Rannie suggests that the lightness is a product of the high distillation proof that is required for Canadian whisky, which is often as high as 190 proof compared to bourbon, which is distilled at 160 proof.  The result of the high-proof distillation is that Canadian whisky has very low concentrations of congeners when compared to other whiskies.

The lightness and overall flavor of Canadian whisky, along with its universal availability and often, relatively low price have made it the most popular whisky in the United States.  Under the leadership of people like Joseph Seagram and Hiram Walker, the industry enthusiastically embraced the possibilities available in the American market.  As in America, conglomeration turned the great Canadian distilleries into massive companies whose portfolios would eventually include not only diverse whisky and other alcoholic beverage holdings, but also products like tobacco, industrial chemicals, or even oil.   Even in the beginning, when distilleries were still grist mills, the decision to make whisky was often a financial one related to grain prices.  Business seems to have always been a very big part of Canadian whisky, which is, of course, very American.  There is a great deal of similarity and shared history between Canadian whisky and its American counterpart, but, make no mistake: Canadian whisky is unique and has carved its own well-earned spot in the world.

About Chris Chanslor