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Canadian whisky is a type of whisky produced in Canada. Most Canadian whiskies are blended multi-grain liquors containing a large percentage of corn spirits, and are typically lighter and smoother than other whisky styles. When Canadian distillers began adding small amounts of highly-flavourful rye grain to their mashes, people began demanding this new rye-flavoured whisky, referring to it simply as "rye". Today, as for the past two centuries, the terms "rye whisky" and "Canadian whisky" are used interchangeably in Canada and (as defined in Canadian law) refer to exactly the same product, which generally is made with only a small amount of rye grain.
Historically, in Canada, whisky that had some rye grain added to the mash bill to give it more flavour came to be called "rye". Although some Canadian whiskies are still labelled as "rye", Canadian "rye" whisky usually contains high-proof grain whisky blended with lower-proof rye-grain whisky and Canadian-made "bourbon-style" corn whisky as flavouring. Occasionally barley whisky is also used for flavouring. Flavour may also be derived in other ways, such as flavour development from the aging process. It is a common misconception that Canadian whiskies are primarily made using just rye grain. The use of rye grain is not dictated by law, and the primary grain used to make most Canadian whisky is corn.
Grain distilling methods and technologies were brought to Canada by American and European immigrants. While rum was the primary alcoholic product distilled in the cities, a result of access to sugar from British colonial plantations, excess grain being harvested in the rural areas was distilled in small batches. The first commercial scale production of whisky in Canada began in 1801 when John Molson purchased a copper pot still, previously used to produce rum in Montreal. John's son Thomas took an interest in producing whisky, first in the Molson distillery then independently in Kingston from 1821 to 1834 but left it to James Morton as the family focused on their brewery. Molson, the largest distillery in Canada at the time, had exported most of this early whisky to Britain where tastes were shifting away from French wine and brandies to whiskies as a result of the Napoleonic Wars. Gooderham and Worts began producing whisky in 1837 in Toronto as a side business to their wheat milling but surpassed Molson's production by the 1850s as it expanded their operations with a new distillery in what would become the Distillery District. Henry Corby started distilling whisky as a side business from his gristmill in 1859 in what became known as Corbyville and Joseph Seagram began working in his father-in-law's Waterloo flour mill and distillery in 1864, which he would eventually purchase in 1883. Meanwhile, Americans Hiram Walker and J.P. Wiser moved to Canada: Walker to Windsor in 1858 to open a flour mill and distillery and Wiser to Prescott in 1857 to work at his uncle's distillery where he introduced a rye whisky and was successful enough to buy the distillery five years later. The disruption of American Civil War created an export opportunity for Canadian-made whiskies and their quality, particularly those from Walker and Wiser who had already begun the practice of aging their whiskies, sustained that market even after post-war tariffs were introduced. In the 1880s, Canada's National Policy placed high tariffs on foreign alcoholic products as whisky began to be sold in bottles and the federal government instituted a bottled in bond program that provided certification of the time a whisky spent aging and allowed deferral of taxes for that period, which encouraged aging. In 1890 Canada became the first country to enact an aging law for whiskies, requiring them to be aged at least two years. The growing temperance movement culminated in prohibition in 1916 and distilleries had to either specialize in the export market or switch to alternative products, like industrial alcohols which were in demand in support of the war effort.
With the deferred revenue and storage costs of the Aging Law acting as a barrier to new entrants and the reduced market due to prohibition, consolidation of Canadian whisky had begun. Henry Corby Jr. modernized and expanded upon his father's distillery and sold it, in 1905, to businessman Mortimer Davis who also purchased the Wiser distillery, in 1918, from the heirs of J.P. Wiser. Davis's salesman Harry Hatch spent time promoting the Corby and Wiser brands and developing a distribution network in the United States which held together as Canadian prohibition ended and American prohibition began. After Hatch's falling out with Davis, Hatch purchased the struggling Gooderham and Worts in 1923 and switched out Davis's whisky for his. Hatch was successful enough to be able to also purchase the Walker distillery, and the popular Canadian Club brand, from Hiram's grandsons in 1926. While American prohibition created risk and instability in the Canadian whisky industry, some benefited from purchasing unused American distillation equipment and from sales to exporters (nominally to foreign countries like Saint Pierre and Miquelon, though actually to bootleggers to the United States). Along with Hatch, the Bronfman family was able to profit from making whisky destined for United States during prohibition, though mostly in Western Canada and were able to open a distillery in LaSalle, Quebec and merge their company, in 1928, with Seagram's which had struggled with transitioning to the prohibition marketplace. Samuel Bronfman became president of the company and, with his dominant personality, began a strategy of increasing their capacity and aging whiskies in anticipation of the end of prohibition. When that did occur, in 1933, Seagram's was in a position to quickly expand; they purchased The British Columbia Distilling Company from the Riefel family in 1935, as well as several American distilleries and introduced new brands, one of them being Crown Royal, in 1939, which would eventually become one of the best-selling Canadian whiskies.
While some capacity was switched to producing industrial alcohols in support of the country's World War II efforts, the industry expanded again after the war. In 1945, Schenley Industries purchased one of those industrial distilleries in Valleyfield, Quebec, and repurposed several defunct American whiskey brands, like Golden Wedding, Old Fine Copper, and, starting in 1972, Gibson's Finest. Five years after starting to experiment with whiskies in their Toronto gin distillery, W. & A. Gilbey Ltd. created the Black Velvet blend in 1951. In the west, a Calgary-based business group recruited the Riefels from British Columbia to oversee the new Alberta Distillers operations in 1948. The company became an innovator in the practice of bulk shipping whiskies to the United States for bottling and the success of their Windsor Supreme brand (produced in Alberta but bottled in the United States) led National Distillers Limited to purchase Alberta Distillers, in 1964, to secure their supply chain. Barton Brands also secured their supply of Canadian whisky by building a new distillery in Collingwood, Ontario, in 1967, where they would produce Canadian Mist, though they sold the distillery and brand only four years later to Brown–Forman.
Illicit export to the United States
Canadian whisky featured prominently in rum-running into the U.S. during Prohibition. Hiram Walker's distillery in Windsor, Ontario, directly across the Detroit River from Detroit, Michigan, easily served bootleggers using small, fast smuggling boats.
Canada's Food and Drugs Act require that whisky labelled as "Canadian Whisky", "Canadian Rye Whisky" or "Rye Whisky" be mashed, distilled and aged at least three years in Canada. As with Scotch whisky and Irish whiskey, the alcohol content of the spirits used may exceed 90%. Thus, much of the spirits used in making a Canadian whisky, prior to aging, may have less grain-derived flavour than typical single malts or U.S. "straight" whiskeys. To improve marketability, it may contain caramel colour and flavouring, in addition to the distilled mash spirits.
All spirits used in making a Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years in wooden barrels of not greater than 700 litre capacity (a requirement similar to that for Scotch and Irish whisky and longer than for American whisky). The final whisky must contain at least 40 percent alcohol by volume. No distinction is made between the quality of the barrels – new or used, charred or uncharred barrels may be filled for aging.
Canadian whisky is recognized internationally as an indigenous product of Canada. Products labelled as Canadian whisky in the United States must satisfy the laws of Canada that regulate the manufacture of Canadian whisky for consumption in Canada. When sold in another country, Canadian whisky is typically also required to conform to the local product requirements that apply to whisky in general when sold in that country, which may in some aspects involve stricter or less stringent standards than the Canadian law.
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