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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.
The regulations under Canada's Food and Drugs Act stipulate the minimum conditions that must be met in order to label a product as "Canadian whisky" or "Canadian Rye Whisky" (or "Rye Whisky")—these are also upheld internationally through geographical indication agreements. These regulations state that whisky must "be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada", "be aged in small wood for not less than three years", "contain not less than 40 per cent alcohol by volume" and "may contain caramel and flavouring". Within these parameters Canadian whiskies can vary considerably, especially with the allowance of "flavouring"—though the additional requirement that they "possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky" can act as a limiting factor.
Canadian whiskies are most typically blends of whiskies made from a single grain, principally corn and rye, but also sometimes wheat or barley. Mash bills of multiple grains may also be used for some flavoring whiskies. The availability of inexpensive American corn, with its higher proportion of usable starches relative to other cereal grains, has led it to be most typically used to create base whiskies to which flavouring whiskies are blended in. Exceptions to this include the Highwood Distillery which specializes in using wheat and the Alberta Distillers which developed its own proprietary yeast strain that specializes in distilling rye. The flavouring whiskies are most typically rye whiskies, blended into the product to add most of its flavour and aroma. While Canadian whisky may be labelled as a "rye whisky" this blending technique only necessitates a small percentage (such as 10%) of rye to create the flavour, whereas much more rye is required if it were added to a mash bill alongside the more readily distilled corn.
The base whiskies are distilled to 180 to 190 proof which results in few congener by-products (such as fusel alcohol, aldehydes, esters, etc.) and creates a lighter taste. By comparison, an American whisky distilled any higher than 160 proof is labelled as "light whiskey". The flavouring whiskies are distilled to a lower proof so that they retain more of the grain's flavour. The relative lightness created by the use of base whiskies makes Canadian whisky useful for mixing into cocktails and highballs. The minimum three year aging in small wood barrels applies to all whiskies used in the blend. As the regulations do not limit the specific type of wood that must be used, a variety of flavours can be achieved by blending whiskies aged in different types of barrels. In addition to new wood barrels, charred or uncharred, flavour can be added by aging whiskies in previously used bourbon or fortified wine barrels for different lengths of time.
In Canada under British rule, gristmills distilled surplus grains to avoid spoilage. Distilling methods and technologies were brought to Canada by American and European immigrants with experience in distilling wheat and rye. This early whisky from improvised stills, often with the grains closest to spoilage, was produced with various, uncontrolled proofs and was consumed, unaged, by the local market.[a] While most distilling capacity was taken up producing rum, a result of Atlantic Canada's position in the British sugar trade, 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. With his son Thomas Molson, and eventually partner James Morton, the Molsons operated a distillery in Montreal and Kingston and were the first in Canada to export whisky, benefiting from Napoleonic Wars' disruption in supplying French wine and brandies to England. 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 until the 1980s. In 1945, Schenley Industries purchased one of those industrial alcohol distilleries in Valleyfield, Quebec, and repurposed several defunct American whiskey brands, like Golden Wedding, Old Fine Copper, and starting in 1972, Gibson's Finest. Seeking to secure their supply of Canadian whisky, Barton Brands also built 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. As proximity to the shipping routes (by rail and boat) to the US became less important, large distilleries were established in Alberta and Manitoba. Five years after starting to experiment with whiskies in their Toronto gin distillery, W. & A. Gilbey Ltd. created the Black Velvet blend in 1951 which was so successful a new distillery in Lethbridge, Alberta was constructed in 1973 to produce it. Also in the west, a Calgary-based business group recruited the Riefels from British Columbia to oversee their 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 Canadian 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. More Alberta investors founded the Highwood Distillery in 1974 in High River, Alberta, which specialized in wheat-based whiskies. Seagram's opened a large, new plant in Gimli, Manitoba, in 1969, which would eventually replace their Waterloo and LaSalle distilleries. In British Columbia, Ernie Potter who had been producing fruit liqueurs from alcohols distilled at Alberta Distillers built his own whisky distillery in Langley in 1958 and produced the Potter's and Century brands of whisky. Hiram Walker's built the Okanagan Distillery in Winfield, British Columbia, in 1970 with the intention of producing Canadian Club but was redirected to fulfill contracts to produce whiskies for Suntory before being closed in 1995.
After decades of expansion, a shift in consumer preferences towards white spirits (such as vodka) in the American market resulted in an excess supply of Canadian whiskies. While this allowed the whiskies to be aged longer, the unexpected storage costs and deferred revenue strained individual companies. With the distillers seeking investors and multinational corporations seeking value brands, a series of acquisitions and mergers occurred. Alberta Distillers was bought in 1987 by Fortune Brands which would go on to become part of Beam Suntory. Hiram Walker was sold in 1987 to Allied Lyons which Pernod Ricard took over in 2006, with Fortune Brands acquiring the Canadian Club brand. Grand Metropolitan had purchased Black Velvet in 1972 but sold the brand to Constellation Brands in 1999. Schenley was acquired in 1990 by United Distillers which would go on to become part of Diageo, though Gibson's Finest was sold to William Grant & Sons in 2001. Seagram's was sold in 2000 to Vivendi, which in turn sold its various brands and distilleries to Pernod Ricard and Diageo. Highwood would purchase Potter's in 2006. Despite the consolidation, the Kittling Ridge Distillery in Grimsby, Ontario, began to produce the Forty Creek brand, though it was sold to the Campari Group in 2014. Later, the Sazerac Company would purchase the brands Seagram's VO, Canadian 83 and Five Star from Diageo in 2018.
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.
Distilleries and brands
Alberta Distillers – Established in 1946 in Calgary, Alberta, the distillery was purchased in 1987 by Fortune Brands which became Beam Suntory in 2011. The distillery uses a specific strain of yeast which they developed that specializes in fermenting rye. While the distillery exports much of its whisky for bottling in other countries, they also produce the brands Alberta Premium, Alberta Springs, Windsor Canadian and Tangle Ridge.
Black Velvet Distillery (formerly the Palliser Distrillery) – Established in 1973 in Lethbridge, Alberta it has been owned by Constellation Brands since 1999. They produce the Black Velvet brand which is mostly shipped in bulk for bottling in Carson, California and Owensboro, Kentucky, with some bottled onsite for the Canadian market. The distillery also produces Danfield's and Schenley's Golden Wedding and OFC.
Canadian Mist Distillery – Established in 1967 in Collingwood, Ontario, the distillery is owned by Brown–Forman and primarily produces the Canadian Mist brand for export, in bulk at barrel strength, to the company's bottling plant in Louisville, Kentucky. Since 2011, the Collingwood brand has been produced at the distillery with the added step of holding the blended whisky product in vats for a year with toasted maple staves.
Gimli Distillery – Established in 1968 in Gimli, Manitoba, to produce Seagram brands, the distillery was acquired by Diageo in 2001. The Gimli Distillery is responsible for producing Crown Royal, the best-selling Canadian whisky in the world with 7 million cases[b] shipped in 2017. With assistance from the Valleyfield Distillery, they also produce Seagram's VO and Canadian 83.
Highwood Distillery (formerly the Sunnyvale Distillery) – Established in 1974 in High River, Alberta, the Highwood Distillery specializes in using wheat in their base whiskies. This distillery also produces vodka, rum, gin and liqueurs. Brands of Canadian whisky produced at the Highwood Distillery include Centennial, Century, Ninety, and Potter's. They also produce White Owl whisky which is charcoal-filtered to remove the colouring impacted by aging in wood barrels.[c]
Hiram Walker Distillery – Established in 1858 in Windsor, Ontario, but modernized and expanded upon several times since, the distillery is owned by Pernod Ricard and operated by Corby Spirit and Wine, of which Pernod has a controlling share. Brands produced at the Walker Distillery include Lot 40, Pike Creek, Gooderham and Worts, Hiram Walker's Special Old, Corby's Royal Reserve, and J.P. Wiser's brands. Most of its capacity is used for contract production of the Beam Suntory brand (and former Hiram Walker brand) Canadian Club, in addition to generic Canadian whisky that is exported in bulk and bottled under various labels in other countries.
Kittling Ridge Distillery – Established in 1992 with an associated winery in Grimsby, Ontario, its first whiskies came to market in 2002. The distillery was purchased in 2014 by Campari Group. The distillery produces the Forty Creek brand.
Old Montreal Distillery – Established in 1929 as a Corby distillery, it was acquired by Sazerac Company in 2011 and modernized in 2018. It produces Sazerac brands and has taken over bottling of Caribou Crossing.
Valleyfield Distillery (formerly the Schenley Distillery) – Established in 1945 in a former brewery in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, Quebec, near Montreal, the distillery has been owned by Diageo in 2008. Seagram's VO is bottled here with flavouring whisky from the Gimli Distillery. Otherwise, the Valleyfield Distillery specializes in producing base whiskies distilled from corn for other Diageo products.
- Equivalent to moonshine.
- A case is equivalent to twelve 750 mL bottles or 9 litres total.
- Walker Distillery formerly produced whisky blanc which was a whisky that is aged in copper barrels, rather than wood.
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