Now that Canadian whisky is once again making a name for itself in the U.S. , it’s high time that some myths were dispelled about the spirit.
Despite its rising popularity, many top bartenders and other knowledgeable drinks professionals still harbor misconceptions about Canadian whisky. Here are 10 of them.
1. Canadian whisky became popular as a result of American Prohibition.
Hollywood suggests this is true, but history tells us that when the American Civil War disrupted distilling there, thirsty Americans looked north to Canada as a reliable supplier. By 1865 – that’s three generations before Prohibition – Canadian whisky was the best-selling whisky in the U.S. and remained so until 2010, when bourbon edged ahead. Nonetheless, Canadian whisky is still the best selling whisky in North America.
2. Canadian whisky contains neutral spirits.
The U.S. definition of blended whisky allows up to 80% grain neutral spirits (GNS). However, Canadian laws do not permit any neutral spirits in whisky. Some parts of a blend are distilled to a high ABV to emphasize flavors from the barrels. Others, distilled to a low ABV, emphasize grain flavors. However, all are fully aged and taste like whisky. In fact, Wiser’s 18, a multi-award winning whisky is composed almost entirely of whisky distilled to high ABV.
3. Canadian whisky is called rye because historically it was made mostly from rye grain.
Canada’s early whisky makers were millers who ground wheat into flour for bread and used the leftovers to make whisky. It was German and Dutch settlers who suggested adding a few shovelfuls of rye to the 100% wheat mashes. The resulting whisky was soon in high demand and quickly became known simply as “rye”. For the most part, Canadian whisky has always been made from grain other than rye, with just a bit of rye added for flavor.
4. Canadian whisky is lighter in flavor than other whisky styles.
Yes, many Canadian whiskies are light, just as many Scotch whiskies and American whiskeys are. However, Canadian whisky makers bust this myth by producing a whole range of hugely robust whiskies such as Lot No. 40, Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel, Canadian Club 100% Rye and Forty Creek Double Barrel. The reputation of Canadian whisky as light is an oversimplification that only holds for bottom-shelf mixing whiskies, just as it does for Scotch and American whiskey.
5. Canada has two whisky regions – the eastern distilleries and the western ones.
There is a distinctly Canadian way of making whisky, but there are as many variations as there are distilleries. Three distilleries in Alberta each specialize in different grains for making whisky – corn, wheat or rye. Similar differences exist in the east. So while it is convenient to talk of geographic whisky regions as we do for Scotland, unlike in Scotland, classifying Canadian whisky by region tells us nothing about the whisky itself.
6. Canada’s first whisky makers were Scottish and Irish immigrants.
Many of Canada’s first settlers came from Scotland and Ireland. They distilled, but they were interested simply in producing drinkable alcohol. So, with easy access to molasses from the Caribbean they made rum, not whisky. They also fermented local fruit. Milling and mashing grain for whisky was just too much work. Rather than Scots and Irishmen, it was English and German flour millers who became the first commercial whisky makers in Canada.
7. Canadian whisky is made using mash bills.
Bourbon mashes combine several grains in strict proportions according to recipes called mash bills. In Canada, each grain is mashed, fermented, distilled and matured separately and only brought together when the individual spirit is at the peak of its flavor. So, with rare exceptions, when talking about Canadian whisky, it is almost meaningless to speak of mash bills.
8. Canadian whisky, like Scotch, is a blend of whisky from many different distilleries.
Blended Scotch is made by mingling whiskies from many different distilleries. Most Canadian distilleries, however, make all the component whiskies for their blends, in-house. So, Canadian whiskies are the products of individual distilleries and are best described as “single distillery blends”.
9. The range of flavors in Canadian whisky is so diverse because producers add artificial flavorings.
Although generally not applied in practice, by law, Canadian whisky makers may add up to 9.09% (one part in eleven) of aged spirit that does not meet the Canadian definition of whisky. The logic behind this comes from American tax law that gives tax incentives to foreign producers who incorporate American spirits in their products. Generally this only makes financial sense for high-volume bottom-shelf whiskies rather than the specialty whiskies that connoisseurs prefer.
10. The production of Canadian whisky is largely unregulated.
In Scotland, the Scotch Whisky Order specifies exactly how Scotch must be made. Standards of Identity serve the same role in the U.S. However, Canada does not gather all its whisky laws, rules and regulations together into one tidy legislative piece. Rather, they are scattered among multiple legal documents. Writers, unable to nail down Canada’s regulations sometimes draw the conclusion that Canadian whisky is not regulated. In fact there are so many rules and regulations and they are so convoluted that distillers must employ lawyers to ferret them out and interpret them.