In a world of whiskies where identity is key, Canadian whisky might just suffer by its ability to do everything. From making a Scotch-style single malt to an American-style bourbon, distilleries from our northern neighbors thrive of that very versatility, opening the doors to creativity and innovation. Luckily, in recent years, Canadian liquor has been on the rise Stateside. It’s yet to build up the exotic cachet of Scotch or Japanese whisky, but we’re confident that it’s only a matter of time. To help you get started, we’ve compiled a guide to the best Canadian whiskies to drink right now.
What Is Canadian Whisky?
And Rye Is It So Good?
Although it’s often called rye whisky, Canadian rye whisky is much different than American rye whiskey (other than the added “e”), which can contain as much as 100% rye in the mashbill. For one, the “rye” in Canadian whisky refers to the grain being added to a predominantly-corn mashbill. Whereas most popular whisky-making regions (think Scotland, Ireland, Japan, and the United States) specialize in a certain style or styles — brought on by the prominence of a specific grain or still type — Canada is known for its eclectic variety and is frequently blended from different styles.
That said, there are some legal stipulations pinned to making Canadian whisky thanks to the nation’s Food and Drug Act. Most importantly, the liquor is required to be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada. Additionally, it must be aged in “small wood vessels” for at least three years and bottled at 40% ABV. Unlike many other regions, caramel may be added for flavoring as long as it doesn’t lose the aroma and taste “generally attributed to Canadian whisky.”
History Of Canadian Whisky
Slow But Steady
Around since the 1700s, Canadian whisky mostly began as a wheat spirit, since that’s what primarily grew in the country at the time. Rye was added for flavor, thus creating what would become the profile and identity of the spirit for some time. The liquor really started to boom in the 19th century in England, who was having trouble sourcing their whisky elsewhere. Later on, during the Civil War in the United States, the North looked to Canada to supply them with their liquor since they refused to buy products from the Confederate states, which happened to be the source of most of the whiskey in the country.
The first real nation to enact an aging requirement, which was only one year in 1887 before eventually increasing to three, Canadian whisky was able to capitalize on the repeal of Prohibition since many U.S. distilleries had shut down and consumers wanted something besides the bootleg whiskey they had been drinking for 13 years. Likewise, a lot of their products had been aging in barrels waiting for the demand to return. Like most spirits (other than vodka), wine and beer were the favored alcoholic drink throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s until 1992 when Forty Creek reclaimed what Canadian whisky could be.
Alberta Premium Rye Dark Batch
Launched in 1946, Albert Distillers started making rye whisky a couple decades after it went out of style and long before it was cachet again. A few years ago, the number-one rye producer in North America decided to do something a little different. Where its contemporaries were finishing their whiskies in former wine casks, Alberta was putting it straight in the batch, blending 91% rye, 8% bourbon, and 1% sherry to make its Dark Batch, which rides on a profile of vanilla, oak, dried stone fruit, citrus, and baking spices.
Lot 40 was created by Corby Spirit and Wine in 1998 as a limited-edition homage to pre-Prohibition-style rye whisky. After the resurgence of rye, it was launched as its own brand in 2012 and has since become one of the most decorated Canadian whiskies. Utilizing a mashbill of 100% unmalted rye, Lot 40, which gets its namesake from the plot of land owned by one of its founders, is distilled in copper pot stills one batch at a time and aged in new American oak barrels much similar to bourbon. The result is a dry and complex profile of spice, dark fruit, and citrus.
Shelter Point Smoke Point
Since 2011, British Columbia-based distillery Shelter Point has made all of its whiskies with the barley that’s grown on its own 380-acre property and water from a river that runs through its estate. Its highly-popular small-batch Smoke Point expression takes after the peated single malts from Scotland. Made from pot stills, Batch #3 has already won a plethora of awards this year, including Double Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and “Best Single Malt” at the Canadian Whisky Awards.
J.P. Wiser’s 18 Year
With 165 years of whisky-making experience, J.P. Wiser’s is one of the oldest operating distilleries in the nation. Thanks to the low-rye mashbill, this 18-year-old corn whisky — the brand’s highest age statement — is double column distilled, blended, and aged for nearly two decades in Canadian oak casks. Perfect for sipping neat, this expression goes down super smooth with a dynamic palate of pine, oak, apple, and floral notes with a long finish. And with a sub-$60 price point, this is one of the best deals you’ll find in any liquor category.
Crown Royal Noble Collection Winter Wheat Blended
What Jack Daniel’s is to American whisky, Crown Royal is to our neighbors to the north. Easily Canada’s most recognizable brand, the Gimli giant has been heading in a new premium direction as of late. However, that purple bag and picturesque bottles have always come underpinned with an air of elegance. This most recent version of the Noble Collection’s Winter Wheat Blended whisky has been the brand’s hottest batch as of late, even winning “Best Whisky Overall” at the Canadian Whiskey Awards back in February.
Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve
Since its launch in 1992, Forty Creek has been paving the way for Canadian whisky with its resilient approach to thinking outside the box. Credited with helping revive the national spirit, Forty Creek’s small-batch Confederation Oak Reserve, named after the Canadian Confederation of 1867, blends together three spirts of different ages, made from a mashbill of corn, rye, and barley, and then finished for two years in Canadian oak casks. The colder weather imparts a profile of vanilla, butter cream, pepper, and walnut.
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel
Billed as Canada’s first single-barrel whisky, this marvelous expression from Caribou Crossing comes from one of around 200,000 casks in the distillery’s collection. Bourbon lovers might compare its caribou bottle topper to Blanton’s galloping horse, but the flavor profile can stand toe-to-toe as well. Easily one of the most prolific top-shelf options from the Great White North, Caribou Crossing’s Single Barrel soars with a slightly-fluctuating medium-body profile of vanilla, honey, pepper, and fruit.
Lock Stock & Barrel 21 Year
Rye typically matures much faster that corn- or barley-based whiskies. Nevertheless, the folks at Lock Stock & Barrel have found magic in their process, utilizing a mashbill of 100% rye. The brand’s top-shelf 21 Year was double distilled in copper pot stills before being aged for over two decades in new charred American oak barrels. Bottled at 111 proof, this whisky has a definite heat undergirding notes of cinnamon, caramel, cocoa, anise, and treacle, giving way to a long finish of leather, oak, and spice.
The Best High-Rye Bourbons to Drink
Do you love rye-forward whiskies? So do we! Check out our guide to the best high-rye bourbons to add to your liquor cabinet.