History of Canadian Whisky

Canadian whiskey is possibly one of the most misunderstood categories in the world. You’ve heard of it, probably through big names like Canadian Club and Crown Royal, but the class is riddled with misinformation and myths. From watered-down well whiskeys to hair-on-your-chest high ryes, Canadian whisky is oft considered a sub-par sister to American whiskey. But it’s not—it’s a category with a rich history of producing stellar spirits

John Molson founder of Molson Brewing
John Molson Sr. Founder of Molson Brewery

Canadian whisky is traced back furthest to John Molson (yes, the founder of Molson brewing). The Englishman brought whisky over with him in 1799. As more Brits and Scots emigrated over to Canada (my kilt-wearing Highland ancestors among them), they started looking to sip their native spirit.

Most settled in Southern Ontario thanks to generous land offerings by the government. But barley is rare in the region. So Ontario distillers started making moonshine with corn, wheat, and rye in the mashbill rather than traditional Scottish barley. To this day, those three grains still make up the majority of our spirits: corn acts as the backbone, while rye imparts flavor (spice, particularly). 

While the first (legal) distillery in Canada was opened in 1832, “The Canadian whiskey took off between 1861 and 1865 during the Civil war,” explains Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender at Hiram Walker, the parent company for Lot 40, Gooderham and Worts, Wiser’s, and Pike Creek. “Northerners stopped drinking whiskey from the South, so they started filling their glasses with Canadian drams. The US men also went to war, so they shut down the American distilleries and melted down the metal for ammunition.”

That was Canada’s chance to push out American distilleries and get on the radar of US drinkers. “Drinking became a problem in the war, so there were prohibitions inside the camps. Canadian men like Wisers, Hiram Walker, and Henry Corby took advantage of this and started smuggling drams into the camps,” describes Dr. Livermore. “The whisky industry in Canada took right off.” By 1900, it was the largest spirits category in the world. 

So what happened to Canadian Whisky? 

Prohibition took out Canadian whisky at the knees—Canada declared temperance in 1915 and the US, in 1919. People weren’t drinking (legally, at least), so stills started running dry. 

During that time, the 3,000 miles of lake and riverfront along the Canadian border acted as prime real estate to pass whisky over. In 1924 alone, over $40 million worth of booze, or two-thirds of the whisky in the US, came across the Canadian border. (Fun fact: a small series of islands off the coast of Newfoundland acted as a safe space to hold whisky in transit. Over 98,500 liters were recorded on the island between 1911 and 1918.)

Seagrams Canadian Whisky
Image of Seagrams Canadian Whisky poster from Pinterest

Seagram’s was responsible for much of it. Acquired by Samual and Alan Bronfman in 1927, the company shipped thousands of gallons of liquor into the US via their distribution company.

The rest was run by Harry Hatch, an entrepreneurial salesman who started buying up distilleries when the prohibition took over, and owners were eager to sell off their stills. 

Within ten years, he had acquired Wiser’s, Corby, Hiram Walker, and Gooderham and Worts. Hatch and team would run bottles from the distillery’s home on Toronto’s lakeshore across the lake to the Rochester waterfront. Quickly, these distilleries turned into giants, shipping Canadian whisky around the world. 

But once prohibition ended, US drinkers were eager to start drinking homemade drams. So Canadian whisky drifted away from public consciousness.

Alberta Distillers Premium Whisky
Alberta Distillers Premium

Decades later, Canadian whisky is only starting to make the radar of international drinkers. Whisky nerds love it because they know the value—the underappreciated category offers low prices for great whisky

The category is starting to gain traction in the awards circuit too—Alberta Distillers snagged top honors in this year’s (controversial) Jim Murray Whisky Bible. A few years ago, Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest infamously snagged top honors, upsetting a world of Scotch drinkers. 

We’ll continue to explore this category over the coming weeks, but till then, perhaps considering something from North of the Border in your glass. 

Kate Dingwall
Kate Dingwallhttps://www.kate-dingwall.com/
Kate Dingwall is a writer and editor, primarily covering the spirits and travel world. Her work has appeared in Forbes.com, Wine Enthusiast, Liquor.com, MAXIM Magazine, DuJour Magazine, Eater, VinePair, Culture Trip, Canada's 100 Best Restaurants, and a number of other publications, online and print. Outside of writing, she is a sommelier and an avid martini drinker.
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