What Is Canadian Whisky and How Is It Made

Moving on in our Canadian whisky series, let’s take a look into the production process of Canadian whisky.

Barrels of Canadian Whisky
Barrels of Canadian Club Whisky

One of the most fascinating parts of the category is the restrictions aren’t as tight as other whisky hubs: While Americans are tied to strict mash bills, Canadian whisky is relatively laissez-faire—they have no mash bill requirements or age statements on their labels. They are only required to rest the spirit for a minimum of three years in barrels.

(Fun fact: Canadian whisky law is so lax, that Canadian distillers can add up to 9.09% of the blend to other spirits or wine. Dr. Livermore claims that Hiram Walker added rum to his whisky in the 1880s. Now, the law states that it has to be a wine or a two-year-old spirit. That said, it could be tequila or brandy or Scotch.)

Unlike U.S. distillers, Canadians tend to ferment, distill, and individually mature single-grain whiskeys then blend them together, instead of relying on a specific combination of mash bill to build a whiskey around.

This puts more creativity and latitude in the hands of the blender. They can use column or pot still. No barrel requirement, nor is there guidance for mash bills. Blends, ages, grains, and barreling are all in the hands of the creator—like painting outside of the lines.

To be dubbed Canadian, all the whisky has to do is be fermented, aged, and distilled in Canada, made with grain, 40 percent alcohol, in a wooden barrel of less than 700 liters, for a minimum of three years.

That said, Canada reigns on blending. In the US whiskey world, blended whiskies are, well, subpar, if we’re thinking stereotypes. But Canadian whiskeys thrive through blending—rather than stick to a designated mash bill, Canadian master blenders curate and conjure up the perfect blend of aging grains and maturations after distillation, giving them a full canvas of flavors to work with.

(This coincides with the vernacular—Canada’s head honchos are Master Blenders because blending requires the most expertise here, similar to as in Scotland. In the US, as most of the spirit is defined in distillation, Master Distiller is the preferred title of the distillery’s lead.)

Many older consumers may think Canadian whiskey is the same thing they’ve been drinking for generations. But the category changes with each generation thanks to this creative licensing. Loose restrictions mean distillers can pivot to trends and, they can adapt their process to meet farming needs—if the rye crop isn’t up to standards one year, or yields unusual flavors, blenders can balance out the liquid with various grains and fermentation processes.

Dr. Don Livermore Master Blender Hiram Walker
Dr. Don Livermore – Master Blender Hiram Walker

Meaning small-batch whiskies reign. Many of the best distilleries in the country roll out small batch on the regular (on a recent tasting with Don Livermore of Hiram Walker, every brand under the famed Master Blender’s portfolio was rolling out fascinating, experimental iterations).

In Canada, blenders have a painter’s palette at their disposal, and brands are using it.

The unfortunate part of this is most of these innovative small-batch offerings don’t leave the country or even the province. Road trip to Canada, anyone?

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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