Will the Canadian Whisky Bubble Pop? / by Jason Hambrey

Whisky, worldwide, is going through quite a boom. The bottles are harder to get a hold of, the prices are going up - especially bourbon and the often high quality special releases. Distilleries around the world are investing millions in expansion - but Canada, despite being one of the major whisky producers in the world, has largely been shielded (of course, not totally - we have lots of budding new micro distillers, and Hiram Walker is getting even bigger....)

In Ontario, Canadian whisky rarely sees much of a supply problem - even highly esteemed limited releases such as the Forty Creek limited editions or Wiser's Last Barrels stay on the shelves for months. Most of the best Canadian whiskies are on the shelves a few months a year. The only exception in recent times has been Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye shortly after Jim Murray listed it as his top whisky of the year - but now, 6 months later, there is lots kicking around the shelves here.

But that's within Canada. Outside of Canada, in a bar, it can be hard to get much in the way of Canadian beyond Canadian Club or Crown Royal - and these bottom shelf Canadians can be priced in the same league as mid-level Scottish whiskies. Getting good Canadian whisky is very difficult outside of the country - whiskies like Wiser's Legacy, Forty Creek Confederation Oak, Gibson's 18 year old - are very difficult to find. Most of Canadian whisky that is exported is done so for budget mixing, and, thus, is often comprised of whiskies you don't really want to sip. And some whiskies, like Canadian Mist and some of the Crown Royal lines, are developed with the US in mind specifically - at times they can't even be found in Canada whatsoever.

This is a great time for Canadian whisky - even amidst a world of (mature) whisky shortage, Canadian whisky still comes in at terrific quality and great prices. It's rare that I see a Canadian whisky priced over $100, which, in itself, is incredible. Rye is hot right now, and aged ryes are very difficult to find and cost a lot of money (think of Beam's 6 year rye going for $300). Rittenhouse has some terrific old ryes come from time to time - but they are far from affordable. In Canada, let's think about well regarded, aged ryes released in the past few years: a 25 year old 100% rye retailed for less than $30 in 2007, a 30 year old for less than $50 in 2012, a 21 Year old for less than 50$ in 2014. Wow! And why not throw in a fantastic Danfield's 21 year old which regularly retails for less than $50.  It makes you wonder who's missed the memo, but, more to the point, it shows how undervalued the category is. I'm not advocating for high prices - I quite love the access and relative position that Canadian whisky has for those of us in much of the country.

But, I expect that will change. Canadian whisky is continuing to gain acclaim in earning awards and gaining recognition - and it has also changed in helpful ways, with more unique and bold flavours being produced. And let's look who runs the large Canadian distillers:

  • Alberta: Beam Suntory (Japan)
  • Black Velvet: Constellation Brands (USA)
  • Canadian Mist: Brown Forman (USA)
  • Forty Creek: Campari (Italy)
  • Gimli (Crown Royal), Valleyfield: Diageo (UK)
  • Hiram Walker: Pernod Ricard (France)

Highwood is still Canadian (and they're great folks!), but that leaves them as the largest. Otherwise, large international producers with lots of stock, a growing connoisseur market in a whisky-thirsty world, and lots of money to be made. I expect even better whiskies to be released out of Canada - but, I expect, they'll start to cost more and be harder to find. Enjoy while you can - it won't be too long before Diageo figures out how to lost a barrel in Gimli, Manitoba.