Canadian Whiskies You Need To Taste / by Jason Hambrey

I wanted to make another list in light of the upcoming Canada Day celebrations, quite different than my "If I could only have 5" list from a few days ago. The purpose of this list is to create a group of whiskies which both represent the best in Canadian whisky, but also, and perhaps more importantly, represent the style of Canadian whisky in its breadth. If I wanted to do a comprehensive tasting (perhaps multiple in this case) to introduce someone in depth to Canadian whisky, I'd select the following.

Part of my motivation for doing this, as well, is because people often go for what is popular. When I started with Canadian whisky, I tried as much as I could - including all of the cheap PET bottom shelf brands. If I hadn't tasted those, I wouldn't understand much of the mass produced style which drives the pockets of the big brands and also the experience of most people through Canadian whisky - cocktails.

First, four budget whiskies:

  1. Crown Royal
  2. Canadian Club
  3. Hiram Walker Special Old
  4. Seagrams VO

Why? None of these are particularly terrific - but they showcase the mass production of Canadian Whisky. Crown Royal is the top selling Canadian Whisky, made to be easy and is accessible all over and used for mixing all over. Similarly, Canadian Club is a piece of history, and though it's a bit rough, it is something of a benchmark. Hiram Walker shows off complexity amidst a bottom shelf brand with loads of spices, and many are surprised by this one - it also mixes really well (not every whisky does this!). Seagrams VO represents one of the better Canadian whiskies in a very common, and older, style - lightly sweet, dry, and spicy. It is a style seen all over Canadian whisky, but not usually in the premium brands so many are not familiar with it.

Now, let's get into some mid shelf, high quality Canadian whiskies from a number of the big brands. Why? Not only is there a broad range of styles, but this also shows off the family styles of many of the big brands:

  1. Wiser's Small Batch: Spicy, complex, and clean showing off much of the terrific Wiser spices.
  2. Alberta Premium Dark Horse: Lots of fruit, and lots of rye. Very much a crowd pleaser.
  3. Forty Creek Copper Pot: Shows off the complexity of the unique Forty Creek production process.
  4. Canadian Club 100% Rye: Tons of fruit crammed into this bottle of Alberta rye.
  5. Canadian Club Small Batch Classic 12 Year Old: Shows off the best of Canadian Club in it's family style (unlike the bottle above, which isn't much in the brand style).
  6. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: This shows off brilliant rye with terrific complexity.
  7. Crown Royal Limited Edition: This often slides under the radar, but it has a great easy and complex character.

Now, for whiskies I would consider in the  premium class (yeah I know, whatever that means). These bottles are all quite different, but they all  showcase very different styles and terrific blending and production.

  1. Crown Royal XO: A spicy, fruity Canadian whisky finished in Cognac casks.
  2. Forty Creek Confederation Oak: Elegant whisky - also the only major brand matured in Canadian oak.
  3. Wiser's Legacy: A beautifully crafted high rye blend.
  4. Gibson's 18: A longstanding favorite which comes of age at 18, with a great mix of complexity and balance.
  5. Lot No. 40: The hyped 100% rye from the biggest distillery in North America.
  6. Gooderham & Worts: A blend of 4 grains which shows them all nicely.
  7. Ninety 20 year old or Canadian Rockies 21: Much of Canadian whisky in the past has been based on well aged corn whisky, and these are both affordable and well worth a bottle.
  8. Caribou Crossing Single Barrel: Why not throw in a quality single barrel brand? These single barrels are bottled by Sazerac from purchased Canadian stock.

Traditionally, Canadian whisky is composed of a blend of lighter base whiskies with high flavour flavoring whiskies. It is interesting to taste both of these. The consumer palate these days goes to high flavour, particularly in the US, where a lot of the highest flavor Canadian whisky is found after being purchased and bottled by American companies.

  1. Wiser's 18: The taste of age. This is a base whisky which is aged for 18 years at the Pike Creek warehouse. It really does showcase the brilliance of aging and the depth of the base whiskies used in Canadian whisky.
  2. Crown Royal Single Barrel: Different than anything else in Canadian whisky, but big and complex. Also, >50%.
  3. Masterson's Rye: This shows in my opinion the best rye in Canada, coming from Alberta, and bottled as a straight rye (i.e. matured in new oak) by an independent bottler.
  4. Jefferson's Rye: Another independent bottling of Alberta Straight Rye. So why this again? Because Jefferson's, though from the same distillery and matured the same length in the same style, tastes so much different than Masterson's. There is a lot of good Alberta Rye.
  5. Masterson's Barley (if you can still find it): A 100% unmalted straight barley whisky. One of the most unique whiskies I have ever tasted, and I really liked it. One of the earthiest whiskiest I have tasted.

Finally, a few of the best bottlings from the blooming craft scene:

  1. Glen Breton 10 Year Old Single Malt: Glen Breton is more the size of a craft distillery, but they are often not discussed in that category because they have been around since 1989 producing single malt. Though it perhaps wasn't their intention, much of Canadian single malt produced by craft distillers fits in a similar flavor category.
  2. Last Mountain 100% Wheat: This bottle shows off wheat so well. My favorite wheat whisky.
  3. Stalk & Barrel Rye: Amazing and unique rye.
  4. A single malt from Shelter Point or Two Brewers. They are making great stuff and some of the only micro distilleries releasing whiskies which are measurably older than 3 years.
  5. A Yukon Single Malt Special Finishes bottle. Unique, with widely different batches, but very good and interesting.

That's a pretty good picture of the Canadian whisky landscape there.