The Canadian Invasion

The Canadian Invasion
Photo/Jeff Harris

It took the Civil War and a Constitutional amendment for Canadian whisky to get recognition south of the border in the United States. Now we can expect a third wave as distillers well known to America widen their choices and whiskies that have never before been imported are also arriving.

Canadians first saw an opportunity here when the war between the states slowed our own production. Later when Prohibition took force in 1920, gangsters and otherwise law-abiding citizens looked to our neighbors for what was considered "the good stuff." In the last decades, however, Canadian whisky, while still popular, hasn't been at the forefront of the rediscovery of brown goods, perhaps because of its smooth, mild approach.

Doubters of Canadian connoisseurship should look to a whisky like Crown Royal's Monarch 75th Anniversary. It was introduced to commemorate the brand's creation three-quarters of a century ago when Britain's King George VI made a historic visit to Canada. Canadian whiskies are blends and the company pulled out all the stops to mix their best for this one, with a particularly high quantity of rye malt distilled in a Coffey still. The result weds Crown's signature smoothness with hefty notes of toffee, caramel and honey as well as beguiling fruit.

Canada has also taken notice of the finishing trend that has been so popular in Scotch whisky. The technique involves aging whisky in one vessel (typically a former Bourbon barrel) and then moving it to another. Exemplary of this is Canadian Club's Sherry Cask. After eight years, it goes into sherry casks for a second maturation, and not only picks up notes of that fortified wine, but also raisins and chocolate, with consummate finesse. Crown Royal has its own Cognac-finished whisky, and a craft bottler that also makes wine called Forty Creek does a Port finish that is exceptional, with a mix of butterscotch, raisins and plum notes. Collingwood, which finishes not in oak barrels, but maple wood, has the same smoothing effects of the charcoal filtering of Tennessee whisky, and it also delivers, not surprisingly, maple notes.

Many transplanted Canadians lament that some of their favorite brands are not available in the United States. Wiser's reduced that number of absentees about a year ago when it came to America with its standard Rye, quickly followed by its 18-year-old. Both marry the smoothness of Canadian whisky with the spice (cinnamon, cloves and licorice) that would be implied by its high rye content. Its importer, Pernod Ricard, also introduced Pike Creek, another Port-finished whisky, in 2013.

While rye whiskies from Canada don't have the same stringent regulations and usually not as high rye content as American straight rye whiskies, some Canadians stress that flavor. In fact, Alberta Premium is made exclusively with rye grain. Pendleton's 1910 Rye, a 12-year-old, and Calgary Stampede Rye, a 25-year-old are very much influenced by the grain as well as following a Western theme. And you thought cowboys were only for America.