Canadian Rye vs American Rye: Explaining the Differences

August 18, 2021

As the entire category of rye whiskey began picking up momentum a decade ago, there was a great deal of confusion about how American rye whiskey and Canadian rye whisky compared to each other. For starters, there hadn’t been much American rye whiskey on the market. When many people said the phrase “rye whiskey,” they were really referring to Canadian whisky. Any Canadian whisky. That comes down to the way Canadian whisky has traditionally been made, and a resulting misperception about what it is.

What is Canadian Rye Whisky?

American rye whiskey is defined as a whiskey made with a mash bill of 51% or more rye grain, and must also be matured in new, charred oak casks. That’s easy enough to grasp. And it matches the grain-dominant whiskey definitions of other categories, such as bourbon, which must be made with a mash bill of 51% or more corn.

Canadian rye whisky, as legally defined, well, it isn’t really defined. The only stipulation, essentially, is that it’s whisky, and meets the category-wide Canadian standards. This includes a minimum of three years of maturation in wooden casks with a capacity of less than 700 liters.

What was long referred to as Canadian rye whisky did not need to be made from a majority of rye grain. Technically speaking, it didn’t even need to have any rye in it at all, although that was not a common scenario. The category was used to describe whisky which had some of the signature traits that rye grain provided. This association and designation comes down to perhaps the singular key factor in the production of Canadian whisky: blending.

Most Canadian whisky is traditionally made by distilling individual grains. These single grain distillates are then matured on their own. They aren’t blended to produce a specific flavor until the end of the process.

More Production Differences

That’s not the end of the story, either. On top of individual grain distillates, Canadian whisky is traditionally blended from two types of whisky — base whisky and flavoring whisky. This is another crucial, fundamental difference to know. Base whisky is column-distilled to a strength as high as 94% ABV, essentially producing what we’d call “light whiskey” in the United States. Flavoring whisky may be column or pot distilled, and the proof is kept much lower. This allows the spirit to retain a far more robust set of flavors and aromas.

For a traditional Canadian rye whisky, a blender would begin with a light base whisky, typically corn, although wheat was once more common. This whisky wouldn’t have much of a booming flavor on its own. A percentage of rye flavoring whisky would be added to this base to create the desired profile.

That explains why Canadian rye whisky was basically just something that tasted like rye whisky rather than a category defined by a mash bill or specific ratio. Further, as this represented the bulk of whisky produced in Canada, and the bulk of any rye whiskey you’d find on store shelves for decades, rye whiskey and Canadian whisky became synonymous.

Canadian Rye Whisky Reborn

All of this talk of tradition is important to provide proper context for rye whiskey, whether it’s made in the US or Canada. In the past five years though there has been a huge explosion of high quality Canadian ryes coming to market. This includes blends from big producers including staggeringly old whiskies, 100% rye whiskies and pot-distilled rye whiskies. Not to mention the new entrants from the craft scene. Consider that Canada now boasts more than 250 distillers across the country in addition to those old school powerhouses.

Hiram Walker’s Lot No. 40 became the standard bearer for 100% Canadian rye when it was first released. Since then, a number of new additions have been added to the Lot No. 40 line, including age statement and cask strength releases.

J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye includes 62% rye blended with wheat and corn whiskies aged in a range of cask types, including used Canadian whisky, first-fill bourbon and new whisky. Still Waters distillery in Ontario has made waves as one of the most highly-touted craft whisky producers in the country. Its Stalk & Barrel rye includes a single barrel offering bottled at cask strength, and another proofed down to 46% ABV. It’s made entirely from rye whisky and is pot distilled.

Of course, all of this is on top of the many American producers that bottle up sourced, imported Canadian rye. These are predominantly made by Alberta Distillers Limited, and depending upon the producer, are sometimes blended with American-made whiskey. Prominent brands include WhistlePig, Masterson’s, Pendleton, Lock Stock & Barrel, and Hochstadter’s. Consider these rye whiskeys as having dual citizenship, perhaps.

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