A closer look at Canadian whisky

November 13, 2015

“Yes, it is popular in Canada, but almost from the beginning Canadian whisky enjoyed global repute. Today it is sold in more than 160 countries around the world. Nonetheless, despite its international reach, little attention has been paid to Canadian whisky as a distinct whisky category. Like Canadians themselves, it tends to fly under the radar. And often the best whisky doesn’t make it out of the country. Neither, unfortunately, does its story.” – Davin de Kergommeaux; Canadian Whisky – The Portable Expert

As we here at Distiller began our journey further into the world of whiskey, we had certainly fallen in line with a generalization that Canadian whisky is, by any measure, unremarkable. Certainly not bad, but nothing to really pay much attention to. As we’ve expanded our knowledge in this world, particularly this year, we have had the pleasure of adding Davin de Kergommeaux to Distiller’s tasting table – and along with his addition a new respect and understanding of a genre of whiskey often overlooked.

Getting into Canadian whiskey

Earlier this summer while attending Tales of The Cocktail, one of the tasting panels that stood out most to us was on the topic of Canadian whisky, led by – you guessed it, Davin. While we weren’t particularly prepared for a tasting session that early in the day, we were truly surprised to find not only a sorely needed education, but a sampling of some truly wonderful whisky that we would have most likely overlooked on our own. Tastings from Forty Creek, Pike Creek, and Lot 40, along with a variety of cocktails were well accompanied by a crash course in the history and processes of Canada’s whisky production.

Notably, Canadian whisky, as a genre, takes a unique approach to the concept of the mash bill and the blend that is wholly different from what you may be used to. While Single malts, blended malts, and bourbon mashbills are the more common notions of the whiskey world, Canadian blending falls well outside of these generalities – with the vast majority of Canadian whiskey being made by distilling and maturing each of the grains separately, and then blending in a final stage before bottling.

Canadian whisky: Crown Royal Stills
The bottom few feet of three of the multiple-stories tall stills operating at Crown Royal.

Combine this maturation and blending technique with the fact that Canadian whisky is one of the largest segments of the whiskey genre, and interesting data begin to emerge, as they do with any segment of the whiskey world.

A visit to Crown Royal

Recently, while visiting Diageo’s Crown Royal Distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, we began to truly experience the scope of a major brand’s distillation. This was no visitor’s center – this was whisky making on a grand scale. Massive 6-story tall column stills plus a one-of-a-kind coffey still, producing distillate 24 hours a day, filling aging warehouses to the tune of 1.4 million barrels, approaching 1.5 million by the end of 2015 (compared to 5.6 million total barrels in the entire state of Kentucky across all producers). Barrels used and re-used according to an incredibly specific distillate vs. age flowchart system, with barrels often being used for over 50+ years as they are rotated and recycled throughout the system.

All of this culminating in a quantity of whiskey that allows not only for the blending and final production of their main product (Crown Royal Deluxe), while continuously aiming for the same consistent flavor that’s been produced for decades – just as any long-standing brand would – but also, affording Crown Royal’s master blenders an incredible amount of latitude to innovate and create new blends and marques.

Canadian whisky - Crown Royal barrels
Unlike a bourbon rickhouse, barrels are stored upright. After years of internal testing, it was decided there was little to no difference created by the barrel’s orientation.

Unlike a bourbon rickhouse, barrels are stored upright. After years of internal testing, it was decided there was little to no difference created by the barrel’s orientation.

The liquid behind the brand

We could go into the brand’s ‘story’ here – but we’re here to talk about the spirit, not the brand. However, should you have the chance to attend an event with any of Diageo’s Masters of Whiskey, or Crown Royal’s newly minted Global Brand Ambassador Stephen Wilson – we’d highly recommend it.

Again, with quantity like this, and the specificity of blending, a brand’s ability to experiment and create begins to show, and as those new products come to market, as they do every year – it’s worth noting that many may very well deserve your attention.

Premium and Super premium bottlings from across Canada are certainly worth taking a look at, see Forty Creek’s Copper Pot Reserve, Alberta Premium Dark Horse, and Crown Royal’s Hand Selected Barrel. And if you have the ability, specifically the first release of Hand Selected Barrel, said barrel chosen by the man himself – Davin De Kergommeaux. We were lucky enough to sample that alongside six barrels just pulled for bottling, and this we can say for certain – it’s a damn fine product, and when it comes to Canadian whisky Davin knows what he’s talking about.

There’s a wide world of Canadian whisky out there…

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