Canadian whiskey is one of the most influential products in the world. It has a unique taste that connoisseurs and amateur drinkers alike can enjoy in equal measure. But the taste of this great drink is only the start of what makes it such a significant spirit. This whiskey has a history just as rich as its flavor.
Canadian whiskey took off in 1769. This is when the first distillery was built in Quebec. But the widespread popularity of Canadian whiskey happened several years later. It all started, though, due to immigrants.
The first Canadian distilleries were likely influenced by the influx of Scottish immigrants coming into Canada. They had a specific way of distilling their whiskey. John Molson integrated those methods into his early distillation practices in the late 18th century.
The Canadian whiskey revolution took off in pretty short order, and in about a century, there were hundreds of distilleries dotted the landscape. Somewhere along the way, the signature Canadian whiskey taste evolved.
Around that time, an unknown genius splashed some rye into the whiskey mash, which led to a special aftertaste that gives Canadian whiskey its unusual taste. Some say that story is just an urban legend, but no one can dispute the unique taste of this whiskey.
The Father of Canadian Whiskey
John Molson is known as “the Father of Canadian Whiskey.” Despite that title, he was born in England, moving to Canada later in life to make his fortune brewing. It took a couple of trips and several attempts, but he got lucky when immigrants from the United States came north.
In 1782, Molson opened a small brewery. It didn’t stay small for long, however, as the fame of his beer extended across the land. Molson soon had more customers than he could handle and focused on expanding his business.
In 1799, he decided to diversify by offering whiskey in addition to his popular beer. In time, he became famous for using the method of Scottish immigrants to make whiskey. Incidentally, this Scottish influence is why whiskey is sometimes spelled without an “e,” which is how it is spelled in Scotland.
Molson was hugely influential on the sale of whiskey in Canada. He inspired generations of future entrepreneurs to try their hand at making whiskey, and this practice continued long after his distilleries closed in 1867. One of those individuals Molson influenced was Hiram Walker, who changed the Canadian whiskey game in a big way through the use of bottles.
The First Bottled Whiskey
Scottish influence on Canadian whiskey lasted for decades. For the better part of a century, people bought whiskey from distillers straight from the barrel. That tradition stretched back to Scotland and reached Canada, but it would actually be an American that ended up changing everything.
Hiram Walker was an entrepreneur from America who built his own distillery in 1858. He soon began selling “Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky,” unique in that the whiskey was packaged in bottles. That one difference ended up changing both the area around the distillery and the entire country at large.
Bottling the whiskey had all the effects that one might imagine. It was easier to buy, easier to transport, and easier to consume. Walker’s whiskey became so popular that people soon built a farm, and then an entire township, with Walker’s distillery at the center.
It seemed then that the whiskey revolution in Canada would never stop.
Canada and Prohibition
The era of Prohibition in America coincided with a similar Prohibition in Canada. Around 1916, whiskey sales were limited to certain groups and restricted purposes.
The distilleries that previously made Canadian whiskey were being put to alternative uses. Many of them were being used for military shelters and training facilities. Often they were used for basic purposes, such as storing grain or other supplies.
Fortunately, nothing lasts forever. While American Prohibition ended in 1933, Canada’s own Temperance movement ended in 1924. Without Prohibition in the way, Canada was on track to redefine what whiskey was, leading the world as a true tastemaker of the industry.
As tasty as it is, the key ingredients to Canadian whiskey are simple. The real magic comes in how everything is combined.
Canadian whiskey is comprised of corn as the primary grain ingredient along with smaller bits of rye and barley malt. From this basic description, it's easy to think all Canadian whiskey is the same.
Rye, as an example, is only a small component of the whiskey, but it has a big impact on flavor and smell. When whiskey has a really great smell, chances are that the good, spicy smell of the whiskey is due to it having more rye than most other spirits.
As for rye, it is a cereal grain that is very plentiful throughout Canada. In fact, it was the excess of rye that caused John Molson to first use rye in his whiskey, as this helped use up the excess rye that would otherwise go to waste. And rye in whiskey gives it a kind of dry, spicy flavor that is unlike any other spirit on Earth.
A distillery that uses different types of corn as its key ingredient is going to produce a whiskey that tastes quite different. Even the same distillery can produce a variety of interesting whiskeys, each with its own unique flavor.
Certain kinds of alcohol have a special history that is tied to a specific region. It's possible to identify wines from the specific regions or states in which they are created. For Canadian whiskey, though, it doesn’t always work that way.
Once upon a time, someone could trace Canadian whiskey to Quebec (part of the region of Central Canada), as it came from John Molson’s brewery. But before anyone could finish their drink, there were over two hundred different distilleries that spanned from Alberta to Windsor to Forty Creek.
Some of Canada’s other primary regions include the Atlantic (containing places like Nova Scotia and Newfoundland), the Prairie Provinces (including Alberta and Manitoba), the North (including the Yukon territory), and the West Coast (primarily known for British Columbia).
Each distillery in each region has its own unique production methods and taste. Canadian whiskey doesn’t taste a certain way due to a certain region. Instead, each distillery produces its own special flavors!
One of the reasons there’s such a large variety of Canadian whiskey is that the production technique is so simple. At the same time, it leaves a lot of room for distillers to add their own distinctive touches.
Canadian whiskey must be produced using alcohol from a mashed and distilled cereal grain. If it isn’t, it won’t have the distinctly Canadian flavor. It must be aged in a barrel for at least three years before it can be sold. The last requirement is that the final product has no less than forty percent alcohol by volume.
Those three key components are the only requirements for the whiskey to be labeled Canadian. This is ultimately a good thing. What’s the point of having countless different brands if the production requirements are so rigid that they all taste alike?
We’re a little biased, but we like to think that Canadian whiskey tastes great straight out of the glass. Even straight out of the bottle, if someone is in a hurry. But it also tastes amazing when it’s part of a great cocktail. We have a few historic recipes for whiskey fans to check out below.
One classic recipe that Canadians shared with Native Americans called for twenty-six ounces of whiskey, a pound of chewing tobacco, eight ounces of ginger, some red pepper, a quart of molasses, and some red ink.
To put it mildly, this is not something that one might find in a craft cocktail bar today. To Native Americans in the 19th century, however, it was a big hit, and the taste of whiskey recipes like this helped to promote trade.
Here's a classic recipe still enjoyed today: With one and a half ounces of Canadian whiskey, two ounces of lemon juice, one teaspoon of sugar, and a cocktail shaker full of ice, and it just takes a few shakes to enjoy a Canadian Club Sour. Put a wedge of lemon or maybe a cherry on top for the final touch.
The Light Bodied Myth
For better or for worse, people tend to group all Canadian whiskey together and act like it all has the same taste and qualities. This has led to some persistent myths, and one of the lasting ones is that all Canadian whiskey has a very light bodied taste.
Light bodied whiskey can actually have a very complex and rich taste, but it all comes down to the distiller. The production requirements for Canadian whiskey are very mild, so one distillery may produce the classic light-bodied taste and another may produce something richer.
Don’t worry, though: “Canadian whiskey” is a really big tent, and there’s room for all manner of flavors.
Whiskey Place Names
It’s tough to overstate how important Canadian whiskey is to Canada. All someone has to do is explore how whiskey has changed the Canadian landscape with clever whiskey place names.
A gap in the Milk River Ridge took people from Montana to Fort Whoop-Up, which is where the Native Americans enjoyed that powerful recipe we shared earlier. This gap led to the whiskey trade between America and Canada, and so it was named Whiskey Gap.
That’s just one example of a whiskey place name, and there are sixty-five more such places throughout the Canadian landscape. That means that with every sip, it's possible to be drinking a bit of history!
Canadian whiskey and smuggling have had a long and rocky history. It didn’t start out with smuggling, of course, but with trade and influence. Just as Scottish distilling techniques influenced Canadian whiskey, the sales and trade of that whiskey began to influence residence of the United States.
As Canadian whiskey became a booming business with over five hundred distilleries, opportunities arose for genuine smuggling, but not in the direction one might think. As taxes increased on genuine Canadian whiskey, it became big business for smugglers to illegally bring American whiskey into Canada.
Nearly fifty million bottles from America are smuggled into Canada each year. Between the taxes and the smuggling, it sometimes feels like Canadian distilleries are getting a bit of a one/two punch.
There’s not a lot of slang pertaining to Canadian whiskey, but the existing slang is pretty persistent. The most prevalent example is referring to Canadian whiskey that contains rye simply as “rye.”
For example, a Canadian might order a “rye and ginger.” In America, however, they would request Canadian whiskey and ginger ale. To this day, whether someone refers to the drink as “Canadian whiskey” or “rye” comes down largely to what country they are in – or for Americans, just how close they are to Canada itself.
Prolific Canadian Whiskey Producers
There are many varieties of Canadian whiskey. And with the large variety of mainstream and micro-distilleries, there certainly should be.
There are a handful of whiskey producers that are more prolific and well-known than many others. This includes Diageo, Sazerac Company, Pernod Ricard, and Beam Suntory.
Of course, no one has to focus too much on “name brands.” With so many different whiskeys to choose from, whiskey fans are guaranteed to find something they'll enjoy.
There is a great Canadian whiskey waiting out there for just about everyone However, it's impossible to find it without conducting a really serious taste test. We suggest kicking off the quest to find the best Canadian whiskey by tasting them in a variety of whiskey glasses.
Each Vega Whiskey Glass will produce a different experience for your taste buds. From traditional whiskey glasses in all its forms to tumblers for a drink on the rocks, the way you take your drink will shape the flavor and feel of your drink. Explore our online shop and find the right fit for your fun.