Canadian whisky seems to be the last whisky category to be turning heads in the U.S., behind bourbon, Scotch, Japanese and Irish styles. The Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), a lobbying and information group for the American distilled spirits industry, aims to speed the process of awareness along. On Tuesday, November 19, DISCUS teamed with Spirits Canada and Gary Doer, the ambassador of Canada to the U.S., to present a comprehensive tasting and celebration of Canadian whisky labels. The event, for media and bartenders/owners, took place at the Canadian Consulate on Sixth Avenue.
Guests were encouraged to walk around sampling whiskies from some of the biggest labels (Black Velvet, Crown Royal, Canadian Mist), along with some of the smaller labels that are only now exporting to the U.S. (Wiser's, Collingwood and Lot 40, among others). PDT's Jim Meehan provided cocktails featuring Canadian whisky, and Mile End Sandwich offered up flavorful takes on traditional Canadian dishes like Quebec favorite poutine, a mix of french fries, gravy and cheese curds (often savored after a few too many glasses of whisky). They also got to take in a selection of artwork created by Canadian artists who now live and work in New York City.
Unlike American bourbon or rye, there are no restrictions on what grains must be used in what proportions for Canadian whisky (though different grains are generally distilled and aged separately prior to blending), nor are there restrictions on the barrel types used for aging (apart from a maximum size). For Canadian distillers, this can either mean a lot of loopholes to create inexpensive whiskies (i.e. ryes with very little rye content), or a fantastic opportunity to craft and blend innovative flavor profiles. Distiller Don Livermore—who helps produce Pike Creek, Wisers and Lot 40 (all new labels to the U.S., but popular in Canada)—tends to take the latter positive viewpoint.
"It's a wonderful time to be producing Canadian whisky," says Livermore. "We live by the codes our forefathers, like Hiram Walker, set up. They set up very simple rules for whisky: It must be 40% alcohol by volume (80 proof), aged a minimum of three years in barrels smaller than 700 ml, and all the grains distilled and aged separately. We don't use any neutral grain spirit (vodka) in the blend, so what you get is what you get."
The result, along with an emphasis on dry, peppery rye distillates as a "backbone" to the whiskies, give Canadian whisky a sweet-and-spicy, full-bodied whisky with a lot of room to play. As the producers present at the event showed, Canada's also gotten very serious about its whisky. Many of the better labels, like Lot 40 and Collingwood 21-year, use 100% rye mashes - a very difficult grain to work with as it gets sticky in the still. Pike Creek is finished in Port barrels, Collingwood with maple wood. Danfield's Limited Edition 21-Year (not in the U.S. yet) is one of the few high-quality Canadian whiskies where the grains (rye, corn and malted barley) are blended from the beginning, rather than following separate maturations. Crown Royal XR takes advantage of diminishing reserves at the now-closed Lasalle Distillery outside Montreal. A brand known as Dark Horse—arriving in the U.S. in 2014 under the label Copper Stallion—is a blend of 91% rye, corn, malted barley and 1% Olorosa sherry for sweetness.
"Canadian whisky is booming in the U.S. again, particularly in the premium category," said John Prato, Consul General of Canada in New York. Echoing DISCUS's clarion call for responsible drinking, he noted, "It means we can drink better, not necessarily more."
Doer joked that since Canadian whisky flowed freely during Prohibition and was popular in the U.S. for its availability (it arrived from Canada to NYC through a spot near Lake Erie known as Whisky Island), that "we are the free trade experts."
"We've worked for many decades to make sure Canadian whisky is appreciated in the U.S. and easier to import," said Jan Wescott of Canadian Spirits. "DISCUS has been a fantastic partner in helping us showcase what Canadian whisky can do."
(according to Spirits Canada, this drink predates the Negroni)
- 1 1/2 oz Canadian Whisky
- 1 oz Camparti
- 1 oz Sweet Vermouth
combine ingredients in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir well. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with an orange wedge.
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FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author attended a media-invite event featuring samples of a variety of Canadian whisky and a new love for the Great White North.