Canadian Whisky: The Good in Everyone

by Ken Walczak

Like most American drinkers, I have always had a tenuous relationship with Canadian whisky. The time was, I would find myself in a downmarket kind of establishment, craving a mixed drink to sip slowly, and I’d rely on the comfortable charms of a seven-and-seven.  Under the right circumstances, a seven-and-seven has a lot to recommend it: the name is fun to say, it’s a more respectable order than a vodka-and-anything, and it provides a convenient excuse to babble at your drinking companion about Harvey Keitel’s performance in Mean Streets.

But nowadays, even the downmarket establishments tend to have a better liquor selection.  You can usually find at least one decent bourbon or Irish whiskey in such places, in which cases I eschew anything mixed in favor of the simple poetry of a shot and a beer.  And if there are people shooting Seagram’s VO anywhere in 2010, I haven’t yet met them.

Yet every Sunday there’s Don Draper, his office perpetually stocked with Canadian Club, reminding me in high-definition of the torrid love affair between post-prohibition America and Canadian hooch.  This season, Mad Men has suggested that Don will be undone by his lifestyle and his maudlin tendency to succumb to the seductive power of nostalgia.  Which: point taken, but the man makes it look awfully nice to drink Canadian whisky.

CropCanadianWhisky So during a recent trip to British Columbia, I sought to uncover some of the allure, sampling nine Canadian whiskies of particular promise.  (Special thanks to the folks at Shebeen Whisk(e)y House and the Habit Lounge, Vancouver, for patiently facilitating this project.)  When I returned to the United States, I reacquainted myself with two more familiar blends, Canadian Club and Seagram’s VO.  (I’m saving my reunion with Seagram’s Seven Crown for the next local screening of Mean Streets, and any Crown Royal experimentation for a bar with Bulletproof Wallets on the jukebox.)

In a nice patriotic touch, all of the whiskies I tasted showed maple overtones.  All were smoother than the ryes and small-batch whiskies to which discerning Americans have become accustomed (i.e., they were all “easier to drink” or “less complex,” depending on your perspective).  I was prepared for this, by my own prior experience and by the scorn heaped on Canadian spirits by whiskey connoisseurs, who complain about flavor-draining distillation at 180 proof and lax Canadian labeling practices, which allow distillers to call any whiskey with even a modicum of rye in the mash bill “rye whisky,” and even permit blending with up to 9.09 percent non-whisky spirits.

Yet almost all of the whiskies exceeded my expectations.  I began to imagine shots of Wiser’s or Alberta Premium next to my beer, in the downmarket bars of a new future, characterized by pan-North American whiskey culture exchange.  I e-mailed my friend Ethan to propose a sinister “breakfast” cocktail, with bacon-infused Centennial and either buttermilk or coffee liqueur.  I’m not ready to go as far as Dave Pickerell, who called Canadian whisky “the best rye whisky in the world”,* but I’ve certainly gained a new perspective.  And isn’t that what travel, and drinking, are all about?

* = Come to think of it, maybe Mr. Pickerell was just engaging in a bit of orthographic trickery.  Since American ryes use the spelling “whiskey,” it might be true that Canada makes the world’s best — and ONLY — “rye whisky.”

I+can+afford+canadian+whiskey Canadians I Tasted

Since prices and availability vary state-to-state and province-to-province, I’ve simply listed the whiskies in descending order of the price I paid per ounce.  A star indicates a strong performer at the price point – i.e., a whisky I would order again voluntarily, should the occasion call for Canadian whisky.

(I’m not saying that “French Toast for breakfast” qualifies as such an occasion.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t.  Apparently Don Draper puts rum on his.)
Forty Creek Double Barrel (Grimsby, Ontario)
Toffee and plantain aromas.  A burst of maple, and more toffee, gives way to chocolate and honeysuckle notes reminiscent of bourbon.  Slight salinity, then a long, smooth finish with little hear and a lingering malty flavor (sorry — “flavour”).  A Canadian whisky for Jack Daniels drinkers.

Wiser’s Very Old 18 Year (Windsor, Ontario)
Smells faintly of cinnamon sticks and fruitcake.  Initial flavour of (cinnamon) Red-Hots candy, mellowing quickly to something more like Brach’s caramels.  An earthier, more well-rounded finish than the (cheaper) Wiser’s Single Barrel.

Centennial 10 Year Old Premium Rye (High River, Alberta)
Huge maple notes in aroma and flavor, paired with a sweetness and finish reminiscent of Irish whiskey.  Try it if you like Black Bush.

Century White Owl (High River, Alberta)
Vanilla and some of the tropical fruit I associate with the nose of all white whiskies; wheat and banana notes, like drinking your breakfast cereal; then hints of blackberry and licorice.  A light, slightly oily finish.

Wiser’s Small Batch (Windsor, Ontario)
Smells like pineapple upside-down cake.  Serious spice (comparatively speaking) as the rye notes develop, then a long, hot finish.   Punches above its weight class.

**Alberta Springs (Calgary, Alberta)
Malt and grapes on the nose, mixed with hints of coffee and motor oil.  The peppery rye notes are met by oak, creating a sensation of butter toffee.  Plenty of maple on the finish, which is also longer and more layered than the less-aged Alberta Premium.  Definitely a Canadian whisky for American rye drinkers — and one of the only 100% rye spirits available anywhere.

Alberta Premium (Calgary, Alberta)
100% rye, like its older counterpart, Alberta Springs.  Maple in the nose, cut with gasoline fumes.  Cinnamon and black pepper flavours up front, then raisins and toffee.  Maple again on the short, smooth finish.  A versatile, tasty whisky that I sipped throughout my trip.

**Forty Creek Barrel Select (Grimsby, Ontario)
A pleasant nose, with plenty of caramel and butterscotch.  Honey and maple flavours before the peppery notes I associate with American rye, then freshly-baked bread reminiscent of the barley-heavy microdistilled American whiskies cropping up lately (see, e.g., House Spirits from Portland).  Also slightly nutty.  A definite winner for the price.

Schenley’s Golden Wedding (Somewhere in Quebec)
An unusual whisky from an interesting label with peculiarly American ties.  Is that paint thinner on the nose, or strawberries and cream?  Oddly, no fruit flavours, just honeycomb and maple and grain alcohol.  Plus the “chalk dust” accent I associate with drier bourbons — Elijah Craig and Eagle Rare, e.g.  A short finish with slight apple tones.

Seagram’s VO (Planet Diageo)
Strong vanilla and salted caramel aromas.  Peppery vanilla notes up front — think Vernor’s ginger ale, then cream soda.  A bigger, longer bite with a shorter overall finish.  More depth of flavour overall than the CC.

Canadian Club (Windsor, Ontario)
Smells like elderflower and malt vinegar.  A punch of malt flavour is preceded by vanilla, sugar, and flour … cake batter, essentially.  Very little spice.  A chalky, mouth-coating finish.