There's a noble tradition of whisky making in Canada based on the superb qualtiy of its grain. Kathleen Sloan and Ted Mcintosh pay tribute to a unique spirit.
With more than 85 per cent of Canadian rye whisky exported to the US alone, there’s definitely more than four and twenty Yankees singing the praises of this pale amber spirit that is exclusively associated with Canada.
Canada is the perfect place to grow grain, so producing quality whisky from it came a natural second. The country’s involvement in the world of whisky can be traced back to the small, water-powered grist mills of Upper Canada, the original name for the province of Ontario. These mills were also the country’s first distilleries, as canny millers turned their stores of excess grain into whisky. This happy invention grew out of a necessity to use grain that would otherwise rot or be devoured by rodents if stored for any length of time.
Centuries ago, millers in Italy turned a surfeit of milled grain into a rough flour before boiling, cutting and drying the dough to create what we now know as pasta. Canadian millers, many of Irish and Scottish descent, instead chose the ancient art of distillation. Whisky was cheap, plentiful and potent and was also believed to contain valuable medicinal properties. So much so that non-drinkers were unfavourably assessed by life insurance companies.
It was the undeniable beverage of choice among Canadian pioneers. Whisky fuelled the farmers, who often carried a crock along with them when working the land and it sat in communal pails at barn raisings and in barrels at the entrance to general stores where customers would help themselves to a ladleful. It was even judiciously dispensed to school children during the winter months when they were faced with a long, chilly hike to school.
Along with its close relation, beer, and the odd bit of cider, rum or home made fruit cordial, whisky was it, as far as drinking went. This early whisky was from pot-stills, the product of a single distillation with an alcoholic strength similar to that of fortified wine. Compared to today’s version, which is generally 40-45 per cent abv, it would have registered around 20
By 1840, there were at least 200 small, licensed, distilleries in Ontario. But in the 1850s, these small fry were edged out by the same four players that continue to dominate the whisky scene in Canada today: Seagram, Hiram Walker, Corby and Wiser. Oddly enough, the Molson family, the only distiller that did not start out milling flour, was originally a big part of the whisky scene in Canada. While responsible for sending the very first shipment of Canadian whisky to England, it eventually abandoned the operation in favour of beer-making, the field that made the family’s name and subsequent fortune.
Another well-known name in Toronto, Gooderham & Worts, has the distinction of being the oldest distillery in Upper Canada, opening its grist mill in York (now Toronto) right on the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Gooderham, a miller from Suffolk and his brother-in-law Worts, also from England, opened for business in 1832. The grist mill was powered by a huge Dutch-style windmill, whose main shaft arrived by the steamer Great Britain. Today, long after the windmill was destroyed by a storm, the original millstone bears a commemorative plaque and sits only feet away from its original placement. It is surrounded by the majestic old red brick buildings that house G&W’s now silent stills, on prime real estate land in the heart of downtown Toronto.
This historic complex is currently home to a new affordable housing development bent on retaining as much of the original architecture as possible. Just north of here is one of the city’s most beautifully designed buildings, the Gooderham & Worts Flat Iron Building which was the home of the administrative offices for the distiller. By 1875 the company was responsible for a third of all the spirits in Canada, filling government coffers and shipping quality whisky to England, the US and South America.
While the unique spirit that is Canadian rye whisky continues to be more revered and treasured outside the country than within, Canada, nevertheless, has a glorious 200-year-old history of whisky production, filled with dedication, innovation, hard work, adventure, smuggling, intrigue and the not-always-helpful involvement of government. Today the words ‘Canadian whisky’ continue to be synonymous with fine quality spirits the world over as the collection of brands has steadily grown far beyond the ubiquitous, and perennially good, Canadian Club and Crown Royal.
Whether fully recognized or not, the whisky industry played a pivotal role in the building of Canada, providing thousands with employment, spawning new businesses and stimulating others, like farming and shipbuilding. This role has largely, and in characteristically Canadian fashion, been overlooked by historians and educators, perhaps wary of elevating or celebrating the subject and thereby lending it an undeserved respectability and esteem.
Throughout Canadian whisky’s long and highly colourful history, the Canadian government has collected a steadily increasing chunk of cash from the industry. In 1788, inspired by the lucrative business of whisky making in Scotland and Ireland, King George III established Britain’s first still taxes, which netted the British government tidy sums. After John Graves Simcoe, Canada’s first lieutenant-governor, pointed out to him that Canadians were also becoming dab hands at distillation, in 1794 he followed suit with a similar scheme in Britain’s North American colony. The establishment of the first tax on stills created an important source of revenue that continued for the next 50 years, and even up to the present day.
Canada’s golden age of whisky lasted from 1850 to 1920 and saw a number of serious players joining the whisky production game. They were the Canadian, Joseph E. Seagram, J P Wiser and Hiram Walker both from the US, and Henry Corby from England. The combination of all four, plus the already thriving Gooderham & Worts, put southern Ontario firmly on the map as Canada’s most important whisky-producing region.
The country’s temperance movement fizzled out towards the end of 1920, at precisely the same time as it grew to full-fledged Prohibition south of the border. The passing of the Volstead Act put an end, sort of, to the production, sale and transportation of anything remotely alcoholic. For the 13 years that followed, 1920 to 1933, Canada became the whisky mecca for those nefarious Americans bent on slaking the thirst of a deprived nation, the notorious Al Capone included.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre was reputed to be linked to a stolen shipment of Canadian whisky. Spirits were smuggled into the US by truck and boat along the world’s longest undefended border, and especially across the two of the Great Lakes, Ontario and Erie. In the end, every one of the country’s distillers got in on the act and made masses of money thanks to Prohibition. One of the legacies of those times is that all these many years later, Americans still have a passionate love for the unique qualities of
The grain truth
Rye, the grain whose name acts as a nickname for Canadian whisky, plays a small but vital role in its production. It is rye that bestows most of its distinctive aroma and flavour on the spirit and it is rye that gives Canadian whisky its distinctive yet subtle spiciness and the aging in charred oak barrels that provides the sweet vanillins.
But Canadian whisky is not derived from rye alone. Corn, rye, wheat and barley malt are used, generally with corn as the base and the other grains providing the flavour notes. Because the grains in Canadian whiskies have been specially developed to stand up to the Canadian climate, they lend a unique character to the final product. Even though the Alberta Distillers produces just 10 per cent of Canada’s whisky, each year, it buys two million bushels of rye from 700 Alberta farmers, many of whom have been supplying the distillery for two generations. They produce Alberta Springs Rye Whisky 10 year old and Alberta Premium Rye Whisky, the only Canadian whiskies made with 100 per cent real rye grain. Glacier-fed spring water and rye from the Canadian prairies feature largely in Tangle Ridge, the Double-Casked 10 year old whisky based on 100 per cent rye, features a subtle spice content touched with campfire smoke, vanilla and honey. It is ultra-soft and smooth, with a flavour profile exhibiting its rye component along with natural sherry and caramel tastes with a hint of orange and a long, clean finish.
The founder of The Seagram Company, Samuel Bronfman, declared distilling to be a science, blending an art, and after all these years, the still-Canadian company continues to age its whiskies before blending. Seagram’s VO features an exceptionally smooth mellowness with a medium light body and a light amber quality. Seagram’s VO Gold is a blend of more than 30 Canadian whiskies, all aged at least eight years. It is golden in colour with sweet late-summer fruitiness, full, smooth and quite distinctive. Crown Royal, first conceived in 1939 to celebrate a Royal visit to Canada, is a superb example of the genre, being rich, robust with hints of vanilla and fruit, with a full, perfectly balanced body. It is a supreme example of quality Canadian whisky.
Allied-Lyons, a British company, is a majority shareholder in Hiram Walker Group (among other interests) which includes Gooderham and Worts, Corby and J P Wiser. Of all the Canadian distilleries, only Hiram Walker still makes whisky at the original founders’ site. The company’s famed Canadian Club was born in 1858, and was so named because American bourbon producers initiated the passing of a law which stated that a whisky must mention its country of origin, thinking mistakenly that Americans, given this information, would always opt for all-American whiskey. Much to the Americans chagrin, the reverse was true. Canadian Club became the whisky of choice, whose popularity spawned pale imitations produced in the US fraudulently bearing Canadian whisky on their labels. Canadian Club is blended and aged six years in oak barrels previously used to age bourbon. Rich, fruity and immaculately balanced it is one clean, crisp spirit, lighter than Scotch, smoother than bourbon and thoroughly Canadian.
Three hand-crafted Canadian whiskies from Corby Distilleries form what the company calls The Whisky Guild. Beautifully packaged and designed, they are stellar examples of what’s new in the art form. The company’s David Barwise says: “These are notches above regular whisky. There really is no competition. People have to be educated about the diversity of tastes in these three, they are really quite remarkable.” And he’s right. Double barrel-aged Pike Creek has a sunset bronze hue, a subtle ripe fruitiness, full flavours of butterscotch, chocolate, allspice and even a little toasted coconut. Great for desserts, it is fresh-tasting and finishes warm and mellow with sweetness from the port casks in which it is aged. Lot 40 is a full rye and rye malt whisky, distilled in a single copper pot still. Deep amber in tone, it has a mesmerizing aroma of malted rye, dry cider and dark fruitcake. Massive in the mouth, it is undeniably bold with a dry oaky finish. The last one in the trio, the respectfully named Gooderham & Worts Ltd, is a prairie harvest gold, with a big all-Canadian nose, fresh, crisp and cheeky. Dried fruit and honey underscore a rich, smooth full-bodied spirit and the warmest of long-lasting finishes.
Finally, this summer will mark an important milestone in the history of Canadian whisky production, when Canada’s only single malt whisky, the eight year old Glenbreton, will be launched from the Glenora Inn and Distillery in Glenville, Nova Scotia, in the province’s beautiful Cape Breton region.
The first settler to the area, back in 1820, was from Scotland’s Isle of Canna and the area is still famed for its Celtic atmosphere, customs and traditions. Along with Portland Oregon’s Clear Creek distillery, this is North America’s only single malt whisky producer and Canadian whisky-lovers from one end of the country to the other are eagerly anticipating the event.