Growing up in Canada, I don’t recall anybody ever using the term “Canadian whiskey.” Instead, we called all whiskey from Canada rye, and most people north of the 49th parallel still do. Canadian whiskey acquired that name because when Canadians first started making whiskey, what made it different from Scotch, Irish and American whiskeys was that it was almost always made with rye. You know rye, the spicy little grain that makes rye bread great every once in a while, but too distinct a taste to use every day. Similarly, rye whiskey often packs a powerful punch that some aficionados swear by, saying that the sharpness of rye lends a much-needed edge to the sweetness of corn, and others swear at, considering it a whiskey suitable only for mixing.
But, over the years, things changed. While American rye whiskey, by law, must be made from grains that are at least 51 percent rye, Canadian rye whiskeys — through a loophole in Canadian law — can be made from no rye at all. But the best of them usually have a healthy dose of rye, and a flavor that is distinct to Canadian whiskey. Check out our picks for the 7 best Canadian whiskeys on the market.
66 Gilead Crimson Rye Whisky
If you want to try rye, real rye, pick up a glass of this fine stuff from a small indie distiller in Ontario’s picturesque Prince Edward County. Made from 100 percent rye, you’d think it would be overpowering, but it isn’t. That’s probably because it’s aged in red wine (mostly Pinot noir) barrels, which provide a deep red color and surprisingly strong fruit flavors. Rye purists might disagree, but the combination works well as neither side overpowers the other. Far from being rough and biting, it’s very easy to drink with tastes of chocolate, currant, oak and especially raisins coming through. The bite is saved for the finish, and it emerges from a nice earthy aftertaste that will remind you again of its red wine origins. This one is a great way to show up a whisky snob who turns his or her nose up at rye.
Pike Creek Port Barrel Finish Canadian Whisky
Pike Creek’s makers, Corby Distillers, like to say that it’s been “crafted by the elements.” What they mean by that is that they have taken the whiskey-making process to its pre-modern roots by eliminating affectations like climate-controlled warehouses. That means the whiskey endures Canadian summers and winters in wood barrels under the supervision of a guy who has a PhD in wood science. But let’s not get carried away; it’s aged in Windsor, Ontario (the city across the river from Detroit), so it’s more Midwestern chill than arctic deep freeze. On opening, the nose is decidedly rye with a hint of alcohol. But on tasting, the corn provides a thick, creamy feel, while rye counters with spice without fire. Then it finishes with dry sherry and lasting white pepper spiciness. Serve this one to someone who’s open to the thought of rye, but might be turned off by a one that’s too sharp.
Crown Royal Reserve
Perhaps Canada’s iconic whiskey — who hasn’t opened the little purple bag at least once? It’s also a definitive example of Canadian whiskey, featuring the characteristics associated with the type, but in very drinkable harmony. The nose is, in typical rye style, subtle (critics might say weak), with hints of maple syrup and brown sugar to go with the unmistakable spice of rye. It’s thin, another rye quality, with tastes of oak, maple with just a tiny bit of corn sweetness. What follows is a refreshingly bitter finish. Despite the name, this can be an everyday drinker. Resist the urge to mix or even ice, and enjoy a Canadian rye the way your grandparents probably did.
Forty Creek Barrel Select Canadian Whisky
A few years ago, Forty Creek whiskey founder John K. Hall was driving around the Niagara Peninsula trying hard to convince people just to try his whiskey, and now his company is one of the big names in Canadian whiskey and fetched $186 million when sold. Hall’s still there and he’s more than just a savvy businessman. Whiskey Bible author Jim Murray said of him in 2008: “Of all the world’s distillers, there are few I hold in higher esteem than John Hall.” And his blend of corn, rye and barley, which are all distilled separately, makes a whiskey that fits into no convenient category. While it has the rye edge, most of the tones in both the nose and the drink are associated with sweetness — you’ll get molasses, maple syrup, butterscotch and brown sugar — to go along with more savory hints of clove and nutmeg. Although it can stand up to regular drinking, this is a complex whiskey to be savored and re-discovered with subsequent tastings. Save for close friends.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse 12-year-old
There always seems to be a catch with Canadian whiskey. Rye doesn’t have to have any rye, the harsh winters they have to survive are often at about the same latitude as California’s northern border (look it up) and now we have a 12-year-old that’s fudging a little about its age. It’s actually a blend of a mix of 12-year-old rye whisky and 6-year-old small pot rye, along with a dose of corn whisky to add some body and take the edges off with a touch (less than 1 percent) of sherry for richness. Semantics aside, this is a worthy whiskey, especially for rye lovers. It starts with a bourbon-like nose of charred oak, vanilla and caramel over a slightly snarling edge of rye spice. The rye takes over on the palate with alcohol heat and pepper at first, tempered by more subtle flavors of oak, ginger and raspberry. Unlike many ryes, it has a long, robust finish, and to add to the complexity, the tones are pure rye. This is not a crossover whiskey, serve only to those who already like rye or are willing to give it a fair chance.
Proof Two Grain Whisky
Straight out of Toronto, and popular on the club scene there, Proof comes in a stubby bottle reminiscent of the beers Bob and Doug McKenzie used to drink. But it’s anything but traditional Canadian whiskey. A blend of rye and wheat, Proof is actually unlike any traditional whiskey, although it hints at some Japanese styles. The nose shouts citrus, with whispers of anise, patchouli and honey. That’s followed by an equally distinct and unusual combination of flavors, including lemon, cantaloupe, cinnamon, cloves and just a bit more honey. It’s in the finish that the fire of rye makes itself known, along with a peppery tingling. Whiskey purists will hate this one, deriding it as the fruit of marketing gurus over distillers, but it’s worth a pour for its unique qualities and surprising drinkability. Just be sure not to drown it in Coke or ginger ale as so many club-goers tend to.
Gibson’s Finest Rare Aged 18-Year-Old
One of the many rye producers driven out of the U.S. by Prohibition, Gibson’s is an iconic name for the variety and deservedly so. A blend of corn column-still whiskey with a mixed rye and barley flavoring whiskey, it’s aged in a variety of barrels that can vary the final product from batch to batch. That mix gives it many of the qualities of bourbon with a strong rye presence. Its nose is oaky and solid with hints of tobacco and spice. That’s followed by bourbon smoothness and fruit complemented by rye heat and spice. Waves of different tastes go by, including caramel, maple, cinnamon and tobacco in one of the most complex whiskeys ever to come from Canada. It all ends with a finish as deep as the rest of the show, as oak and pepper fight for top spot with that tradition rye zing. Serve only to those who you know will appreciate it.