Coarse Grains – Good Whisky

Mash it Up

When raw materials are discussed for whiskey in the 19th century, in Canada or the northeast U.S., the term “coarse grains” often arises. It appears from the late-1700s indeed to this day, for example too in food glossaries of international organizations, see this OECD publication as an example.

One can often infer the meaning in 1800s discussions but sometimes it is spelled out. This 1879 Parliamentary debate in Ottawa defined coarse grains as, “rye, barley, oats and pease”. Corn was not included but depending on the context it might be, particularly by the mid-1800s when wheat became the general grain for bread. Earlier, mixtures of corn and wheat, and sometimes rye and wheat, were common for breadstuff.

A speaker in the 1879 debate stated that 20 years earlier rye “entered largely” in whisky made in Canada. This is consistent with distillers’ ads for grain supplies in southern Ontario going back to the early 1800s. Rye was frequently requested together often with corn and sometimes oats or barley.

But as the Parliamentary discussed noted, corn, and imported U.S. corn at that, had become the main grain used, coincident to the distilling industry being reduced to six important distillers in Ontario from about 85 just 20 years earlier.

The reason was simply cost. Clearly, those distillers who were most efficient at sourcing grain – and using it via improved still technology – survived in a new, consolidated era.

This 1882 House of Commons debate confirms the cost advantage. (“Corn can be bought cheaper relatively than other coarse grains”). Farmers could exchange non-corn coarse grains for the same amount of corn to use for livestock feed and have money to spare.

Cost is the main reason corn supplanted rye for use in whisky but of course some rye continued to be used, to give flavour to the whisky. By the late 1800s and today that is done by mixing some rye-mash whiskey with a high proof or grain whisky distilled from corn.

Putting it a different way, if rye had always been cheapest it would have been used exclusively as it can make both flavouring and base or grain whisky. Corn ended being used as the base by most distillers in Canada for reasons of cost, not flavour.

Today, Beam Suntory-owned Alberta Distillers uses all-rye in its mashing but it is near rich western grain fields and was built was a view explicitly to use that resource.

Sometimes the flavouring whiskey is a bourbon-type, on display uniquely in the Crown Royal Bourbon Mash newly on the market in Ontario (called Blenders Mash in the U.S.) This is made with a majority corn mash but rye is used too and the combination, together with the type of still used, lends a keynote flavour again (“bourbon”), you can taste it in Crown Royal Bourbon Mash.

The whisky, in my opinion of course, is too woody, “fresh wood” vs. a cured new-charred barrel taste characteristic of good bourbon and straight rye. If I was being honest, I’d say the product tasted like a middling Kentucky bourbon. Seagram always used some bourbon-type whisky in its blends, sometimes simply importing genuine bourbon for the purpose. The Bourbon Mash appears to be all-Canadian in composition though.

The price is reasonable, only $37.00, and it is an innovative release in Canada, so no complaints on a price-performance ratio. I’m hoping Diageo-Seagram will select or blend differently for future bottlings to knock down that excess of fresh oaky taste but retain or even boost the essential bourbon character.

Nonetheless, the release is important as the flavouring whiskies issued in Canada in recent years, starting with Lot 40 over 20 years ago, tend to reflect the top-notes of rye. No doubt this is because many distilleries use a straight rye-type whisky as the flavouring element, e.g. for Wiser’s whiskies in Windsor, ON. But some distilleries, or for some lines, used bourbon or that style of whiskey, and this new release is an example.

Diageo-Seagram issued yet another “straight” iteration, Blender’s Select, which I’ll review soon as well. While corn-based, reports of its palate and composition suggest a traditional rye character, perhaps like the 90% of the famous Crown Royal Northern Harvest that is straight rye. On verra.*

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*There is no particular reason to think Canadian straight whiskies will be outstanding, i.e., on their own, as for generations they have been developed for use in blending. Something viewed as rye-harsh, say, on its own, or too woody, may by that surplus of character add just the right notes to a preponderant amount of fairly neutral grain whisky in the blend. Still, as connoisseurs have implored the distillers to release these on their own, this is finally being done, to interesting effect.