How Canadian Whisky Got the Edge – How It Can Again

Canadian blended whisky was perfected towards the end of the 1800s, as I discussed earlier. It was, and is, our version of blended Scotch and blended American whisky although presenting some unique features.

The idea was to combine a large amount of near-neutral spirit, virtually emptied of non-ethanol compounds created in fermentation, with a small amount of highly-flavoured straight or heavy whisky, and then age the two together. This was said to create a pleasing taste and balance, as much of the market would not accustom to the strong taste of “uncut” straight whiskey.

This estimation was correct as even blended American whisky outsold straight whisky by a considerable margin before WW I. In part it was cheaper, but the taste factor mentioned cannot be discounted.

In recalling this history, one can assume a lot of 19th century straight whiskey, even when reasonably aged, had an oily, congeneric taste. The average bourbon or straight rye today probably tastes much better.

In the battle before Prohibition between the “rectifiers” and the Kentucky and Pennsylvania straight whiskey-makers, the former argued for many years that their product had almost no fusel oil. They used this as a marketing tool, as seen in the ad annexed from Gooderham & Worts from 1907. Hiram Walker placed similar ads in the Canadian and U.S. press between the onset of Canadian Club (1888) and WW I.

Part of this argument and pitch was that contrary to the consensus of Victorian science, fusel oil did not disappear in aged straight whiskey. This is true, as a series of well-known studies between 1900 and 1910 showed that levels remained constant in aged American straight whiskey.

Of course, the odour and taste of the whiskey changes as the barrel imparts many pleasing qualities (the wood gums). Also, various chemical reactions occur due to oxidation and other factors, leading to new flavours. But fusels remain in the spirit, as for brandy, tequila, heavy rum, and similar.

In high concentrations fusel oils can be dangerous, but the amounts in matured whisky are not unusually harmful. Even the old lore that fusel oils cause bad hangovers is disputed by modern science.

Fusels are a group of higher alcohols, especially butyl and amyl alcohols, within the feints or tails of the distillation stream. Feints are the final fractions, the least volatile, after the ethanol has been collected.

In a typical two-stage bourbon or rye distillation, they can be controlled especially in the doubling stage, where a doubler or pot still is used to “polish” the spirit and raise the ABV by about 10 proof points.

Nonetheless, some fusel oil content remains and this is desired in fact, otherwise the spirit would be too bland as a foundation for the traditional bourbon or rye palate.

Hiram Walker evolved a complex, multi-column distillation method to reduce fusel content to practically nothing. He blended the resultant spirit with a high-flavoured rye distillate, made that is in the American way. Both were aged together in the barrel for at least five years. Canadian Club is still made this way today.

The Hiram Walker plant now makes CC for the current label-owner, Beam Sapporo of Japan. I’d guess a 94-95% abv spirit is used as the base whisky – so not as neutral as a 96% spirit meant for vodka. It is blended for aging with a rye spirit double-distilled in a way similar to a typical bourbon or straight rye, i.e., well under 160 proof or 80% abv.

I tasted the product again the other day. It has features of “alcohol” and aged whisky, with spicy and leafy notes as well as some barrel sweetness. When the label had a six-year statement it seemed (to me) richer in taste and smell. When used in mixed drinks, as most CC must be, this factor is neither here not there.

Indeed around the year 1900 CC was marketed at various times between five and seven years old, reflecting the demands of current inventory. So the age has never been exactly fixed, the brand operates more within a certain range and no doubt must meet a fixed organoleptic profile.

The real difference between Canadian and American whiskey is, in my view, that bourbon and straight rye did not implant here. For the rest of it, there is no material difference in the two traditions of whiskey-making, nor should there be. The raw materials used are the same – corn and rye, mostly – and the taste for whiskey came here with the Loyalists and other Americans.

As to why bourbon and straight rye did not develop (or survive) in Canada, there could be many answers. We have a much smaller population than the U.S. The market for straight whiskey – always relatively small even in the U.S. – vodka today outsells all whiskey categories – may not have been large enough to support production here.

Second, to stand out in the international market and especially for U.S.-exports, Canadian distillers probably wanted to focus on what made them different. The CC style of whisky did, as the base whisky part was aged as long as the straight part, contrary to U.S. blended whiskey where unaged neutral spirits typically form the largest part in the blend.

The aging of the neutral element lent an additional note of quality to the Canadian product, or perceived quality. This was probably the key to success for Canadian whisky, taking a leaf from blended Scotch. It is the wood note that may be the “rare old whiskey flavour” mentioned in the ad above.

Finally though, one may reflect whether the old lore about the unique nature of Kentucky bourbon iOS in fact true. When re-tasting Old Forester recently, an old name in Kentucky bourbon, I was reminded how rich and distinctive Kentucky straight whiskey is. I have never had a modern bourbon, even from Indiana let alone another state, that has a similar quality.

Some straight rye, notably from Pennsylvania and Maryland, equalled the best Kentucky whiskey in my view. Perhaps the same applied to bourbon made there as well. The success of A.H. Hirsch bourbon, made in the 1970s at the original, now-defunct Michter’s distillery, seems to bear this out. Old Hickory was another well-reputed Pennsylvania bourbon in the old days.

The extremes of climate in Kentucky at least may explain this result better than any other factor. Having visited the state some 20 times between 2002 and 2012 at different parts of the year, this factor always made an impression. It had to explain a good part of the quality of the Kentucky product. The extreme heat in summer would force the whiskey into the wood, and then back again with the cold, in a way and to a rhythm probably unequalled elsewhere, with consequent effects on the palate.

Water can be imitated, distilling methods too, physical warehouse features, etc. But the climate in Kentucky may well be unique and explain why a bourbon tradition did not arise in New York, say, or Louisiana – or Ontario. Ohio became for a time a great distilling state – for rectified whiskey, not bourbon.

The relatively recent Canadian or Canadian-origin “straight” whiskies such as CC Chairman’s Select 100% rye, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, WhistlePig, Lot 40, while good and distinctive do not really have a richness I associate with Kentucky.

It may be our distillers decided long ago to focus on what they do best and leave the Kentucky product style to its home base. The success of Canadian whisky, always and still a large seller in America, attests to their good judgement.

In terms of the future though, and see these recent figures from the Distilled Spirits Council, Canadian whisky will encounter more competition from bourbon and straight rye. It used to outsell them, but not at present.

As about 70% of Canadian whisky production is shipped to the U.S., this is something to ponder. In 1994 when Lorraine Brown’s book was written that I reviewed yesterday, it was 86%…

The answer is to increase continually the supply of a straight-style product. In the end, the fact that it is not “like” the Kentucky product may be a strong point – the distinctiveness.

Finally, none of the above is meant to suggest we don’t make some superlative blends. We do, of which Wiser’s 15 years old is by far the best, IMO, silky soft and very drinkable neat. But in general, blended just cannot equal straight – simple as that (for us but we suspect many committed whisky fans).

Note re image: the first image above is an ad in Duluth Evening Herald, July 2, 1907, sourced from the digitized newspaper resource of www.fultonhistory.com, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Image used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.