There has been much press recently about an iteration of Crown Royal being the best whisky in the world. As far as I know, that is a blended whisky. I’m going to be frank and say, in my best whisky pantheon, first and foremost, the candidate has to be a straight whisky. If it is blended, meaning straight whisky combined with one or more “grain whiskies” – distilled at a high proof – it doesn’t qualify. It can be very good, but in my experience, blends just don’t have the full complexity and mouth-feel of an all-straight.
By straight I mean, a whisky which more or less complies with the American rules for a straight whiskey. Those rules are, whiskey from a mash of malted or raw cereals, distilled out at under 160 U.S. proof which is 80% alcohol by volume. For reasons I won’t explore here, whiskies (or brandies, rums, tequilas) distilled at 80% abv or less tend to have full, distinctive flavours which age under wood influence into something complex and very drinkable. Whiskies distilled over 80% abv, and the typical grain whisky comes off the final still at 94% abv or even more, tend to be more neutral in taste and a little sharp on the tongue.
Grain whisky starts, essentially, as vodka. Vodka is not grain whisky because it isn’t aged in wood. The grain whisky component of a Canadian or Scotch whisky blend is barrel-aged though, so in that sense is considered whisky, but to my mind, the flavour is never the same as a traditional straight spirit aged for the same period.
In American whiskey standards, there are other markers of a straight, notably the new spirit must be barrelled at not greater than 125 proof or 62.5% abv – this is to ensure sufficient wood influence on the spirit when diluted for bottling – and aged in new charred barrels.
These last two criteria are not vital though to international straight character. The Scots and Irish don’t use (generally) new barrels to age their single malt and single pot still whiskies. And distillers there and in Canada might be barreling whisky for aging at over 62.5% abv, of that I’m not sure. (But if they are, they aren’t going too high over).
All this to say, my favourite Canadian whisky right now is Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye. It is distilled, according to information online which sounds reliable, at Alberta Distillers Ltd. in Alberta. It is a straight whisky in that it is distilled under 160 proof and is aged in that case in new charred oak barrels, something like 6-8 years. That distillery is part of the same corporate group to which the Canadian Club label belongs today, Beam Suntory.
The more traditional CC-brand whiskies, all made in Windsor, ON, are, to my knowledge, all blends: they incorporate a small amount of straight whisky with an almost-neutral grain whisky, except in that case, both spirits are married for aging when they come off the still, in other words, aged together. Some Canadian distillers distill the straight and grain whisky elements separately and blend them at maturity. Seagram does this, and indeed Alberta Distillers does for its various blends.
I reiterate: blends are not bad. Grain whisky lightens and, in whisky-industry parlance, “broadens” or “displays” the character of the straight whiskies they are blended with, but again a blend and a straight are just different things.
There may be one or two other all-straight whiskies made in Canada today, I think Lot 40 may qualify, a Corby brand. Excellent product too, but CC Chairman’s Select 100% Rye has a more approachable palate in my eyes, while still offering rich taste.
The CC Chairman’s Select is (or seems) all-straight, essentially like a U.S. straight rye or bourbon except made in Canada. Forget the all-rye moniker even though it is a selling point I know. The important thing is being distilled at a low proof, in the territory for the traditional spirits. If it was all-rye and distilled out to a grain whisky proof, the fact that it came from from rye would be neither here nor there because all the “rye” taste would be stripped out. Compare a vodka distilled from rye, a good Polish brand, say, with vodka distilled from wheat. Can you tell which used either grain? Not likely…