Shades of Light and Dark

In my last post I indicated that from early days a hallmark of Canadian Club, which applies to Canadian whisky in general, is that it is aged for years in wood barrels. The law requires now at least three years of aging, originally it was two. CC well exceeds that, even for the base brand, as it has been aged at least five years (to our knowledge) since c. 1900.

Canadian whisky is almost always composed of what has been termed a heavy and light component. The heavy one is distilled generally under 80% abv, the light one at about 94% abv. The streams are combined when new and then aged, as for CC, or aged separately and blended at maturity, as say for the Wiser`s brands.

The situation in Scotland is similar, their “grain whisky” is our light whisky and it is aged and then blended with malt whisky to form one of the blends of commerce, Johnnie Walker Black Label, say.

The light whiskies in both places have some secondary constituents, compounds apart the ethanol and water that give flavour and body, often called for convenience congeners. But the heavy whiskies have far more congeners since they are distilled in a less thorough fashion. The idea is to get a balance of flavours by blending them, and also the grain or light whisky element is cheaper to produce than the heavy whiskies. This means the products can be sold at a lower price than a bottle containing 100% heavy whisky (a single malt in Scotland, in Canada a rye whiskey distilled under 80% abv).

The grain or light whiskies aren’t quite neutral and spirit of a slightly higher purity is employed to make vodka, for example. Also, vodka is subjected generally to charcoal filtration to further cleanse and purify the spirit. Grain whisky going into the barrel for years to be blended with heavy whisky on the other end doesn`t need such refinements and indeed they are probably not desirable as they will detract somewhat from flavour in the same measure.

Still, the grain or light whisky element is quite neutral in character as compared to the boisterous flavour of a malt or straight rye (or bourbon, brandy, tequila, heavy rum or other spirit of the older, pre-grain spirit type).

The Americans have a blended whisky too but they don’t usually age the neutral element. Why? In 1943, a U.S. Senate hearing in Washington on the liquor industry shed some light. Philip Buck, a federal lawyer, stated that American distillers, the “experts”, saw no advantage in doing so.

What he meant was, as grain spirit was virtually pure ethanol, it had little flavour from congeners. Therefore, it was ready to drink, just as straight whiskey aged four years, say, is ready to drink. The straight whiskey, albeit starting as heavily congeneric, is modified by the long barrel aging into a pleasant-tasting drink. This results from the many chemical interactions in the barrel, between congeners in the barrel deriving from fermentation and between these and substances extracted from the wood.

Straight U.S. whiskey has so much wood in it too due to aging in new charred oak barrels that blending it with white neutral spirit lends some of that character to the latter – there is plenty to go around so to speak.

Then why do Britons and Canadians age the neutral (or near-neutral) element? The real reason may be, marketing. As Canadian Club’s lawyer explained in 1909 to President Taft, consumers were thought to want a whisky that had no fusel oil (a term for some of the unpleasant congeners in new spirit) yet one that was aged.

Technically, as Philip Buck saw in 1943, these two things are at least partly inconsistent. A new spirit without fusel oil – vodka for practical purposes – doesn’t need aging. Yet the public, probably from the years before neutral spirits existed in the market, had the habit or reflex to want aged whisky. The answer: give them a product which was largely neutral-tasting – no fusels – but age it anyway. This seems to have been the business strategy in both Scotland and Canada where blended whiskies emerged concurrently in the later 1800s. (Of course too, the aging would improve the small amount in the blends that was straight to start with, in the CC way of doing it that is but not otherwise).

Maybe too aging the neutral spirit produces a different kind of drink, especially as the straight part wasn’t as woody/complex as if aged in a new charred barrel in the U.S. Also, some chemical reaction would take place by virtue of aging the neutral component that perhaps was felt to benefit the palate. Oxidation of ethanol, which produces green apple flavours, is an example.

Well-aged Canadian whiskies, although generally having only a faint straight character, do get a certain richness and complexity from the wood content (sugars, tannic acid) in both the heavy and light elements. It may have been accidental, but a Canadian style certainly emerged finally. Canadian Club`s website calls it an almondy richness and I agree with that. Another way to describe it is a cigar-box quality.

The regular Canadian Club used to be labeled six years old and I think it was better when it was, but it is still an almondy drink, and even more so for the iterations you can buy at nine, twelve, and twenty years age.  It`s another style, different from Scotch mainly because the heavy element is different – straight rye (often) instead of malt whisky. It is not because of the light or grain whisky element, which is similar organoleptically in both countries. As is the barrel.

Canadians generally use less of the heavy element in their blends than the Scots, although hard information is not easy to come by. From all I have read and heard, I think most Canadian whisky uses under 10% heavy or flavouring whisky. The Scots probably use 25-50% malt whisky in their blends, depending on the quality. Of course, straight rye is a pretty assertive drink (buy some Lot 40 to see), so it doesn`t make sense to argue the additions should be parallel in this sense, but still, the average Scotch blend has more character than the average Canadian whisky, IMO.