Canadian Whisky

By: Lynn Ogryzlo
“Gimme a whisky with ginger ale on the side and don’t be stingy, baby,” utters Greta Garbo in the 1930’s Anna Christie movie. Although Greta tried, whisky has mainly remained a mans drink lining the mahogany shelves of men’s clubs, guzzled by gangsters and favoured by cowboys. Garbo would be pleased to know that today, more women are drinking whisky than ever before.
If you thought whiskey making in Canada hailed from Scottish roots, think again. In Davin de Kergommeaux’s latest book, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, he claims the first commercial whisky distillers were mostly Americans of English or German descent who were keen to expand business opportunities here in Canada. As for those Scottish and Irish immigrants we thought brought us the golden liquid over ice? Well, they were certainly some of Canada’s most enthusiastic consumers of it.
According to regulations, Canadian whisky must be aged for at least three years, however most are aged 6 to 8 years and are double distilled. The final product is almost always a blended whisky, which produces a rich and complex product.
Canadian whisky and rye whisky is not the same thing as whisky can be made from rye, corn, barley, wheat and other grains. However rye whisky made in Canada is a superstar winning international awards and outselling any other whisky in the U.S.A. In fact, Americans consume a whopping 73% of the whisky produced in Canada.
When it comes to Canadian whisky, we often forget the iconic names are of family dynasties and individuals as well as products. The distinctive Canadian whisky style can be credited to James Gooderham Worts. He arrived in Ontario from England in 1831 and William Gooderham arrived the following year. Today Toronto’s famous Distillery District is housed in the original Gooderham Worts distillery.
Around the same time Henry Corby immigrated and this was also the time Joseph Seagram was born (in Ontario). In 1857, J.P. Wiser crossed the border in to Canada (from U.S.A.) bringing his American distilling methods with him and Hiram Walker followed close behind bringing his English family heritage and expectations of high quality whisky. The Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor was the largest distiller in North America. Reading all of these stories of our spirited heritage makes you want to grab a bottle, pour yourself a drink and sit in front of a roaring fire reading all of this and more in Kergommeaux’s book on Canadian whisky.
If you’re not a whisky drinker but have a curiosity for whisky, you may want to start with a cocktail like whisky sour. It’s a pour of whisky, a squirt of lemon juice and a touch of sugar. Alternately, mix whisky with water or have it over ice, this will release more flavours and aromas. Whisky is a complex drink of toast, brioche, vanilla, white pepper, caramel, nuts, dark rye bread, licorice, smoke and spice.
Drinking whisky neat is a more intense experience than with water, ice or in a cocktail. Fill a traditional whisky tumbler a quarter full and swirl it around. Taking a sniff prepares your palate for what’s to come. Take small and slow sips and let it coat your mouth before swallowing for a full experience.
While Canadian whisky regulations are more open than other parts of the world, what Canadians do that is different (and they’re really good at) is distilling the grains separately before blending the matured spirits together at the end.
In search of “the good stuff” during Prohibition, Enoch Thompson in the popular television series, Boardwalk Empire counted on Canadian whisky to support his bootlegging activities. While this is the stuff of great storytelling, the truth is that Prohibition in the U.S. crippled the prosperous cross-border sales of Canadian whisky driving Corby’s, Gooderham & Worts, Hiram Walker and Seagram’s into near bankruptcy. The U.S. did buy its whisky from Canada but it was Scottish and Irish whisky that simply flowed through Canada to its final southern destination.
If you’re a whisky drinker, you already know Canada makes fantastic whiskies. Canadian whisky manufacturers have become world renowned for the quality of their whisky and whisky drinking is experiencing a fashionable revival. Perhaps it’s due to the popularity of television shows like Boardwalk Empire or Suits, but whisky drinking is definitely on the rise in Ontario.
While Enoch Thompson (Boardwalk Empire) and Harvey Specter (Suits) preferred to drink their whisky from traditional whisky tumblers, you can increase the enjoyment of sipping whisky with a destemmed red wine glass or a similar shaped whisky glass that is wider at the base than at the top. Like wine, the glass is designed to concentrate the aromas in the area of your nose for a fuller experience.
Unlike wine, whisky is not always a product of one producer. Another of the amazing facts in Kergommeaux’s well researched book on Canadian whisky is that, whisky destined for the U.S. may include some American whisky in it. The same product sold in Canada will not. This has more to do with tax incentives than a flavour preference. Regardless of the intended market, small amounts of foreign spirits will sometimes be added by large distillers to enhance certain flavours. This is not a frequent practice; so it’s still fair to say that, Canadian whisky can best be described as single distillery whisky.
Contrary to Greta Garbo downing her shot of whisky in one single gulp, it’s really not a good idea to gulp whisky. Because whisky has a high alcohol content it’s best to sip it slowly to savour the flavours, reflecting on the experience between sips.
Good news for whisky drinkers, a growing craft distilling industry in Canada means there are now over 30 new distillers with more than half of them already making or planning on making whisky. This means an awful lot more whisky to experience, sip and savour. More than that, whisky lovers can now pick up the recreational sport invented by wine lovers and visit distillers to try different whiskies. Who knows, perhaps a Whisky Trail is in Ontario’s future.
Davin de Kergommeaux’s, Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert will make you realize there’s an awful lot more to this golden drink than meets the lips. It will inspire you to get out there and try some of Ontario’s great whiskies and learn that whisky makers are as passionate about their craft as winemakers have been for generations.
297 S Service Rd, Grimsby | for hours and events
Whisky master, John Hall has a talent for crafting award winning whiskies that are smooth, rich and clean. Forty Creek makes five different whisky products: Barrel Select, Copper Pot, Double Barrel Reserve, Confederation Oak Reserve and Evolution. Winner of 15 international awards for the best whisky.
4833 Tufford Road, Beamsville | for hours and events
Dillon’s white whisky is crafted from rye but without the ageing in wood to complicate the true flavour of rye. Gold Medal winner at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (2013).
1733 St. Laurent Blvd, Ottawa | for hours and events
White Dog Whisky is an unaged, white whisky blended from four grains. It’s a true reflection of the grains as it never touches a barrel. A new product, North of 7 Whisky is crafted in a bourbon style that will be aged for a minimum of three years. 2017 scheduled released. Watch for it.
150 Bradwick Dr. Unit 26, Concord | for hours & events
Just released this past October (2014) is their Stalk and Barrel Rye Whisky distilled from 100% Ontario grown rye grain. Other products include Stalk and Barrel Single Malt Whisky made with 100% malted barley and Still Waters Canadian Whisky, a small batch of blended grains.
90 Cawthra Ave., Unit 100, Toronto | for hours & events
Toronto Distillery’s Winter Wheat Batch #2 is a certified organic wheat whisky. Awarded the highest score for an unaged whisky in the Whisky Advocate’s 2013 Winter Buying Guide. The wheat comes from Schomberg and distilled in Toronto (in the junction).
202 Macdonald Rd, Collingwood | for hours & events
Two delicious products include Canadian Mist Whisky, a whisky of blended grains with a splash of sherry. Collingwood Whisky is a blended grains aged in maple wood for a truly distinctive flavour.

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