The renaissance of Canadian whisky, and five drams you should try

By James Atkinson, March 12 2019
The renaissance of Canadian whisky, and five drams you should try

Canadian whisky has long been in the shadows of American bourbon, but there are welcome signs of a renaissance.

A landmark moment came three years ago when influential whisky critic Jim Murray named Canada's Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye his World Whisky of The Year, with a record-qualifying 97.5 out of 100 points.

“To be honest, I had been considering actually demoting Canadian whisky from having its own chapter in the Whisky Bible,” Murray noted at the time.

“The quality of Canadian whisky has been disappointing me for some time… (then) Crown Royal Northern Harvest pops up out of nowhere and changes the game."

There are eight large, traditional whiskey distilleries in Canada, led by global giants Diageo (Crown Royal) and Beam Suntory (Canadian Club, Wiser's whisky).

As in Australia, micro or craft operations are popping up by the week. The 2017 edition of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Guide profiled no less than 49 distilleries, soaring up from just nine in 2012.

Unlike bourbon, the rules for what constitutes Canadian whiskey are fairly loosely defined, beyond the requirement for it to be fermented, distilled and aged in Canada.

It must be distilled from cereal grains, aged in wood for at least three years, and contain at least 40 per cent alcohol by volume.

The rest is up to the distiller, however traditionally Canadian whiskey has differed with bourbon in several key ways.

The principal grains are corn and rye, but Canadian whisky makers distill their grains separately and blend them downstream.

And they're not restricted to new, charred American oak barrels – which means Canuck distillers can and do press into service a variety of new and used wood for maturation.

With such an influx of new distillers and little to restrict their creativity, the best is likely yet to come for Canadian whisky. Here's some bottles worth seeking out in the meantime.

Forty Creek 22yo Rye: Named Whisky of the Year in the 2019 Canadian Whisky Awards, Forty Creek 22yo is "a huge, yet elegant rye whisky, just bursting with complex flavours", according to Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux.

Canadian Club Classic Small Batch 12 yo: The ubiquitous Canadian Club is best known as a premix product in Australia but its portfolio includes whiskies of greater complexity such as the Classic 12-Year-Old. It has a more robust barley profile and is aged in seasoned, char-treated oak bourbon barrels.

Wiser's 35-year-old: One of the oldest Canadian whiskies ever released, Wiser's 35 is comprised of bourbon-barrel-aged corn whisky and rye whisky aged in new oak, making for a whisky that is creamy, fruity, soft and spicy in character.

Stalk & Barrel Red Blend: Ontario's Still Waters Distillery is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, making it one of the older craft distilleries in Canada. Its Stalk & Barrel Red Blend combines high percentages of single malt and rye, blended with selected casks of corn whisky. A sure sign that the future of whisky is bright in the Great White North.

Alberta Premium: One of few 100 per cent rye grain whiskies, Alberta Premium is rich gold in colour. It offers aromas of banana, toffee and light spice and a mellow and smoky flavour.

James Atkinson

James is a journalist whose career took a turn for the better when he began specialising in what he enjoys most: Travel, food and drink. Whether at home in Sydney or on the road, he's especially diligent at roadtesting bars and restaurants and hunting down some special bottles to bring home.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Feb 2012

Total posts 31

These are not super easy to come by in Australia. Any Shopping tips?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

29 Nov 2013

Total posts 489

Was just about to ask the same question. I'm in the US in April - any suggestions on where to source? Particularly the Wiser 35


11 Sep 2012

Total posts 21

Nick's Wine Merchants in Melbourne have a great range and deliver. I've had the Crown Royale Harvest Rye which is delicious.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Feb 2012

Total posts 31

Yeah I use them also but Canadin Whisky is still hard to come by and nearly imposible to get the better single malt examples that are all over the place over there.

07 May 2016

Total posts 17

Thank you for mentioning the excellent Canadian single malts. The oldest one is Glenora's Glen Breton whisky from a distillery in Nova Scotia built in 1990. They won the right to keep "Glen" in the name of their whisky after a 9 year lawsuit brought by the Scottish Whisky Association. Other newer single malt distilleries include Shelter Point, and Victoria Caledonian, both in B.C., with other newer ones coming on stream.

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