Whisky & Culture

Canada's golden age

Is the current resurgence of Canadian whisky built on past glory? We explore
By Blair Phillips
In a life made up of 15-second sound bites, the whisky world seems to have forgotten Canada’s whisky past. Talk on the street tells us we are in a Canadian whisky renaissance with names like Hall, Livermore and Scandella lifting from the fog. Canada’s whisky is experiencing a rebirth, but a rebirth from what? Today when we hear whisky people talking about the new big, bold Canadians, it’s as if Canada is just catching on. However, these robust Canadians are not so much new as they are a return to the ‘60s and ‘70s – the golden age of Canadian whisky.

In 1975, 22 large distilleries supplied the planet with a pipeline of Canadian whisky. The industry was a well-oiled machine, conquering villages across the globe like soldiers from Rome’s golden age. Canadian Club and Seagram’s VO had introduced Canadian whisky to more than 160 countries on six continents. Canadian whisky was celebrated instead of dismissed, as sometimes happens today, and millions of cases were eagerly emptied by connoisseurs. Canadian whisky became the cash cow to support the rise of the Empire – Scotch single malts.

They are Golden Age names that should be celebrated with a renaissance story


The invasion of Barbarian white spirits and liqueurs toward the end of the 70s didn’t help with the category’s demise. Canadian whisky’s greatest strength, its ability to adapt, shifted it from traditional full flavours to a lighter style. Other whisky making countries that followed the trend were able to buck the light whisky negative association through marketing. Canada didn’t. Scotch single malts and Bourbon’s rise led to amnesia about the tremendous Canadian whiskies that once graced our shelves. These are just some of those whiskies. They are Golden Age names that should be celebrated with a renaissance story, because life did not begin with Lot 40.

Canadian whisky accounted for 85.2 per cent of all whisky sold in Canada through the early 1970s and Seagram’s led the pack. Taking a page from the automotive industry, Sam Bronfman bought Vancouver’s United Distillers Ltd. in 1954 then gave his son Charles Bronfman the task of creating a new company.

Mr. Sam renamed the distillery after an influential whisky pioneer, Thomas Adams. The Thomas Adams Company created, marketed and sold their own line of whiskies. It was owned by Seagram’s but they strategically isolated that association. The Seagram’s model involved creating a long list of brands under several names originating from a handful of distilleries spread across the country. They competed against one another internally with core brands like Lord Calvert and Seagram’s VO. These went head to head for sales against Adam’s Antique and Adam’s Special Reserve.

Calvert’s Canadian Masterpiece whisky is one example of Seagram’s crowning achievements. A gobsmacking blend that still draws gasps of delight from connoisseurs, when they can find it. Seagram’s went coast to coast selecting whisky from five (and later six) of their distilleries. Whisky from British Columbia’s New Westminster distillery, described as subtle and intense, was blended with zesty whisky from Amherstburg in Ontario and Waterloo. Quebec’s Beaupré distillery added light and tangy flavours to the blend while Lasalle brought contrast with a rich and full-bodied rye.

Seagram’s wasn’t the only distillery riding the wave of Canada’s success. Sales of Canadian whisky boomed in the United States by 1964. Schenley was at the cusp and invested six million dollars in expanding their Montreal Quebec Valleyfield Distillery. The state-of-the-art distillery produced bold flavourful whiskies such as Schenley’s Order of Merit 15 Years Old. It was presented in a beautiful crested decanter bottle wrapped in a red velvet bag. Order of Merit contained Canadian whisky aged in white oak for about eight years augmented with American straight whiskey aged for the same amount of time. The two whiskies were married then aged for at least an additional seven years before being bottled.
A few hours drive down the 401, another distillery was firing on all cylinders. During the Second World War, the Corby Distillery shifted to making industrial alcohol for synthetic rubber production, but at the war’s end, it bounced back into distilling whisky after a massive post-war era expansion. The Corbyville distillery grew to 80 buildings and 10 rack warehouses and got to work filling them with 10,000 to 50,000 barrels in each. A modern continuous still was also installed increasing production to 4 million gallons of spirit annually. Park Lane was one of Corby’s post-war powerhouse whiskies. The blend is rumoured to contain 25-years-old whisky.

Corby and Schenley’s growth didn’t go unnoticed by Hiram Walker. The distiller spent Canada’s 1967 Centennial year investing in a 50-million-dollar expansion to nearly double production. It was also the year that Gooderham & Worts Centennial Whisky was released. The hexagon shaped bottle was wrapped with Robert Harris’ 1884 painting, Conference at Quebec in 1864 that was outdone by the 15-years-old contents in the bottle. Not a smile can be found in that painting, the side effect of not having the chance to experience this whisky. The release was so popular that Hiram Walker continued to release Centennial for another decade.

With whisky everywhere, Toronto’s defunct McGuiness Distillery hit the bottle to get their’s noticed. Captain’s Table whisky was presented in a bottle that looked like it came from the set of I Dream of Jeannie. The broad-based bottle with a long green neck was not Barbara Eden’s home, but a historical nod to the bottles found on 18th century square-rigged sailing ships. Decorative bottles mirrored the Captain’s power and influence on the ship, but functionally, the bulb-shaped decanter was reserved for the Captain’s finest spirits since it was designed to remain standing even as the boat was tossed by turbulent seas.

In 1946, Gilbey’s also tried its hand at distilling whisky at their Toronto distillery. During the next few years, the distillery established a few whiskies including their Velvet series. This included the three-years-old Red Velvet, five-year-old Golden Velvet, six-years-old Black Velvet, and 10-years-old Royal Velvet known as Regal Velvet in the States. Gilbey’s was sold in 1972 to Grand Metropolitan Hotels and the hotel’s investment was well timed. To meet demand, they built a new multi-million-dollar facility called Palliser Distillery in Lethbridge Alberta. By 1974, Black Velvet passed the million cases per year milestone. Regardless, Royal Velvet elevated the ‘Velvet’s’ lineup with a long finish that’s still fading on the palate of anyone lucky to try this whisky 40 years ago.

Other countries have started to revive their lost whiskies, at least by name. Canadian whisky hasn’t. Instead, they are creating new expressions, new names and legacies. The Canadian whisky renaissance ushered in by Hall, Livermore and Scandella are united by a universal character – big flavours and the hope these whiskies enjoy a happier fate than reminiscing about the golden age whiskies that got away.

Tasting Notes

Calvert’s Canadian Masterpiece Whisky 40% ABV
Fresh cut lumber, rye spice, toffee and corn cobs shuffle on the palate with vanilla rum-soaked bread. Ginger and hot cinnamon hearts spice up the finish.

Gooderham & Worts Centennial Whisky 15 Years Old 40% ABV
Well-heeled with rye barrel notes, dark fruits and silky vanilla. Traditional rye spices radiate in the mouth with unctuous tannins that add complexity to this 1967 stunner.

Royal Velvet Canadian Whisky 40% ABV
Dry oak emerges late into a gamut of dusty rye spices like cloves, dill and cinnamon accented by floral tones and pine.