Mythbusters: The multiverses of Canadian whisky

Mythbusters: The multiverses of Canadian whisky

A complex laying of grains, distillation, casks, and flavours

Mythbusters 26 Jan 2024 | Interviews | By Chris Middleton

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For two centuries, the four major whisky-producing countries have made discernible styles of whisky based on differences in cereals and production methods. Scotland’s malted barley is discernible by its smoky-flavoured whisky due to peat kilning. Ireland mashes a lighter, fruitier whisky with proportions of unmalted barley and other small grains. The United States mashes a corn-dominant bourbon whisky, and Canada is recognised for its blended rye whisky.


Canada’s methods make it the most intriguing of all whisky-producing countries. The production of Canadian whisky involves a multidimensional manufacturing philosophy employing variations in mashing, fermenting, distilling, and cask maturation to blending. Each grain is often separately distilled and matured before final blending to formulate multifarious organoleptic iterations. This aesthetic pragmatism dates back to the 1795 Montreal rum distillery which also became the first grain distillery, allegedly blending wheat and barley distillate to market a more palatable hybrid spirit. As distilleries spread across Canada, distillers needed to accommodate differences in regional cereal cultivation, immigrant influences, technological innovations, and changing regulations.


Canada’s eight big-league distilleries produce 95 per cent of Canadian rye whisky, continuing this manufacturing philosophy. Over the past two decades, 300 smaller distilleries from Nova Scotia to Vancouver have started production, inflating the landscape with more whisky variation.


Multiple grains: Various cereals including corn, rye, wheat, and malted barley make Canadian blended rye whisky. In the east, the Ontario distilleries tend to have recipes high in local corn, whereas western prairie distilleries source higher proportions of local wheat and rye, some almost exclusively rye. The combinations within each distillery’s recipes mean fluidity in cereal mashes.


Multiple recipes: Canadian distillers formulate different whisky flavour profiles based on differing malting specifications, mashes, yeast strains, and fermentation techniques. Some distilleries use 100 per cent rye, most are corn- or wheat-dominant mashes, and other small grains such as triticale and oats bring additional variations when finally blended with rye.


Multiple distillations: Engineering multifunctional distilling systems permits mashes to be processed individually or as multi-cereal batches, with compartmentalised runs for rye only versus multi-cereal mashes in continuous beer column (single run) or dual extraction with rectifying column or separate pot stills, or a combination ‘of kettle and column’ for rye batch distilling. Whether batch, twin column, or triple distillation, this variety of mash bills and still formats adds to a long tail of distillate variability.


Multiple barrels: The only legal specification is that a cask cannot exceed 700 litres. The preference is for smaller containers, filling new charred American white oak barrels, ex-bourbon, ex-sherry, and ex-brandy casks, including European oak. Rye whisky is usually diluted to a high-50% ABV before entry, and grain whisky to a mid-70% ABV. This cask variety delivers a broader palette of extractive favours for blenders to manipulate.


Multiple flavourings: Since 1949 Canadian whisky has had a provision for the ‘addition of flavouring, or caramel’, reaffirmed in later Food and Drug Acts and modified under the 1989 Free Trade Agreement with the US, permitting natural flavouring agents up to 9.09 per cent (or the 1/11 rule). Flavouring amelioration is achieved by adding natural fruit essences such as prune juice, wines such as sherry, and caramel colourings. Canadian whisky has maintained a special relationship with America since the US Civil War, with 85 per cent of Canadian whisky exports shipped south, countenancing this discrete bilateral agreement.


Multiple blends: Selecting whisky from their multi-barrel maturation programmes offers blenders a broad aromatic and gustatory arsenal with which to formulate flavour components to maintain sensory standards for leading brands and to conjure nuanced and ever-diverse releases. 

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