Canada is barely 150 years old and already its story is crammed with mythology. The fabled Sasquatch (aka Bigfoot) inhabits the west coast, while fanciful man-eating sea serpents and lake monsters populate tens of thousands of lakes. Stories of a malt whisky called Glen Ogopogo have even less substance than ‘Ogopogo’ itself, that mystery dweller of Lake Okanagan. A Québecois myth damns wayward souls to turn into the werewolf-like ‘Loup Garou’ should they skip their Easter duties for seven years running. Don’t want to hide your Easter eggs? Then be prepared to walk the land for 101 days as a grumpy cannibal – like an extra from a B movie (or some disgraced author) in need of a shave. Canadian whisky is no different. The mythology has been rearing its ugly, stubbled head for years. The time has come for an exorcism.
American prohibition made Canadian whisky popular
The granddaddy of Canadian whisky myths comes straight from a Hollywood script: American Prohibition made Canadian whisky famous. The scene plays out a million times. Stereotypical mafia wiseguys, dressed impeccably in fur-trim coats, their slicked hair under fedoras, are driving a truck. Law enforcers sweep in and shoot each of them fifteen times with a police special that holds just six bullets. The cops smash open the truck’s cargo and find wooden crates labelled, “Canadian Whisky”. A few expensive looking bottles branded “Canadian Whisky” sit perfectly displayed atop straw packing.
Truth is, Canadian whisky was already famous in the United States long before Prohibition. The American Civil brought whisky making to a halt in the USA. Since alcohol was still legal, Canadian distilleries stepped in and quenched America’s thirst. Sixty years later, when Prohibition became law, the absence of American competition gave the illusion that Canadian distillers were filling the gap. In truth, making a product that was illegal in its biggest markets annihilated Canada’s business. The Canadian whisky industry withered during Prohibition. Yes, it made a few people stinking rich. Opportunists like Harry Hatch jumped at the opportunity and bought the silent Gooderham and Worts Distillery at a cut-rate. Sam Bronfman at Seagram’s fought through flat sales and ramped up production, ready to stock bar shelves when the United States ended the drought. In 1933, with alcohol legal again in the U.S., those Canadian distilleries that survived saw profits skyrocket, igniting a long chain of corporate takeovers and distillery consolidations.
Canadian whisky contains artificial flavours
According to US regulations promulgated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (the infamous TTB), American whisky makers may add up to 2.5 per cent of artificial flavourings to most of their whiskies. This includes, essential oils, oleoresins, spices, herbs, fruit juices/concentrates and commercially prepared flavours such as essences, extracts, blenders, infusions and a portion of potent designer chemicals synthesised in flavour labs, without a mention on the label. These regulations do not apply to Canadian whisky, but because TTB regulations do require that Canadian whisky be labelled as blended, many people jump to the conclusion that Canada’s 9.09 per cent rule permits artificial flavourings.
American tax laws give incentives to foreign producers to include American spirits in their products. According to Canada’s infamous 9.09 per cent rule, Canadian whisky may include up to 1/11 of aged spirit to take advantage of these tax breaks. However, these additions must be wood-matured spirits or wine. This provides a financial advantage to high-volume bottom-shelf brands exported to the United States but continues to land big blows to the reputation of the entire category.
Let’s take a moment to reflect. A distiller spends premium dollars to source some of the best grains on the planet, ferment and distil them, then nurture the tightest cuts in expensive oak barrels. Then, after ageing, carefully blends the whisky to a very specific flavour profile. When the premium whisky is finally vatted and ready for bottling, suddenly, the blender snaps and starts dumping prune juice into the vat with a measuring cup? They’d have to be Loup-Garou-bit. Vicky Miller, who spent her career blending Black Velvet in its mixing and premium versions pretended to spit on the ground when we asked her about the 9.09 per cent rule.
“For U.S. exports, yes,” she admitted, “but for every other market never.”
Light whisky is the Canadian whisky style
It is amazing how people think history did not begin until they arrived on the scene. Those whose whisky life dates back no farther than the 1980s have generally not tasted the big bold Canadian whiskies that pre-date the white-spirits takeover. So, they assume, Canadian whisky has always been light. That’s their experience; it must be so.
Guys, find a bottle of pre-80s Lord Calvert, Canadian Masterpiece, or Adam’s Special Reserve then re-think that theory. Light Scotches? There have been hundreds but they are ignored in favour of single malts. Light American whiskies? Hundreds more, but whisky elitists prefer to generalise to all American whisky, experience based solely on Bourbon or rye.
In the 1980s when consumer tastes moved towards vodka, whisky makers the world over rushed to make their whiskies lighter. Eventually, tastes changed back and they got over it, but for Canadian whisky, the reputational hangover lingers. Meanwhile, many of today’s big, bold Canadian whiskies have been quietly sitting in warehouses for decades just waiting for the pendulum to swing back to flavour.
What of those massive column stills Canadian distillers use to make “base whisky"? Don’t they dilute the flavour? Well, let’s not forget, most Bourbon is distilled in column stills too, even today.
Those big, bold whiskies that are putting Canadian whisky back on the connoisseur’s map these days? Most have been in production for many decades, and some were actually distilled before the 1980s worldwide switch to “taste’s great, less filling”. Danfield’s 21, Masterson’s Rye, Lot No. 40, just because people are only discovering them now does not mean Canadian whisky is changing its style. It’s just going back to what it always was until vodka came along.
The curse of Loup Garou is forgiving. It lasts just 101 days. Even before that period is over, it can be broken. If a friend draws blood from the mythical creature, it turns back into human form. These whisky myths have been barking at the moon for a lot longer than Loup Garou. Canadians can keep their werewolf legends and lake monster lore if they like. But whisky is serious business, especially in a magazine that bears its name. So, like anything foaming at the mouth, it’s time to put these whisky fables down. We’ve set the record straight; now throw them to Ogopogo. That beast in its most recent grainy photo looks more than a little bit thirsty.
A prohibition police road block
Disposing of seized alcohol
Canadian Club from 1922