Our Neighbors Up North

Rachel DelRocco Terrazas
Legislative Assembly Victoria

Victoria’s city center is reminiscent of Old England with a Canadian flair: architecture and old buildings like the Empress Hotel and the Legislative Assembly are decked out in Christmas lights all set upon the harbor filled with fishing boats. It’s also host to the yearly Canadian Whisky Awards.

The Awards were founded in 2010 by Davin de Kergommeaux, one of the category’s most prominent writers. He’s become a sort of Canadian whisky whisperer. Distillers from Canada and whisky makers from abroad descend on the Hotel Grand Pacific to attend the Awards, which are a part of the larger Victoria Whisky Festival. Davin helps to shed light on our misconceptions toward Canadian whisky and exactly where we should turn to learn more. 

It’s One Big Misunderstanding

Davin de Kergommeaux | Photo Credit: Jen Steele 

Davin explains, “In America, there’s a lot of work to be done getting people to understand Canadian whisky. It’s not that we want to take over. It’s more understanding what it is and having people who know what the good bottles are.” The Whisky Festival helps do that by showcasing bottles from larger brands such as Canadian Club and Alberta Distillers next to smaller craft distillers such as Two Brewers, Stalk & Barrel, and Pemberton Distillery. There’s plenty of quality showcased here on the level of, if not more so, than a lot of its Scottish, American, or Irish counterparts. 

Canadian whisky’s definition is broad—it can be made from corn, wheat, or rye but must be aged a minimum of three years. Some can be blended, some can be single-malts, but either way, it’s generally on the shelf shoved behind the aged versions of Scotch or Bourbon. Americans have thought for a long time of Canadian whisky as a “that’ll do” substitute when bootleggers snuck it over the border during Prohibition. And the export laws don’t help either. Davin explains, “There’s a regulation that we have that allows a Canadian distillery to add up to 9 percent of mature spirits or wine to their whisky. People think we add flavorings. The reason for this regulation is that it comes from American tax law that says if distillers add some American spirit to their product, there’s a significant tax break. The tax works well with low-end whiskies, where we send two million cases in export. If you ask Canadian distillers, they will do that with whisky that’s being shipped to the United States, but not shipped to other countries or in Canada. They will make a special version for the States. But, they do blend it so it tastes the same. For lower volume whiskies, it’s just too expensive altogether.”

Whisky blending at Crown Royal | Photo Credit: Crown Royal

Canadian whisky tends to be a blend, and in the United States, these products are seen as of lesser quality than say a single-malt Scotch or a 100 percent American rye. Davin continues, “The people who buy premium whiskies still misunderstand Canadian whisky and buy single-malts or Bourbons or American ryes. They do it as an insurance that they are drinking good whisky. Then, you miss a lot of good whisky.”

Many of the eight large distilleries in Canada are blending based on what they’ve historically always done–including the ubiquitous Crown Royal. When in reality, the art is in the masterful blending and consistency they’ve had since their inception in 1939. Hiram-Walker Distillery in Grimsby, Ontario, produces some of the longest-aged and nuanced whiskies such as Canadian Club’s 42 and also, Pike Creek is distilled there, whose 21-Year took home the Whisky of the Year Award in 2020. 

You mentioned Crown Royal. What about the local craft guys?

There are also small craft distillers doing some of their best work with the loosened rules for Canadian Whisky. There are now around 257 small, craft distillers, give or take, since January of 2020, but you have to go and find them. Davin continues, “The legalities do affect small distillers but they can operate in their environment and get good support. It’s when they want to expand.” A lot of global companies have swooped in to purchase Canadian brands as of late. Pernod-Ricard owns Corby Distilleries that makes Wiser’s and Campari owns Forty Creek in Niagara, but this is a difficult thing to accomplish. “When it comes time for research and development, are the large companies going to invest in Canada where it’s much less profitable to make whisky because of the taxes? Or are they going to invest in Ireland where they can get a much more significant return on investments?” asks Davin. 

True artisanal quality is in the details | Photo Credit: Shelter Point

These distillers generally won’t export to the United States unless they expand. Davin explains another reason why, “In British Columbia, if you’re operating with a craft license, you can’t produce more than 150,000 liters, really 100,000 is the real cap, before they go to commercial licensing. Then their costs sky rocket. A lot of them try to keep their production just below the cap so they can make more profit on less whisky. There really are so many wonderful American craft distillers that people find out about first.”

See Also

But smaller distilleries in Canada are doing some inventive work. Devine uses ancient grains found in British Columbia, Shelter Point bottles different blends of grains from different locations, and Two Brewers uses PX sherry and Bourbon casks among others to finish off the aging of their whisky. And there’s only more innovation to come as 75 distilleries currently have whisky laying down just waiting for bottling. 

So, where do I start?

Leave your judgment for Canada at the door because you’ll be wanting that citizenship pending the 2020 US election. Click here for links to Davin’s books and check out the below for the distilleries you should seek out: