A Guide to Canadian Whisky

Posted by Jay Jordan on


Canadian whisky is shaped by our distinct land and climate as well as traditional practices and specific regulations that grew out of that tradition. In this post we'll delve into 3 Canadian whiskies that embody the unique blend of legal and traditional influences that make Canadian whisky truly exceptional.

You Can’t Talk About Canadian Whisky Without Talking About Rye.

In fact, in Canada, rye is short for whisky. When Canadians talk about whisky, we often just call it rye – even if it’s not actually rye. Rye has become such a defining ingredient in Canadian whisky that it has led to one interesting quirk in Canadian law that we’ll get to in a bit, but first – what is Canadian whisky?

People love Canadian whisky for its approachable and easy-drinking style. It is often made with a blend of different grains such as corn, barley, wheat, and rye. Canadian whisky is also required to be aged for at least 3 years in small wood barrels. It is this aging which can give a whisky distinct woody, coconut and vanilla notes. In addition, Canadian whisky traditionally uses a large portion of rye in the blend, which gives the whisky a spicy and robust character.

Rye has been grown in Canada for centuries and it has become a defining ingredient in Canadian whisky. The use of rye as a primary flavoring grain is a long-standing tradition, dating back to the early days of whisky-making in Canada. It can be a challenging grain to work with, however, and that means it isn’t widely used. Canadian rye whisky is often blended with other grains such as corn and barley to create a unique and balanced flavor profile.

Canadian Rye: Zero or 100%?

Wait, how can a Canadian rye whisky have 0% rye grain? Here’s where tradition comes into play in the story of Canadian whisky. When Canadians first exported whiskey to America it was referred to as “Canadian Rye” regardless of the presence of rye grain. As legal regulations developed over time this norm became reflected in our legislation. So, unlike other countries that require 50% or more rye grain to call a whisky a “rye whisky”, Canada requires zero.

Despite this quirk Canada makes some of the best rye whiskies in the world. When looking for a true rye inspect the label for a specific percentage of rye grain. For example, on the label of Dillon’s Single Grain Rye Whiskey you’ll see a mash bill of 100% Ontario rye. This guarantees a truly grain-to-the-glass rye whisky experience. Dillon’s small-batch distillers began in 2012 with a rye crop in the Niagara peninsula. For an older Canadian rye look to Alberta.

picture of Dillon's Single Grain Rye Whisky

Dillon's Single Grain Rye Whisky

Crafted using 100% Ontario rye and aged for four years in new Ontario oak, new American oak & first fill bourbon casks, this is truly grain-to-the-glass Rye Whisky.

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Alberta Cracks the 100% Rye Code

Rye grows exceptionally well in the Canadian prairies. Although rye is a hardy grain that can grow in colder climates and poorer soil conditions it requires more water and nutrients than other grains. The glacial drip from the snow-capped mountains into the low flat plains of Alberta is perfect for growing rye. It is this blend of landscape and climate that creates the grain that is the base for a range of amazing whiskies. 

Alberta Distillers Limited uses one of three distillation processes to create their products, but the heart of who they are is their unique ability to distill with 100% rye grains. To this day they remain one of the only distilleries who can create the bold and spicy flavour of a 100% rye whisky. Their secret is a proprietary enzyme grown in an onsite lab by staff microbiologist Shannon Thomas, which accounts for ADL’s rye purity and lightness.

George H. Reifel was the legendary master distiller who laid the foundations of Alberta Distillers Limited 75 years ago. George was a pioneering craftsman, rugged outdoorsman, champion of conservation, and is credited with cracking the 100% rye whisky code. Reifel Rye was created in his honour. This internationally award-winning rye taps into the spirit of adventure and innovation that exists across Canada.

picture of Reifel Rye

Reifel Rye

Aromatic with notes of banana bread and burnt sugar. Flavourful with hints of toffee, vanilla, crème brûlée balanced with warm pear and dark chocolate. The finish is warm and lingering.

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The One Eleven Rule

We’ve mentioned that Canadian whisky is often made with a blend of different grains, but spirits can also be blended. The ‘One Eleven Rule’ is unique to Canadian whisky, allowing the blending of ten parts whisky with one part of another spirit, wine or sherry. This blending is prohibited in Scotch, Irish whiskey and Bourbon. Traditionally, sherry or port were blended to create that approachable flavour Canadian whisky is known for. Yes, we’re talking about Crown Royal.

The legal freedoms that Canada offers whisky-makers inspires an innovative spirit in Canadian whiskey making. Bearface’s limited edition Wilderness Series is a great example; their whisky is aged in hand-selected ex-wine casks and sherry pipes inside repurposed shipping containers in the Canadian wilderness. This exposure to the extreme temperatures of the great north creates a bolder flavour. The addition of foraged matsutake mushrooms (or pine mushroom) adds a unique umami finish. This one-of-a-kind whisky blend reflects the elements and seasonal flavours of northern Canada.

picture of Bearface Whisky Wilderness Series Matsutake

Bearface Whisky Wilderness Series Matsutake

This first limited-edition release uses foraged Matsutake mushrooms cask-infused with selected Bearface Whisky. Expect nutmeg, green leaf, balsamic, oak, cranberry, apricot, and cinnamon notes. Medium-bodied with a delicately sweet finish. Serve neat with whisky-glazed portobello burgers and crispy French fries.

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We hope you enjoyed exploring notable Canadian whisky-making techniques that have made the Canadian whisky industry one of the leaders in the world. If you’d like to learn more try one of our masterclasses. Sign up for our newsletter below to get notified when our 2023 masterclasses are open for registration.


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