Trends in Canadian Whisky
Oak and aging are key to creating superior spirits
Oak can do a lot of things for a premium spirit. It can give complexity and structure. It can add appealing vanilla, nut, coffee, caramel and chocolate flavours. It can smooth out the edges, making the curves even rounder, and it can overpower faults, making an otherwise simple, lean, drink seem fuller and more interesting. Used wisely, oak can improve certain spirits.
Oak-Aged Canadian Whiskies
Take Canadian whisky. The trend is toward interesting premium products: longer oak-aged versions of iconic brands and artisanal whiskies from small producers.
Many classic, well-known Canadian whiskies are relatively neutral in flavour. Consumers may order a “rye and ginger,” but they generally don’t think about how much rye is in it. Most commercial stuff, with some exceptions, is mainly corn whisky, but without the intensity of American corn-based whiskies, which have the benefits (if you like that sort of thing) of loads of vanilla character from charred oak barrel aging. Our basic whiskies tend to be more elegant and reserved.
Rye is used to spice up Canadian whisky, and, in some cases, it is the main grain used, but calling our whisky “rye” is more a tradition than an accurate descriptor. Much of the flavour comes from oak aging, as well as from caramel additives, which help adjust the colour, but also aid in marrying the various components that make up a whisky blend.
Canadian whisky enthusiast Davin de Kergommeaux — creator of the Canadian Whisky Awards — writes prolifically about the beverage at canadianwhisky.org.
The highest-rated whiskies on his site, and at international competitions, tend to be long-aged versions, including those from the classics: Canadian Club, Wiser’s, Crown Royal, and Gibson’s. But he also includes unusual products such as Caribou Crossing, from an American company that blends Canadian whiskies, and White Owl, a clear whisky from Highwood Distillers in Alberta, as well as products from the new Still Waters craft distillery in Ontario.
Forty Creek Whisky
Speaking of Ontario, one of the province's most interesting distilleries is John Hall’s Forty Creek Whisky, made at Kittling Ridge in Grimsby, Niagara. Hall is a new face in Canadian whisky; he distills and barrel-ages each grain separately, much like how a winemaker (Hall’s original calling) vinifies and ages different parcels of vineyards separately, and keeps grape varieties separate, too.
Hall ages his rye whisky in light-toasted barrels, his barley whisky in medium toast, and his corn whisky in heavily charred white oak barrels, then blends them to taste, and finishes them for a few months — for smoothness and complexity — in used sherry casks, from his own sherry production facility.
So far, so good. Hall’s Forty Creek Barrel Select has shaken up the Canadian whisky scene, winning multiple awards around the world.
And he recently released two more products: Double Barrel (aged in used bourbon barrels) and Confederation Oak. The barrels are made from rare white Canadian oak, from trees that were more than 150 years old.
“This is truly an iconic whisky — Canadian whisky aged in Canadian oak barrels that were harvested from trees that first rooted themselves in Canadian soil,” says Hall.
Premium Versions of Canada's Favourite Whiskies
Although innovators like Hall deserve celebration, the longer-oak-aged versions of Canada’s favourites are perhaps a more accurate indicator of Canadian whisky trends. Alberta Distillers recently released its Alberta Premium 30-year-old; it retails for about $50 in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Canadian Club also has a 10-year-old for around $25, a 12-year-old for $27, a 20-year-old for around $45, and a 30-year-old for considerably more ($180). Trying these in a line is essentially tasting “up the ladder.” The longer in oak, the more the caramel, vanilla and other oak complexities dominate, and the whisky gets slightly darker.
Consumers seem to enjoy the changes oak aging brings to a Canadian whisky, but there is a limit, and it is defined by price.