Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Whiskey Wednesday: Oh, Canada

I've been writing about whiskey for a year and a half and nary a drop of Canadian whisky has touched my palate. In many ways, Canadian whisky is treated as the ugly stepchild of the whiskey world; Americans treat Canadian whisky the same way they tend to treat the nation itself, pretty much ignoring its very existence. American whiskey publications seem to write more about Japanese whisky than Canadian, even though there are only two Japanese whiskies available in the US while Canadian is widely available.

So what is Canadian whisky and does it deserve to be passed over like so much cold poutin? Is there more to it than Crown Royal and Canadian Club? We will spend the next few weeks answering those questions, but first, the traditional Recent Eats whisky primer:

What is Canadian Whisky?

Well, Canadian whisky is whisky from Canada...pretty much any whisky from Canada. Per Canadian law, Canadian whisky is a spirit distilled from cereal grains which is aged in wood for at least three years. Canadian whisky may contain caramel coloring.

Canadian whiskies are mostly blends of different grains, though there are now some single malts being made in Canada, most notably Glen Breton, made by the Glenora distillery in Nova Scotia (which, of course, means "New Scotland") as well as a few single grains.

One element unique to Canadian whisky is that under the law, it can contain 9.09% flavoring agents. Those agents are often other spirits (Bourbon or Brandy are common) but could be anything, including vanilla, sugar or fruit juice. This is something that really sticks in the whiskey lovers' craw, as the idea of fruit juice or sugar in whisky seems designed to cover up the flavor of a substandard spirit. Of course, not all Canadian whisky uses flavoring additives, and particularly some of the newer Canadians are leaving this suspect practice behind.

Isn't Canadian Whisky the Same as Rye?

No. Well, at least not in the way we use the term in the US. Long ago, most Canadian whisky was rye-based, so people started calling it rye, and eventually all Canadian whisky became known as rye. This nomenclature has been preserved in Canadian law which uses the terms Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky and Rye Whisky. However, nowadays, rye is not a central ingredient in most Canadian whisky, and the term just serves to confuse the stuff with American rye whiskey, which is actually rye-based.

That being said, there are a few Canadian whiskies that are still rye-based, including Alberta Premium, one of the well reviewed new Canadians.

What does Canadian Whisky Taste Like?

Canadian Whisky is known for being light, sweet and fruity. This is another reason that it tends to be looked down upon by serious whisky drinkers. Whether this reputation bears out is something we will have to see for ourselves.

Over the next few weeks we will sip a few Canadians and see what our frozen cousins from the north have to offer.

Next Wednesday: Forty Creek

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