Canadian Whisky: History of the Wallflower

Canada has been that distant cousin of the US who gets left out at every major family gathering. It’s hardly surprising that when it comes to whisky, Canada is often not the country that pops up in your head, not even the fourth or the fifth time. Yet, Canadian whisky exists, and to the astonishment of many, has made a guest appearance in the very popular period drama, Mad Men.

The history of whisky making in Canada can be traced back to 1769, when the first distillery was built in the present-day Quebec. John Molson can very well be adjudged the Father of Canadian Whisky, distilling the golden tipple the way the Scots did. In fact, Scottish immigrants were the forerunners of distillers in Canada.

In less than a 100 years, the country had as many as 200 whisky distilleries sprouting over its length and breadth. Rumours have it that distillers would often throw in a handful of rye into the mash that went into making whisky, imparting an earthy aftertaste to the distilled amber spirit, that would later go on to become the unique, defining feature Canadian whisky.

In 1858, Hiram Walker, an American entrepreneur purchased some land in Ontario, by the River Detroit.  He began selling his signature ‘Hiram Walker’s Club Whisky’, and for the first time ever, whisky was sold in bottles in Canada. Before Hiram’s ingenious intervention, whisky was sold straight from the barrels in which it was matured, much like what the Scots and Irish were doing with their own whiskies. Walker’s Club Whisky was such a success that slowly a farm was built around the distillery, and people started trickling into the faraway ‘no man’s land’, giving birth to a township in the process.

But, all was not sunny in Canada. Beginning at 1916, Canada saw a brief period of Prohibition when the use of whisky was restricted to only military, industrial, scientific, and medical purposes. Most American and Canadian distilleries were being put to wartime use, as army shelters, training houses, a place to store food grain etc. With the Prohibition being ousted in America in 1933, Canadian Whisky, too, came out of its seclusion.

Contrary to popular belief, Canadian whisky isn’t always light-bodied. It can be quite rich and complex, for most distillers separately distil their grans before blending them into one gorgeous bottle of whisky. Made primarily from corn, with a touch of barley, and rye, Canadian Whisky has to be aged for a minimum of three years, in charred or uncharred wooden barrels. Barrels used are distinctive, there’s a mandate that they cannot be more than 700 litres in volume. Even though there’s a myth of all Canadian whisky being rye whisky that is not the case always. The habit of distillers adding rye to their corn mash often imparts a typical flavour to the whisky, but Canadian whisky can be, and is sometimes made without the addition of rye.

Yet, the recent years have seen Canadian whisky dabble in troubled waters. Rising taxes, and illegal imports from America have hampered whisky sales. But, here’s hoping the shy wallflower stages a comeback and wows whisky lovers all over the world with its unique appeal.