The Forgotten Empire

Can one generation restore Canadian whisky to glory?

Photograph by Christopher Stevenson
Photograph by Christopher Stevenson

Established in 1858, the Hiram Walker & Sons distillery, located in a part of Windsor, Ontario, once known as Walkerville, produces Canadian whisky brands such as Canadian Club, Gibson’s, and Wiser’s. As we walk to the factory from the Canadian Club Brand Center on a warm June afternoon, Art Jahns, the centre’s archivist and facilities manager, hands me an orange safety vest. After checking in at security, we arrive on the factory floor, which is crowded with steel tanks and hissing, grinding machinery.

The factory has a pleasant odour, like warm milk on cornflakes. While Canadian whisky is called rye, its primary ingredient is most often corn, which pours into the top of the distillery building from a nearby granary. The corn, along with smaller portions of rye and barley, is then cleaned, crushed, and hammered. The milled grains go into batch cookers, which help release their starches. From the cooker, the mash is combined with yeast to ferment for seventy-two hours in one of the factory’s three-storey tanks.

The viscous beige liquid produced here is known as “distillers’ beer,” and it runs through a device called a column still (which resembles the coils on the back of a refrigerator but on a much larger scale), to separate the alcohol from the fermented mash. The resulting distillate, described both as a neutral spirit and a base whisky, is blended with barley and rye-based flavouring spirits produced in pot stills—smaller onion-shaped chambers that yield a fuller-bodied alcohol. Single malt Scotch, made from malted barley, is crafted entirely in pot stills.

This twice-distilled blend, which can be further flavoured with sherry and coloured with caramel, is then cut with water and aged in forty-gallon charred oak barrels. After at least three years, the minimum required by law, the whisky is recut with water to the desired proof and bottled.

Just a few decades ago, the rye from this factory was destined for the world’s finest lounges and home bars, to be imbibed in cocktails or on the rocks. Queen Victoria drank Canadian Club with mineral water to ease her indigestion. Frank Sinatra enjoyed CC’s chief rival, Crown Royal, in the company of starlets like Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly. “To Princess Grace and her royal crown,” he said, in a toast to the Princess of Monaco, “and to my Crown Royal.”

But since Canadian whisky’s Rat Pack heyday, its reputation has plummeted. “It would not be beyond argument to now call Canadian the forgotten whisky empire,” writes Jim Murray in the 2010 edition of his essential drinking guide, Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. Within a half century, Canadian rye has gone from being the preferred potable of James Bond—who drank CC, not shaken martinis, in Ian Fleming’s 007 novel Dr. No—to the Canuck-trash sipping drink of Trailer Park Boys’ Jim Lahey, who prefers Alberta Premium. Considered low priced and low class, staid and unimaginative, it’s your dad’s whisky. “There is only so much I’m prepared to drink for my country,” Mordecai Richler once wrote, in reference to Canadian wines during the free trade debate. And when it came to whisky, the novelist who satirized the Bronfman rye barons in Solomon Gursky Was Here preferred Macallan single malt for his personal consumption.

But with a generation of bartenders now aspiring to celebrity chef status, and cocktail trends reviving brown spirit–based drinks like Sazeracs and manhattans, rye’s future might well lie in its past. As newly emerging boutique distilleries, attuned to these contemporary drinking realities, expand the boundaries of Canadian whisky, has the time come to revive an old favourite?

The word “whisky” transliterates the Gaelic word “usquebaugh”: pronounced “whis-ge-baw,” it means “water of life.” Unlike the Irish and the Americans, Canadians take after the Scots, spelling “whisky” without an e. Nonetheless, our distilling culture is not drawn from just one pool of immigrants.

The first Canadian distillery, which produced rum, was established in Quebec in 1769. Later in the eighteenth century, Loyalists with Scots-Irish ancestry and experience making whisky from rye and corn in home stills arrived in Upper Canada from the former American colonies. By most accounts, John Molson, the legendary English brewer, opened the country’s first commercial whisky distillery in 1821. Most of the 200 or so distilleries that followed in the first half of the nineteenth century, like the one founded by James Worts and William Gooderham on the Toronto waterfront in 1837, were tied to existing milling operations as a means of using up leftover grain. In their first year, Gooderham and Worts produced 4,682 gallons of whisky; by 1861, the distillery was churning out 2.5 million gallons a year. Whisky was sold directly from the barrel to customers who filled their own jugs, and was aged haphazardly—only if it didn’t sell.

Canadian whisky’s rise as an export commodity stems from a combination of quality, historical circumstance, and astute marketing. In 1858, Hiram Walker, an American who had previously been the proprietor of a grocery store in Detroit, built a mill and distillery on 190 hectares of Upper Canadian land to make whisky to sell across the Detroit River. At the time of his death in 1899, his blended Canadian Club, originally known only as “Club” when it was launched in 1883, was popular enough in the States to be fraudulently imitated by US competitors, which produced “club” whiskies that claimed to be made from a “Canadian Process.” To alert consumers, Hiram Walker & Sons published a circular in 1900 that identified forty-two knock-offs.

The Bronfman family, who first found success running hotels in Manitoba after emigrating from Imperial Russia, began bootlegging Scotch they had legally imported for “medicinal” reasons during the First World War, when Canada briefly flirted with banning alcohol. The family further profited from Prohibition in the US, and purchased the Waterloo-based Seagram distillery in 1928. During those years, the bulk of their product was shipped on ocean liners that stopped in the Bahamas or the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon—the official destinations for the booze—then quickly reloaded onto speedboats headed for America. “By 1931,” writes Nicholas Faith in his biography The Bronfmans, “enough Canadian whisky was being landed on the [French] islands to provide every inhabitant with ten gallons a week.”

If Prohibition lent Canadian distillers an underworld lustre, the period following its repeal in 1933 saw our whisky become a global giant. While American producers were reopening their shuttered distilleries, Seagram’s president Samuel Bronfman prepared by collecting additional stock beyond what the firm was already selling—even maturing his blends’ base whiskies, which hadn’t been done previously. In 1936 alone, premium brands like VO and 7 Crown, an American blend made to Bronfman’s exacting specifications, racked up $60 million in US profits for Seagram’s, and an additional $10 million from Canada. Three years later, Bronfman celebrated King George VI’s visit to Canada by launching Crown Royal, soon to become Seagram’s flagship rye label.

Bronfman sold his carefully crafted whisky not only as an embodiment of luxury, but also as a symbol of responsible drinking; even after Prohibition’s repeal, alcohol was regarded as corrosive to family and society. Seagram’s both resisted and fed into this stigma with its own prescriptive advertising campaign. On Father’s Day 1935, a print ad appeared suggesting that “a man who used liquor unwisely” risked losing the respect of his children. “If the point of drinking is to get drunk,” clucked another Seagram’s ad, “then you’re not our customer.”

Whereas bourbons and American ryes (a heavier version of our spirit, once distilled by George Washington) were treated as instruments of dissolution at all-male saloons, Canadian whisky, with its unimposing flavour, found acceptance when consumed in mixed company at cocktail lounges, stirred into a whisky sour or with ginger ale. “Today [drinkers] don’t want heavy cloth in their suits,” Bronfman observed. “They want everything light and easy.”

Since the late 1950s, when whisky was Canada’s number one fully manufactured export, tastes haven’t so much changed as bifurcated. Flavourless vodka became the preferred cocktail spirit for those seeking lightness. Concurrently, fuller-bodied single malt Scotches, with their peat-fired fumes and roller-coaster finishes, became closely associated with masculine refinement and premium product. (Under the Bronfmans, Seagram’s insulated itself from these taste shifts by acquiring Chivas Regal, its blockbuster Scotch blend; and Glenlivet, a leading single malt; as well as worldwide rights to sell Absolut Vodka.)

Between these extremes, Canadian whisky caters mainly to a constituency of aging drinkers happy in their rut. Nationally, sales of this spirit category have dropped from 4.7 million nine-litre cases in 1990 to 3.7 million cases in 2005—the same year domestic and imported vodka together first surpassed rye as the leading liquor.

According to Jim Murray, some Canadian whiskies remain “magnificent performers. People don’t think much of them, because they haven’t tasted them.” Murray vigorously extols twenty-five-year-old Alberta Premium, among the few Canadian whiskies made entirely from rye, as “one of the great whiskies of the world, sold for $25 a bottle.” But he takes exception with the “value-priced” whisky’s packaging: its kitschy bottles are ribbed to resemble a cut glass decanter, and the larger sizes are made of plastic. “If you’re looking for high quality,” he says, “you’re not going to buy something in a plastic bottle.”

How can Canadian whisky be taken seriously, Murray suggests, if we can’t take it seriously ourselves?

Vancouver’s Habit Lounge offers modern renditions of throwback pleasures. A deer’s head made from orange papier mâché is mounted on a wall and illuminated within, drawing out the amber polish of the bar’s patent leather booths. In keeping with this revivalist attitude, Habit maintains a comprehensive Canadian whisky selection. You can ask for a shot of Black Velvet or Danfield’s Private Reserve in a manhattan that’s served “bento box” style, in a little kit that lets you fix your own drink.

Andrew Starritt, a city fireman who works as a whisky consultant on the side, sits across from me swirling a finger’s worth of Alberta Premium at eye level. “When you’re nosing whisky, you start by looking at the colour,” he tells me. “You look at the way it sticks to the side of the glass, to give you some idea of its viscosity.”

The emergence of bars like Habit and the TV series Mad Men—whose lead character, Don Draper, keeps a bottle of CC by his desk—have given Canadian whisky makers a beachhead for attracting new drinkers. Three years ago, Canadian Club launched its “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It” campaign, which featured vintage photos of men fishing and relaxing in shag-carpeted rec rooms above assertively masculine tag lines: “Your Dad Was Not a Metrosexual”; “Your Mom Wasn’t Your Dad’s First.” The new “Hide a Case” promotion, in which contest winners search for cases of CC in far-flung locales like Loch Ness and Robinson Crusoe Island, relaunches a campaign that ran from 1967 to 1991.

As Starritt noses his whisky, I ask him what he smells. “Really fruity, fermented fruits; crisp, clean brittleness of rye,” he says, eyes still shut. “You can bury your nose in it. There’s not an offensive note at all.”

To attract whisky enthusiasts like Starritt, the major distillers have begun releasing their own ultra-premium brands. Canadian Club offers a limited-run eight-year-old whisky finished in sherry casks, which impart an extra sweetness. Wiser’s Red Letter, issued to celebrate the whisky’s 150th anniversary, consists of ten-year-old whiskies aged an extra 150 days in virgin white oak casks, giving it fresher vanilla flavours. Red Letter also eschews chill filtering, a contentious process that removes flecks of wood proteins from the whisky for cosmetic reasons. “It affects the mouth feel,” says Wiser’s master blender, David Doyle, about the practice. “If consumers don’t like it, they can run it through a water filter.”

Sold for $150 in an edition of 6,000, Red Letter surpassed Alberta Premium in 2010 as Murray’s Canadian Whisky of the Year; he writes that “the complexity is enough to make you weep.” Its success has been followed up with a new high-end member of Canada’s bestselling “whisky family,” Wiser’s Legacy. Davin de Kergommeaux, an Ottawa-based writer and whisky aficionado who maintains a website solely devoted to Canadian whisky, praises Wiser’s Legacy as “big, bold, flavourful—and, at $85, priced about the same as a run-of-the-mill single malt.”

Starritt, however, seems more interested in a handful of boutique distilleries that are expanding Canadian whisky beyond its traditional definition as a blended, rye-flavoured spirit. Glenora, a distiller founded in Cape Breton in 1990, became Canada’s first producer of single malt whisky, with its Glen Breton Rare. The spirit’s style and Scottish-sounding name caught the attention of the Scotch Whisky Association, which decried it as an imposter and sued. In 2009, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Glenora.

Located on a farm on Vancouver Island, Shelter Point Distillery began producing its own single malt this year; its first whisky won’t be ready until at least 2013, and likely much later. “People are drinking less but better,” says managing director Jay Oddleifson, echoing an insight put forth by Samuel Bronfman seventy years earlier. Apart from the single malt, which will eventually be made from barley grown on the property, Oddleifson says the distillery’s plans remain open ended. “We may even make a single-batch rye malt whisky,” he adds. “We don’t have any preconceived idea of what we’re going to make.”

In both of these cases, the whisky is Canadian by place of origin and ownership (the major rye labels are all owned by international liquor conglomerates), but not by tradition. While Forty Creek distillery, founded in 1992 by winemaker John Hall, produces conventional rye-corn-barley blends—“I don’t want to produce a whisky that tastes like an imitation,” he says—its production technique, using handcrafted pot stills, emulates those practised at boutique distilleries in Scotland and the States. “There was a lack of innovation, of developing new styles of Canadian whisky,” he says about the spark behind Forty Creek. “It was the same old, same old.”

Taking inspiration from the local food movement to create a uniquely Canadian product, the Grimsby, Ontario, distiller sourced white oak from southern Ontario, because it matures more slowly than American oak, to finish its Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve. Hall insists that casks made from the 150-year-old wood (hence the whisky’s patriotic name) “are denser; they bring over completely different taste sensations.”

Each distiller has created a Canadian whisky on its own terms. Yet lacklustre marketing, misinformation, and reflexive feelings of national inferiority keep the greater drinking populace from sipping it alongside the finest bourbons and Scotches. “Most people prefer single malts because they’ve been told they’re better,” argues de Kergommeaux. “No one’s telling them how great Canadian whisky can be.” As with our singers and athletes, Canadians are waiting for outside affirmation before we again drink for our country—a cultural attitude even more old-fashioned than the spirit we dismiss.

This appeared in the November 2010 issue.

Kevin Chong
Kevin Chong is the author of seven books, including the 2023 novel The Double Life of Benson Yu, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He lives in Vancouver.
Christopher Stevenson