IN THE GLOOMY PROHIBITION DAYS OF 1928, Canada’s most notorious whisky distiller, Samuel Bronfman, director of Distillers Corporation–Seagrams Ltd., looked southward to the chaos rampant in the supposedly “dry” United States. It wasn’t a pretty sight, but “Mr. Sam,” as he was called, was most likely smiling. Yes, the manufacture, sale, and transport of liquor was illegal, just as the Prohibitionists had wished. But Canada’s southerly neighbor was still consuming a staggering amount of illicit booze, and Bronfman himself was helping supply much of it by providing his product—legally, he always maintained—to whisky runners at a nice profit margin.
Instead of turning the United States into the righteous, church-going nation the temperance movement dreamed of, Prohibition instead left the land awash with crime, corruption, and bootleg hooch. Hasty home brew. Appalachian moonshine. Uptown bathtub gin. Tequila and mezcal spirited northward from Mexico. Sugarcane spirit smuggled in from Cuba. Scotch unloaded on islands off Nova Scotia and whisked across the U.S. border after dark. (The savvy Scotsman Sir Alexander Walker, direct descendent of Johnnie Walker, dryly referred to this in John Walker & Sons board meetings as “our special trade.”) New York City alone boasted an estimated 100,000 speakeasies.
From the perspective of his office in the gothic-style Seagram “castle” on Peel Street in Montreal, the opportunistic Mr. Sam realized that a social experiment as reckless and counterproductive as Prohibition couldn’t last. And in its demise he saw an unparalleled business opportunity—one that would be even more profitable than bootlegging. Between 1928 and 1933 Bronfam ramped up production at Seagram, creating the world’s largest stockpile of whisky.
As the Repeal of Prohibition was ratified on December 5, 1933, Bronfman was poised to supply the United States with all the legal Canadian whisky it could gulp down, and then some. While American distillers had to start from scratch, Seagram was already up-and-running with mature, high-quality whisky for the newly reopened U.S. market. Bronfman’s strategy paid off brilliantly. The future of Seagram—and of Canadian whisky—was assured.
GRAIN AND GAIN
The Bronfman family, Jewish immigrants from near the Black Sea, settled on the vast plains of Manitoba in the late 1880s, but long before them there had been other Canadian whisky pioneers. In 18th- and 19th-century Canada, grain was not only the staff of life but the stuff of whisky. The majority of whisky-loving Scots who fled the Highlands after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s failed rebellion of 1745 wound up in Nova Scotia (“New Scotland”), where they crafted local drams based first on rye and later on corn, barley, and wheat. Around 20,000 more Scots immigrated to Canada in the first half of the nineteenth century. This influx accounts for the fact that in Canada whisky is spelled the Scottish way, without the “e.”
As settlers spread westward through Canada, entrepreneurs—including Seagram’s original founder, Joseph E. Seagram—often ran grist mills and distilleries in the same location, selling whisky for local consumption as a by-product of the milling process. Herds of cattle could be fed on the spent grain from whisky production, making the process even more economical and even “environmentally friendly”—although these crusty pioneers would hardly have recognized that concept, much less the trendy buzzword.
Two of Ontario’s earliest whisky entrepreneurs were Henry Corby, a London-trained banker turned steamboat operator, and J. P. Wiser, who immigrated from Upstate New York. Both eventually prospered at distilling, merging forces shortly after World War I to create what is now Corby Distilleries, home to the Wiser’s brand and today part of the important Pernod-Ricard group.
Far more famous in Canadian whisky lore is Hiram Walker. In 1854, with the then princely sum of $40,000 in his pocket and the Michigan Prohibition movement nipping at his heels, this New England–born grocer and cider manufacturer high-tailed it across the Detroit River and set up a whisky distillery on more friendly Canadian soil. A rare 19th-century example of a socially conscious capitalist, Walker not only grew his own grain and raised cattle and hogs on the leftover mash, but also built housing for his employees and schools for their children. Walker even hired his own policemen to patrol the streets in the town that eventually became Walkerville (now part of Windsor, Ontario).
At a time when whisky was generally sold in bulk in large unmarked casks, the forward-thinking Walker packaged his spirits in bottles, all proudly bearing his name. These genteel flasks became popular in male-dominated hotel bars and gentlemen’s clubs. Walker’s so-called Club Whisky was so successful that envious American competitors lobbied Congress to force Walker to add the word “Canadian” to his labels. This, ironically, was the birth of one of Canada’s most enduring and profitable whisky brands: Canadian Club.
Hiram Walker died in 1899 at the age of 84, leaving the distillery to his son, who continued to run it until 1926, when it was purchased by Harry Hatch, at the time Sam Bronfman’s most aggressive rival. Canadian Club is now owned by Beam Global, makers of Jim Beam Bourbon. The whiskies are blended from three separate spirits, one made primarily from corn and two “flavoring whiskies” made from rye. The rye-based spirits are distilled in copper pot stills to a lower proof for higher grain character, and the final blends are aged in white oak bourbon barrels.
ALL IN THE BLEND
Most Canadian whiskies are blends of several classes of spirits: flavorful “straight whiskies” (those distilled to no more than 160 proof), “light whiskies” (between 160 and 190 proof), flavorless “grain neutral spirits” (over 190 proof), and “grain spirits” (grain neutral spirits that have been aged in wood for some flavor). Some components are made in traditional pot stills and others in modern column stills. A wide range of barrel types (bourbon, sherry, etc.) broadens the master blender’s palette even further as the final whiskies are composed.
With its diplomatic demeanor and its lighter, more agile character, blended Canadian whisky excels as a mixing whisky and finds its way into a plethora of cocktails, from the classic Manhattan (Canadian whisky and vermouth) to warming hot toddies. “Our customers frequently call for Canadian whisky with ginger ale or Coke,” notes Adam Graham, bar manager at Toronto’s happening Brassaii Bistro Lounge, “and they often call for Crown Royal or Canadian Club by name, just as they would call for Grey Goose as a vodka.”
As cocktail-friendly as Canadian whisky is, some still prefer theirs straight up or served simply over ice. “For the true whisky aficionado,” suggests David Chevrier, food and beverage manager at Alberta’s Fairmont Château Lake Louise resort, “I would serve a good Canadian whisky like Crown Royal on the rocks, shaken just a little to open up the flavors.”
The use of the generic term “rye” to denote a blended whisky, although waning in the States, is still quite common in Canada. But there are also a limited number of true rye whiskies produced in Canada (ones made from at least 51 percent rye and labeled as such), such as the 8-, 10- and 12-year-old editions of Hirsch Canadian Rye.
POPULISTS AND PLAYERS
Order a whisky-based well drink at your neighborhood tavern and there’s a good chance the bartender will reach for a blended Canadian whisky such as Black Velvet. Parent company Barton Brands controls around a 20 percent share of the Canadian whisky market in the United States, and according to Jack Kavanagh, Barton’s vice-president for marketing, Black Velvet is their bellwether brand.
Kavanagh nixes the idea that Canadian whiskies as cocktail mixers may be on the decline as consumers search for more “sippable” spirits. “We’ve had the completely opposite experience with Black Velvet,” he states; “we purchased the brand in 1998 and it’s grown consistently, up from 1.4 million cases to 2 million.”
Kavanagh freely admits that the Black Velvet consumer is “more middle income” and tends to live in what spirits marketers call “sandy counties”—non-urban areas where the Black Velvet Lady ad campaign reaches a receptive target audience. “Black Velvet is virtually non-existent in New York City,” Kavanagh acknowledges frankly, and if its absence there bothers him, it doesn’t show.
Sandy counties aside, there’s no denying that the urban fashion for upscale spirits has fostered the arrival of new, more up-market expressions of Canadian whisky such as Forty Creek, created by longtime winemaker John Hall, who produces his own sherry in order to have used casks for aging the whisky. The rodeo-themed Pendleton is distilled to cask strength in Canada and finished in Oregon using glacier spring water from Mt. Hood. Only sporadically available south of the border, unique Glen Breton is Canada’s only single malt—a racy, grassy dram from Nova Scotia.
THE WEIGHT OF THE CROWN
Under the watch of Sam Bronfman’s son and grandson, Edgar and Edgar, Jr., the Seagram empire fell apart in a series of high-stakes power plays that shook the financial world, ending with Seagram’s complete dissolution in the year 2000. (For a fascinating discussion of the Bronfmans and their ill-fated company, see Nicholas Faith’s recent book, The Bronfmans: The Rise and Fall of the House of Seagram.) In what amounted to the corporate clearance sale of the century, beverage giant Diageo wound up with Seagram’s important Canadian whisky brands, including mainstay Seagram’s VO, which had been Joseph Seagram’s “Very Own” blend and later Mr. Sam’s own favorite tipple.
Diageo’s Canadian flagship is still the elegantly styled Crown Royal, a blend of more than fifty individual whiskies (including corn- and rye-based spirits), first created by Seagram in 1939 to celebrate a visit to Canada by King Edward VII. In a marketing ploy, the presentation bottle rode across Canada with the monarch on the royal train, and the product still comes nestled in a royal purple pouch. Reflecting Canadian whisky’s ever-spiffier image and Diageo’s commitment to this historically important brand, the limited-release Crown Royal XR Extra Rare has just been introduced. Packaged in numbered bottles, this complex blend comes from the last remaining whiskies produced at Seagram’s historic Waterloo Distillery, which closed in 1992 and was destroyed by fire the following year.
CANADIAN WHISKY’S PLACE at the bar is generally low-key but absolutely essential. It’s not a rock star but rather a solid session musician with the chops to hold its own in the fray. That’s not to say, however, that it can’t occasionally step into the limelight for a solo. Rarely high-profile but always dependable, these spirits will continue to play their role in cocktail culture for a long time to come.
Canadian whisky’s affable nature makes it a charming companion to other ingredients in mixed drinks. Here are a couple of possibilities from two of Canada’s finest hotels.
From the Four Seasons Resort Whistler (shown on facing page)
1 1/2 ounces Canadian whisky
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce Canadian maple syrup
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
Shake and serve in a rocks glass over ice, garnished with a cinnamon stick and a twist of orange peel.
ALBERTA ICEWINE SOUR
From the Fairmont Château Lake Louise
3⁄4 ounce Canadian whisky
1 ounce Canadian icewine
4 ounces lemon bar mix (see note)
Serve on the rocks with a twist or orange peel.
(Note: To make lemon bar mix, combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 2/3 cup lemon juice.)
10 CANADIAN WHISKEYS TO TRY
Black Velvet Reserve
Always a good value in Canadian whisky. Soft and medium-bodied with balanced flavors and a wood-toned finish.
Canadian Club Reserve
Dark amber in color, this dry 10-year-old is smooth and rich with spice and toasty caramel. Its nice balance makes it a superb mixer.
Canadian Club Sherry Cask
A finely nuanced expression of Canadian Club finished in Spanish sherry casks. Silky and mellow with spiced wood tones and lovely notes of treacle and molasses.
A great choice for an all-round Canadian blend, with medium-amber color, lush texture, and sweet vanilla and toasty oak flavors. Quite elegant.
Crown Royal XR Extra Rare
Crown Royal’s new halo whisky is silky and dense with lovely vanilla, spice, dried fruits, and caramel. Rich, complex, and very long.
Forty Creek Barrel Select
Rich and lush with vanilla and spice and notes of fruit. Aged in sherry casks for nutty, toasty complexity.
Hirsch Selection 8 Year Old Canadian Rye
Sweet and lush with caramel, vanilla and a long, rich finish with a few earthy notes. Also available in 10- and 12-year-old editions.
Pendleton 10 Year Old
An elegant blend with superb flavors of honey, caramel, and spice. Closely tied to Oregon’s celebrated Pendleton Round-Up rodeo, it features their “Let’er Buck!” motto on each bottle.
This cocktail-friendly standby is dry, balanced, and fairly standard but clean and well made with good length. Not to be confused with Seagram’s 7, an American whiskey.
Wiser’s Very Old
A richer, toastier 18-year-old sibling to entry-level Wiser’s De Luxe. Silky and smooth, it shows nice sweet oak and toasty flavors.