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The Curious (Canadian) Case of the 9.09% Rule

June 15th, 2015

Author - Davin de KergommeauxA new Canadian whisky recently introduced across America is raising a few purist’s eyebrows. Meanwhile, at home, Alberta Rye Dark Batch has become a favorite cocktail rye with Canadian bartenders. The controversy? Dark Batch is made by adding about 8% bourbon and 1% sherry to mature whisky distilled from 100% rye grain. And though Canada’s 9.09% rule allows this, it has some whisky enthusiasts scratching their heads.

We may wonder why Canadian regulations permit distillers to add foreign spirits to Canadian whisky. I know I did. While researching my book I interviewed over a dozen retired whisky makers and though none was really certain, they all pointed vaguely to whisky baron Sam Bronfman.

They told me Bronfman wanted to compete with American whisky producers who included as much as 80% inexpensive grain neutral spirits (GNS) in their blended whisky. Meanwhile, Canadian regulations required that all components of Canadian whisky be aged for at least 3 years. This, of course, increased the cost of production.

The legend – and I am loathe to cite any whisky legend as fact – says it was Bronfman who negotiated a deal with American tax officials to receive significant tax breaks if he included spirits from struggling U.S. producers in his Canadian whisky. He then convinced Canadian officials to permit up to one part of non-whisky spirits be added to ten parts of Canadian whisky. The spirits he added still had to be at least two years old, so they were more expensive than neutral spirits, but the tax advantages made up for that.

Not all Canadian whisky makers liked this idea. The former long-time distillery manager of Schenley distillery told me he never allowed any spirits of any kind on site except those he made. His whisky was 100% distilled by Schenley in its Valleyfield distillery.

Another told me she routinely used the 9.09% rule for whisky bound for the U.S. However, she took umbrage and pretended to spit on the floor when I asked her if she also included it in whisky that would be sold in Canada. Moreover, she told me, while the rule made financial sense for high-volume mixing whisky, for lower-volume sippers it provided no advantage.

AlbertaRye_Bottle_HIRESSo what does all this have to do with Alberta Rye Dark Batch? Well, just this. Dark Batch is a premium whisky that uses the 9.09% rule to its limit, not just for the U.S. market, but in Canada as well. Remember, Dark Batch includes 8% real American bourbon and 1% oloroso sherry.

When the whisky was launched in Canada, master ambassador Dan Tullio wondered out loud how he would explain this to the whisky cognoscenti. “Just tell them the truth,” said brand manager Rob Tucker, “and let the flavor do the rest.” Dan wasn’t so sure, and I was certain it would bomb.

However, bartenders across Canada disagreed with us. An unofficial poll shows it has become the favorite mixing rye in about three of four barrooms. It also is a bartenders’ favorite for their own creations.

For example, according to Joel Carleton, who tends the bar at Fox & Fiddle in downtown Winnipeg and coordinates the Manitoba Bartenders Guild, “I choose this rye for the robust spicy profile and rich flavors. It embodies rye whiskies the best, and represents a diverse aroma and palate combo that allows me to mix with it more effectively.”

Math alert

In an infographic that accompanied its release, Beam Suntory explained that Dark Batch was made from 91% rye. Of this 91%, about half was distilled to low ABV in a pot still and aged 6 years in new barrels. The rest was distilled to higher ABV and aged 12 years in used barrels. So technically it meets the U.S. 51% rule. Or does it? And even more, should or could it? Canadian whisky is made using Canadian processes and under Canadian regulations, so U.S. rules are irrelevant, just as they are to single malt scotch or Irish whiskey.

Tucker had warned Tullio not to get into explaining percentages of percentages because it was too confusing. But Whisky Advocate readers are keen on this; we want to know. Let’s look at that 51%, then.

First we need to know that the more flavorful the rye grain, the less alcohol it contributes to a mash. More protein equals more flavor, but also proportionally less starch, so less alcohol. Good Canadian rye grain, properly fermented to completion, will yield a fermented mash of about 6% alcohol. On the other hand, when corn is fermented to completion it yields 14, 15, even 16% alcohol. So, when all is said and done, a mash of 51% rye and 49% corn will produce more than twice as much corn alcohol as rye alcohol.

But in Canada we don’t generally use mash bills. Rather, the individual grains are fermented and matured separately before blending. So, a whisky made from 51% mature rye spirit and 49% corn spirit will contain about equal amounts of rye and corn alcohol. At 91% rye spirit, Dark Batch leans very heavily on this spice-rich grain. But if rye brings intense spice, fruit and floral notes to the whisky equation, corn balances that with a luscious, mouth-coating body. And oloroso sherry? It enhances those fruity, floral notes, polishing the roughest edges off the rye.

Yes, the corn whisky came from Kentucky and the sherry from Spain, so if you’re a whisky geek who eschews “additives” and demands that everything comes from the same distillery, you may take umbrage. But if you taste Dark Batch blind in a line-up, you might be surprised. For, as we have seen in here Canada, you just might enjoy the tingly dance it does on your tongue. Until you get that chance…you might want to suspend judgment.

22 Responses to “The Curious (Canadian) Case of the 9.09% Rule”

  1. Rick Duff says:

    Some great information Davin, thank you!
    The Canadians have really mastered the true art of blending. Learned so much from your book.

    • Davindek says:

      Thank you very much, Rick. I am pleased that you enjoyed my book. I loved researching it.

      • Rick Duff says:

        Davin,
        Your book was responsible for some heavy questioning I received last time coming back home to the USA from Windsor. I picked up a bunch of suggestions from your book. The customs boarder guard was nice but very curious why I’d want to be picking up some Canadian Whiskies only available there. I’ve got 3 more trips scheduled this year, but all towards Toronto and Quebec. Anything special to look for in Quebec?

  2. Sam Komlenic says:

    Thanks for broaching this subject, Davin, however, you say that, “He then convinced Canadian officials to permit up to one part of non-whisky spirits be added to ten parts of Canadian whisky. The spirits he added still had to be at least two years old, so they were more expensive than neutral spirits, but the tax advantages made up for that.”

    If this is the case, how can sherry be a component, as it is not a spirit? It has been my understanding that wine is commonly used as a 9.09 percent component. Could you please clarify pro or con, and be more specific as to what the rule actually permits being added to Canadian whisky?

    Also, why 9.09…a very strange number? Why not simply 9 or 10? (Yes, we really are THAT geeky!)

    • Rick Duff says:

      Sam, 1 part “spirit” to 10 parts. 9.09 is 1/11th.
      10/11 = .909 subtracted from 1 that leave .09090909090909 or the 9.09%.

      • Davindek says:

        Yes, Rick is correct. One part foreign spirits to 10 parts Canadian whisky equals 1?11th or 9.09%. A very geeky and confusing number.

        For purposes of this regulation, spirit includes wine and sherry. It is rare however, to use what we as consumers normally think of as wine or sherry. Usually it’s so-called “blending wine” which sometimes includes paxarette. Whatever it is, it must be aged in wood for at least two years.

        • Davindek says:

          Paxarette, by the way is so potent that it is rare to add more than about 0.5% – generally less than half a percent if at all.

      • Sam Komlenic says:

        Thanks Rick! Seems more logical when it’s been spelled out.

  3. Davindek says:

    Also. Remember, 91% of the whisky used to make Dark Batch comes from a mash of 100% rye. The only corn whisky in Dark Batch is the amount included in the mash bill for the 8% of Dark Batch that is bourbon.

  4. Mr. Manhattan says:

    Does less alcohol mean fewer congeners—because that’s what will matter in terms of distinctive flavor and character, no?

  5. Mr. Manhattan says:

    I’m going to ask my question again because I think the statement about the conversion of starch to alcohol having a relationship to contribution to flavor may be misleading:

    If congeners == flavor in a distillate (pure ethanol being flavorless) does the amount of ethanol contributed by a given grain in the mash matter more than the percentage of that grain in the mashbill? Which is to say, does it really matter that individual grains are mashed and distilled separately from each other? I’m not sure.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Good question. I’m not going to speculate: I’ll admit it’s beyond me. Well, I will speculate on this: do the congeners react differently with the wood if they’re aged separately? Maybe? But I don’t really know. Davin?

      • Davindek says:

        Hi Mr. Manhattan,
        Sorry for slow response. I have been traveling with no access to a computer.
        You have posed an interesting question. I think it could be the subject of a Masters thesis AT LEAST. There are so many variables it would take time just to figure out which questions to ask. I do not know the answer.
        However, some factors that may or may have an impact:
        1. Whisky is made up almost entirely of water and ethanol. Our tongues and noses are so sensitive that we can taste/smell parts per million of some substances. A flavorful whisky, as poured from a bottle, may be composed of less than 1% flavors – congeners – and over 99% ethanol and water.
        2. Increasing the concentration of certain congeners does not increase the flavor; in other cases it does.
        3. When some flavors reach a certain threshold they make other flavors discernible. In other cases they mask them.
        4. When water is added to ethanol the total volume is less than the sum of the parts. This may happen to some degree with other liquids/chemicals.
        The starch in different types of grains is not identical. When the grains are cooked, fermented and matured separately their constituent parts do not have to compete for enzymes or reactants. Moreover, the cooker and barrels can be tuned to favor the specific flavors and starches present in the individual grain types. This is neither better nor worse than using a mash bill, just different.
        And it goes on and on.
        The still can favor certain flavors over others. A perfect example is a mash that tastes like rye when distilled one way and like bourbon when distilled another way.
        A lot of my questions could probably be answered today by a whisky or flavor research scientist, but there are so many remaining questions, variables, unknowns, and intangibles that answering your question could be a full-time job for an enquiring mind.

        • Mr. Manhattan says:

          Thanks for the considered reply. I think it’s a question that I’ll certainly continue to ponder beyond the current context, one that will be fun to pose to any distillers I happen upon in the future.

          • Lew Bryson says:

            If you come across Wiser’s Dr. Don Livermore…he’d be the perfect guy to ask. Way too bright, that one.

    • Mr. Manhattan says:

      I suppose if the congeners in question form only as a by-product of conversion of sugar to alcohol by yeast, then yes, there might be a relationship. However, if we’re talking about elements that exist in the grain independent of the action of yeast and these elements are volatile enough to make it through the distillation process, then it wouldn’t matter (or at least as much).

  6. George Jetson says:

    Davin,

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken, but isn’t some/most of the “sherry” adjunct distilled before adding to the typical “well brand” quality CW? It’s been too many years since I deep dove into the subject, but I do seem to recall this was a common practice.

  7. George Jetson says:

    What’s curious to me is that name on the bottom of the label. “Canadian Blended Rye Whisky”. What does that mean? Blended in Canada? Have you seen that term on other CW?

    • Davindek says:

      That term is on US labels to meet US regs. In Canada we simply call it Canadian whisky.

  8. selfbuilt says:

    Thanks for the article – always good to have detailed references on Canadian/US labeling practices.
    I figured this is what Alberta Distillers planned to do with the Dark Horse (i.e., why it was using ~9% bourbon-like corn whisky in the Canadian version to start with). Wasn’t expecting the name change though. Wonder if it is just a marketing decision, or if “Dark Horse” is already in use in the US by another distiller?

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