The New Face of Canadian Rye

The New Face of Canadian Rye

February 15, 2023 –––––– Stephen Beaumont, , , ,

If you were a spirits drinker in Canada during the 1970s and ‘80s, chances are high that you drank "rye." This is not the same as saying that you were drinking straight rye whisky, for the odds are pretty high that you were not. Rather, the simple fact was that during these decades, and for a fair time both before and after, Canadians routinely and uniformly referred to their nation’s whisky as "rye," regardless of how much of that grain it might have contained.

Order a whisky and soda or whisky and ginger ale back then and you would be poured blended Scotch. Order a ‘rye’, and you’d get your choice of Canadian Club, Black Velvet, Silk Tassel, or if you felt like splashing out, Crown Royal.

The broad characteristics of these Canadian whiskies were that they boasted uniformly soft, innocuous flavor profiles and contained very little rye. In fact, unless your favored brand came from Alberta Distillers, which was the only Canadian distillery back then using 100% rye mashes, there was unlikely too much rye, and possibly none, in this so-called "rye."

But things have changed a lot since then. Many whiskies distilled in Canada today correct the traditional notion of Canadian whisky– that silky smooth, non-aggressive spirit that was once the best-selling whisky type on both sides of the Canada-US border. A new generation of spirits from distilleries both large and small seeking to define Canadian rye.

As befits a country with close to two hundred distilleries within its borders, the nature of those various rye whiskies varies greatly, from small production craft expressions producing punchy, big-bodied ryes to the larger labels that are intent on muting the impact of their whisky’s feature grain so it can appeal to a broader base, But in a general sense, a national character is beginning to emerge.

Unsurprisingly, that new Canadian rye profile has been built upon a base defined by Alberta Distillers, which has been called the world’s greatest rye specialist, and its flagship whisky, Alberta Premium. Key to the character of Alberta Premium is the Canadian practice of distilling and maturing base and contributing whiskies separately. At Alberta, the base is made from rye, rather than the more typical corn. Although it comes off the still at a fairly high proof, it mellows over time, allowing it to blend with a pot still contributing whisky that is also all rye.

The result is a spirit that whispers rather than screams its origins, spicy from its grain, but also caramelly, soft, almost pillowy. This long-established style has been embraced by newer all-rye brands like Crown Royal with its Northern Harvest, softer and fruitier than Alberta Premium, Canadian Club with its 100% Rye, rounder, richer, and less peppery, and J.P. Wiser’s with Lot No. 40, the richest of the bunch, with a full, Christmas pudding-like spiciness.

In contrast to the typical American straight rye, even those made from whisky bought in bulk from Alberta, these Canadian ryes are sweeter, generally more fruity, and arguably more approachable. It’s a uniquely Canadian approach to the grain.

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