For a long time, Canadian whisky has been the boss of the bottom shelf. Out of the 200 million or so bottles that are sold in the United States every year (ranking it behind American straight whisky – bourbons, ryes, and Tennessees – as a category), about half are destined for shots and high-balls at the local dive bar. Proof positive of the good sense of the price-conscious American drinker: Canadian whisky is a much better product than it’s American blended equivalent.
Generally, American blended whisky is made by diluting straight whisky like bourbon or rye with vodka: unaged neutral sprits and water. Blended whisky from Canada, however, is made beer like Scotch and Irish blends, in which the diluting agent is instead a true whisky, albeit a very light one, that has been aged in barrels – base whisky, they call it. In Canada, the straight whiskies mixed with this are, of course, not Scottish malts or Irish potstill whiskeys, but rather local “flavoring whiskies,” many of which bear a familial resemblance to our bourbons and ryes. A smoother and richer blend is the result.
Since it’s not 1950, specializing in blended whisky is no longer a great commercial strategy. The American market has now left this category to our northern neighbors, with a focus instead on higher-priced, higher-intensity straight whiskey, whether it’s small batch, cask strength, wine-barrel finished, or just plain bourbon or rye. Just about all the rye that previously went into American blend, for example, is now being sold as straight whisky. Up until now, this all seemed to be fine with the Canadians. They continued focusing on their standard shot-grade blends, along with a couple of very popular, equally traditional high-end ones, letting the whole 21st-century whisky renaissance pass them by.
Finally, Canadian distillers are realizing that’s not a smart idea. For the first time in years, we’re starting to see interesting new whiskies out of Canada: straight whiskies (those flavoring whiskies bottled without blending), richer blends, whiskies aged in innovative ways.
For example, the brand “Lot No. 40” ($57), is a legitimate rye (by law and tradition, Canadian whiskies are allowed to call themselves “rye” even if there is no rye in them). It’s made from a mix of malted and unmalted rye and it’s spectacular: dark, spicy, and very, very grainy – liquid pumpernickel.
“Collingwood” ($27) is a traditional Canadian blend that has had staves of toasted maple put in the barrels for a time. These give it pleasant maple notes.