If you’ve been reading (or hearing from your know-it-all booze snob friend) that your favorite “craft” whiskey isn’t really made by those bearded hipster guys down at the Oh-So-Local Distillery, but instead comes from a huge distillery in Indiana called MGP… well, it ain’t necessarily so.
For one, these days, many local distilleries are actually making their own juice; it’s young, it’s fiery, but it’s really theirs, and if that’s important to you, take time to be sure.
But here’s something you may not know; while a fair number of very good small-label whiskies were indeed made at the old Seagram’s distillery in Indiana (now owned by MGP—Midwest Grain Products), some of the really high-end straight rye whiskies that drinkers and bartenders are crowing about, were actually made across the border in Canada.
Canada? Straight rye whiskey? You may be thinking to yourself impossible, since our northern neighbors are famous for their blended whisky that your father drank and maybe your mother, too.
But “blended whisky” means different things. In American distilling, it means a blend of one-part full-bodied whisky and about four parts unaged grain neutral spirits: vodka. Not a lot of flavor, and best used for mixing.
However, “blended whisky” means something else in the rest of the world. Much like blended Scotch, Canadian blends are comprised of two different types of whisky (the Canadian spelling of whisky comes minus the ‘e’): so-called flavoring and blending whiskies.
It’s the flavoring whisky that Americans are increasingly interested in. Like Scotch it’s often produced in a pot still, and can be made from as much as 100-percent rye. It’s packed full of rich flavor, since it has traditionally given Canadian whisky its spicy heart.
Up until recently, Canadian whisky sales were in a gentle decline and as a result there was a surplus of aged flavoring whisky. With the meteoric rise of straight rye whiskey in America (between 2009 and 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales were up a whopping 536- percent) it couldn’t have come at a better. A few savvy American entrepreneurs snapped up barrels of Canadian flavoring whisky and began to sell it, without much mention of its country of origin.
If you’re curious about these spirits, try the WhistlePig 10-Year-Old Rye (and its big 15-year-old brother), distilled in Calgary but bottled in Vermont: velvety smooth with a snappy rye power waiting down-swallow.
Want to try a different version of this 100-percent rye? It’s a bit spendy, but Cooper Spirits’13-year-old Lock, Stock & Barrel was made in the same Calgary distillery. (The same company also bottle a blend of thoroughly American rye whiskies called Hochstadter’s Vatted that I wouldn’t want you to miss.) Seattle’s Fremont Mischief Distillery has a self-named bottling that is 8-year-old Canadian flavoring whisky, and is also bottling a younger house-made version, John Jacob, that’s impressively similar.
Given the steep price difference between these bottlings and “regular” blended Canadian whisky, you’d be right to wonder why the Canadians aren’t getting in on the action. After years of sitting on the sidelines, they finally are, and you can get some of it quite easily. Start with the newly repackaged Canadian Club 100-percent rye, a startlingly aromatic and crisp—for Canadian—whisky. Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye got a lot of attention late last year when whisky writer Jim Murray named it his World’s Best Whisky for the year. That seems a bit over-generous, but for the price, World’s Best Value Whisky might be closer; it is good stuff, with a mixer or all on its own.
Finally, there’s one that comes from Alberta Distillers Ltd., in Calgary, which produced the original WhistlePig and Lock, Stock & Barrel. Alberta Distillers took advantage of a quirk in Canadian whisky regulations to blend a whisky called Alberta Rye Dark Batch. It’s 91-percent rye, 8-percent bourbon, and 1-percent sherry. Don’t make that face: the stuff is delicious in a Manhattan, where that little bit of sherry grabs the vermouth and runs wild.
Once you taste it, in a cocktail or on the rocks, you won’t really care where it comes from, so long as it keeps coming.