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Canadian Rye Whiskey: What Makes This Spirit Unique and Delicious?

WHISKEY (OR WHISKY) IS ONE OF THE FINER THINGS IN LIFE, SO LET'S LEARN MORE ABOUT IT

Americans have always enjoyed whiskey. But it was the prohibition of 1920 where their taste for Canadian rye whiskey really developed, and the running of whiskey across the border was nicknamed American Drought Relief. 

Even today, Canadian whiskey holds a special place on the shelves of top-drawer watering holes, as well as corporate and personal liquor cabinets across the country. 

The Canadian whiskies we enjoy today have evolved over 200 years, and there has been some significant evolution.  

ORIGINS 

First, what it’s not. Canadian whiskey isn’t bourbon, nor Scotch or Irish whiskey. It’s rye, Canadian whiskey, and has been for nearly 200 years. Canadian whiskey is never blended with neutral spirits like some other whiskies. 

Canadian whiskey doesn’t have to be 100-percent rye, but it’s a sensual tongue-tingling tasting experience when it is. The distilled spirit needs to age a minimum of three years in oak barrels before being labeled whiskey.

WHAT IS RYE WHISKEY?

While corn, wheat, and barley are sometimes used in addition to rye to make Canadian whiskey, Alberta Distiller’s Alberta Premium is a 100-

percent rye whiskey. It’s worth the effort to seek out and pour. While Canadian whiskey is a blend, almost exclusively, these blends are spirits sourced from a single distillery. 

HOW IS IT DIFFERENT THAN OTHER WHISKEY?

Grain, water, process, wood, age, and blend set Canadian whiskey apart from the others. Each of the ingredients and each step of the process determines the final flavor profile of the spirit and impacts the color, nose, and taste of the whiskey. 

Blending is where the master blender determines the spirit’s final taste profile and strength when bottled. It’s worth giving a cask-strength spirit a try; it has an entirely different character with another level of flavors.  

A taste: About the only thing you can get a bunch of whiskey experts to agree on is a bit of water enhances the taster’s access to the flavors of whiskey. No need to go overboard, just a few drops of good water will do the trick — but first try it straight up and decide for yourself.

Pour, swirl and smell, sip and suck some air through the sip, roll the whiskey around in your mouth, and savor the flavors. Think nose, palette, and finish. Oak, sour, flowers, spice? What do you smell and taste? Write it down. 

This is the author’s favorite serving method.

Next, add a few drops of water and repeat the process. What changed? Compare and discuss with your pals. This process trains your palette and is flat-out fun.

The Glencairn glass is a favorite for a serious, focused tasting of all varieties of whiskies. It concentrates the aroma, directing those delicious scents right into your nose. 

Give the glass a swirl and see how the liquid clings to the sides of the glass. Experts call the whiskey that adheres to the glass “legs.” It gives some idea of the viscosity of the spirit. 

The second option is the Norlan glass designed by master distiller Jim McEwan a few years back. My Scot friend David gave me a pair of these after a day of Scotch tasting. 

We traveled around Islay, Scotland, tasting whiskies and enjoying local Scottish island fare. Norlan claims improved ergonomics require less head-tilt to enjoy the whiskey and the perfect shape to enhance the whiskey aroma. Get a few of each and decide for yourself. 

My most used whiskey glass is a heavy old-fashioned glass that weighs 14.7 ounces. It holds almost 11 ounces, a perfect glass for an over-the-rocks whiskey. A single oversized ice cube from a silicon ice cube tray is enough in a 2-ounce shot. 

Organize your own hosted whiskey tasting by setting up four or five identical glasses for you and your pals to give a few whiskies a try. It makes for an exciting evening of discussion. (Plan for cab rides in advance.) 

THE WHISKEY

Alberta Premium is a 100-percent rye whiskey made in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, at Alberta Distillers, established in 1946. This is my preferred rye for a couple of reasons. It’s Alberta-made, and being a third-generation Albertan, it gives me great pride to choose a local spirit that has been made continuously for 75 years and counting. 

Alberta Premium cast-strength Alberta Premium won a gold medal and Best All-Rye Whisky for 2021 at the Canadian Whiskey Awards.

I chose two iterations of this Whiskey: the bargain-priced Alberta Premium (shopping carefully, you’ll get change from a $20 bill) and the $100-plus Alberta Premium (multiple award-winning) Limited Edition Cast Strength version (63.7-percent alcohol by volume) for comparison. 

Both whiskies have won multiple awards. The cast-strength Alberta Premium won a gold medal and Best All-Rye Whisky for 2021 at the Canadian Whisky Awards. Regular run Alberta Premium took a bronze medal and Whisky Value Domestic Market. 

According to Davin De Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky, Alberta Premium is the best-selling 100-percent rye whiskey in the world. It remains my favorite rye whiskey.

Jim Murray, the author of the annual Whiskey Bible, said this about Alberta Premium Cast Strength, “Truly world-class whiskey from possibly the world’s most underrated distillery. 

How can something be so immense yet equally delicate? For any whiskey lover on the planet looking for a huge but nearly perfect balanced experience, then here you go. And with rye at its most rampantly beautiful, this is something to truly worship.” 

Crown Royal is a mid-priced quality blended rye whiskey delivering notes of bourbon and vanilla. It’s perfect in premium cocktails or on its own over ice. 

It’s worth noting that Windsor Canadian, the famous Canadian whiskey brand available across the U.S., is distilled by Alberta Distillers and shipped via rail car to the Jim Beam distillery in Kentucky, where it’s bottled for the American market.

NEW DISTILLERS COMING ONLINE 

Pivot Spirits Ltd. is an example of the trend of small-batch distilleries popping up closer to home. Pivot distills local grains in a small town called Rolling Hills in Southern Alberta. 

While our shelves are filled with globally recognized brands produced by monstrous distillers, small-batch distilleries are opening near you. These small artisanal distillers cater to locals and create innovative and unique spirits. 

Pivot Spirits Ltd. is an example of such an enterprise. The co-owner is a farmer, and most of the grain they use comes from his fields. Among the soon-to-be-whiskies are four unique spirits: spelt, triticale, rye, and barley. Each spirit reflects and highlights the flavor of the specific grain, and the 30-month-old rye is promising to be a great whiskey when it passes the three-year minimum to qualify as a proper whiskey. 

Keep your eye out for local distillers.

Lars Hirsch, co-owner of Pivot, uses grains from his irrigated croplands to craft a surprising arrangement of delicious small-batch spirits. They make a unique gin, some vodka, and a couple of very interesting liqueurs, and even a rum-like spirit made from local sugar beet molasses, but their soon-to-be-whiskey is really intriguing. 

Be sure to look locally to see what you can purchase close to your own home and take the time to visit and get to know these producers. Many of these small shops create unique and exciting spirits worthy of our attention and support. 

Canadian whiskey sales are up. The current trend indicates a renewed interest in rye whiskey. Now, more than ever, consumers can choose from ultra-bold rye forward whiskies to elegant and refined blended and well-aged spirits. 

RECIPE 

My strong preference is for my whiskey straight, sometimes with ice, sometimes with just a splash of water. But Saturday night date night calls for a cocktail. Sure, you can have a rye and ginger ale. You can even buy premium ginger ale, but I prefer the old-fashioned classic cocktails. Here are two of my favorites.

THE OLD FASHIONED

Here are the ingredients required to make either a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned.

This simple cocktail has been served somewhere since the 1800s. It’s a regular on my dinner table. 

Ingredients

  • 1 sugar cube (or 1 bar spoon simple syrup)
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 ounces rye 
  • Orange twist

Preparation

Muddle the sugar cube and bitters at the bottom of a chilled rocks glass. Add rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large ice cube or three or four smaller cubes. Stir until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds. Slip orange twist on the side of the cube.

MANHATTAN

The flavors of balanced blended rye and sweet red vermouth suit my taste buds nearly perfectly. I break tradition to serve this in a rocks glass over ice when a proper Manhattan should be stirred and strained into a coupe and garnished with a cherry. 

It’s hard to beat a Manhattan presented over rocks in an old-fashioned glass.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces rye
  • 1 ounce sweet vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash orange bitters
  • Garnish: brandied cherry

Preparation

Add the bourbon (or rye), sweet vermouth, and both bitters to a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe (I skip the straining). Garnish with a brandied cherry.

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