Buckle up, guys and gals, because this is going to be a bumpy ride! Distinguishing the difference between Canadian whisky, rye whiskey, Scotch whisky (note the spelling difference) and Kentucky bourbon is already confusing. So belly up to the bar, folks, set out your whiskey glasses, and we’ll take a trip through the maze of what differentiates whisky, whiskey, bourbon and Scotch whisky. You’ll soon be an expert in the spirit and have a warm feeling running through your insides!
Let’s Spell It Right
Before delving in to the components of the mash inside the bottle, let’s get past the spelling difference: whiskey/whisky. Scotland spells the spirit without the “e,” according to Gaelic tradition, as do Japan and Canada. The Irish spell it with the “e” and brought this spelling with them when they emigrated to America.
Enter the venerable New York Times, whose copy editors decried the difference in spelling and decided to spell all whiskeys with an “e,” until Scotch whisky distillers and drinkers rebelled. The Times backed down, instructing their copy editors to spell the spirit the way the country of origin spells it.
An easy way to sort out this spelling problem is to link the “e” to the country of origin. If the country has an “e” in its name, so does the whiskey. If not, it’s whisky.
There is an exception, but isn’t there always? You were warned that this would get confusing. Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon Whisky held to their Scottish heritage and defied other brewers by using the Scottish spelling. But let’s move on from the spelling lesson and get to what’s inside the bottle.
A Brief History ‒ Canadian Whisky
It all started with Canadian farmers. Their wheat fields were plentiful, and any wheat left in the mill after grinding it for flour was creatively turned into whisky. No waste for these farmers. When the German and Dutch farmers arrived, they took the leftovers one more step forward and added a bit of rye to the mix. After all, the Germans and Dutch love the flavorful aftertaste in their dark breads, so adding the rye to the mash was a no-brainer for them.
Thus was born rye whisky. The curiosity is that today very little rye goes into the blending of Canadian whisky. And when it is added, it’s just for flavor.
It’s often thought that Prohibition propelled the Canadian whisky industry, but its history goes back further. The Civil War put many distilleries out of business, and Americans had to look north for their supply. Bourbon outpaced whisky in American sales in 2010, but Canadian whisky is still the best-selling blend in the United States.
Regulating Canadian Whisky
The production of whisky is regulated by law according to its country of origin. Bourbon and Scotch are tightly regulated, and bourbon makers must adhere to a specific formula when adding the mash. Canadian whisky is less regulated.
For Canadian whisky, wheat, corn, barley and rye are fermented separately and then added to the distillation only when the liquid flavor is at its peak. While American rye whiskey must contain 51% rye, Canadian whisky is referred to as “rye” whisky whether it has rye in it or not.
To qualify as a Canadian whisky, it must have these characteristics:
- It must be made from a cereal grain mash;
- It must be stored in small barrels for no less than three years;
- The entire process of making the whisky must take place in Canada; and
- It can’t be anything less than 40% alcohol by volume (ABV).
Once the process of distillation of Canadian whisky is complete, the alcoholic level may be 90% or more. Distillers then reduce that alcohol down to a drinkable level of at least 40% ABV by blending it with water or other spirits. This diminishes the color and flavor, so artificial flavoring and caramel color are added in.
In Canada, if the additional flavoring is added and it’s considered a spirit, it must be aged in barrels made of wood or in those used for wine for at least two years. In reality, your Canadian whisky can contain bourbon.
The Law According to Bourbon
Kentucky bourbon is more tightly regulated than whiskey. All bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskey is bourbon! It’s a matter of what’s in the bottle and how it’s aged. The different grains comprising whiskey, whether it’s corn, rye, wheat or barley, are known as the “mash bill.” To qualify as a bourbon, the mash must be made of at least 51% corn. The rest of the formula can be wheat- or rye-forward, resulting in a specific difference in taste.
An interesting note on regulation, however, is that American law allows U.S. producers to add up to 80% neutral grain spirits, such as distillations from corn, molasses or beets into their mix, and up to 2.5% of flavorings, including lab-produced chemicals. Canada allows neither.
Other regulations on bourbon include:
- The mash must be distilled to 160 proof (80% ABV) and put into the barrel at 150 proof, or even less.
- The barrels must be new, charred white oak.
- The bourbon must be made and aged in the United States.
Clarifying the Confusion
You won’t find a Canadian spirit or a Tennessee whiskey labeled “bourbon.” American bourbon has a distinct spirit in its spirit, while what Canada might call a bourbon, and the emphasis is on might because a marketable bourbon is not produced in Canada, is spicy and has a subtle taste. Since Canadians cannot call the spirit bourbon, it’s rye whisky.
Breaking Down the Canadian Whiskies
Canadians don’t call their whisky “whisky,” but rather, they call it “rye,” since it was originally distilled using an abundance of rye grain. This gave their product a spicy taste profile that often led to the spirit getting mixed with other beverages to tame the spice. Even though Canada’s whisky doesn’t even have to contain rye, you’ll still find it carries the moniker of rye whisky.
Some Canadian whiskys are made from 100% rye. The spice of the rye is tamed by aging in red wine barrels. The barrels, having once been used to age pinot noir grapes, impart a deep red color to the liquid and give it a strong fruit flavor.
In contrast, other Canadian whiskys, distilled from corn, rye and barley, also have overtones of maple syrup, molasses, butterscotch and brown sugar, with hints of clover and nutmeg. Somewhere in there is a whisky that is savored and relegated to the top shelf.
Drinking Canadian Blends
Many whisky producers blend their product to create a specific taste. The region the grain is grown in, the weather, the distiller ‒ all add to the overall taste of the blend. Canadian whiskies come, for the most part, from a single distiller, blended in house from product originating in house.
Tax incentives for these blends come from American tax law. Foreign alcohol producers who blended in American product to create their final brew were given tax breaks. This fueled the fire for the low-end, bottom-shelf producers who do a high volume, leaving the sophisticated distilleries to specialize and market to a more sophisticated drinker.
The Illusive Canadian Bourbon
Again we go back to the law. Canadian law and the trade agreements the country has with the United States require that all bottles labeled bourbon must be produced in the United States. Canada raises corn. Corn mash makes up 51% of the bourbon formula, so it stands to reason that Canada could produce a good bourbon.
Well, it does. But its location is tantamount to a state secret. And that bourbon isn’t sold, but used for blending instead. The distiller will not release it as bourbon, and its identity is a trade secret, according to Davin de Kergommeaux in his book “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.”
Segue to Corn Whisky
While bourbon must be at least 51% corn mash, and Canadians can’t call their corn-based brew bourbon, they’ve gone to the extreme and produced a 100% corn whisky. Aged in barrels with a history in the ultra-cold climate as the days turn into years, Canadian whisky emerges with a spicy overtone. American bourbon is more round and flavorful.
Getting Back to Bourbon
We’ve digressed into Canadian whisky and pushed aside bourbon to a great degree, only because bourbon isn’t a commercial product in Canada. So we travel to Kentucky, home of bourbon, born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, and still identified with high-end, sophisticated aficionados.
The concentration of corn in the bourbon, 51%, gives bourbon a sweet aftertaste, unlike Canadian whisky that can taste a bit on the spicy side. If you insist on a Canadian-style bourbon, go for an all-rye whisky. They’re not bourbons, but unless you’ve uncovered the secret location of that mysterious bourbon production plant somewhere in the hinterlands of Canada, it’ll have to do.
Read the Bourbon Label
Is it a straight bourbon or a blend? The label tells you. How long has it been aged? The longer, the better, with a minimum of two years. Newer producers skip this step to avoid having to compete with the old guys. Be aware.
Drinking Canadian Whisky and Bourbon
Let’s start at the bottom of the shelf. These are the lesser quality blends usually used for mixing.
- The Manhattan: Rye whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters combine in this old-time favorite.
- Old Fashioned: Whisky, bitters, sugar and water over ice. It can also be made with bourbon. In fact, the verdict is out on whether it should be made with bourbon first and whisky as a second choice.
- Whisky Sour: Whisky, lemon or lime juice and the bartender’s staple: simple syrup.
- Mint Julep: Would you even consider a mint julep made with Canadian whisky? This beauty is a bourbon drinker’s main squeeze.
- Highball: Bourbon and ginger ale or whisky and ginger ale: Both make a splendid highball.
Moving to the top-shelf brands, whisky and bourbon of age and quality are best appreciated “neat.” That means poured into a small glass that is round on the bottom and tapered toward the top, served at room temperature with no ice. A drop of water does to the bourbon what a drop of water does to a flower. It opens it up, making the experience of drinking a good bourbon one that touches your sense of taste and smell.
If you ever see a guy at the bar using an eye dropper to add just a tiny bit of water to his bourbon, he’s not just affected. He’s a true bourbon drinker and knows exactly what he’s doing, so his expensive glass of 18-year-old bourbon tastes as good as the price warrants. Just sayin’.
- Angels Envy: Whiskey History: How Canadian Whisky Differs from Bourbon
- Whisky Advocate: Instant Expert: Canadian Whisky
- Kitchn: Whiskey vs. Whisky: What’s the Difference? Straight Up Cocktails and Spirits
- VinePair: Why Does Maker's Mark Spell Whisky Without an "e"?
- Southern Living: What’s the Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?
- National Post: Fix Ny Drink: Why Canadian Bourbon is a Mythical Beast
- Chilled: Ten Myths About Canadian Whisky