Canadian Whisky’s Long-Awaited Comeback

The writer Davin de Kergommeaux at the Highlander Pub in Ottawa. His 2012 book, “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert,” was the first serious guide to the product in decades, and interest was scant. “I was very much a voice in the wilderness,” he said.

There was a time, in the decades after Prohibition, when Canadian whisky was all the rage in America, when a bottle of Crown Royal sat on the bar cart of any serious imbiber. But by the time the renaissance in whiskey making and drinking began in the early 2000s, the Canadian product had long ago been dismissed as bland and bottom-shelf.

It’s a story that Davin de Kergommeaux, a whiskey writer in Ottawa, knows all too well. When he published his book “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert” in 2012, it was the first serious guide to the category in decades — not that anyone noticed. He would give seminars at whiskey festivals and be lucky if a few dozen people showed up.

“I was very much a voice in the wilderness,” he said during a recent visit to New York.

That’s starting to change. Canadian whiskys are winning awards and fans as drinkers curious about the next development in whiskey turn their eyes north. In October, Mr. de Kergommeaux published a fully revised and greatly expanded edition of his book, and he is once again on the festival circuit, getting a much different reception.

“At an event in Ottawa, 169 people bought tickets for one of my talks,” he said.

The sudden popularity of all kinds of whiskey on both sides of the Canadian-American border is driving a rapid expansion among Canadian distillers. Mr. de Kergommeaux’s first edition covered just nine distilleries — eight large, traditional operations, and one craft start-up. The new edition includes 40 more, all of them newly opened, with many more on the way.

One of the new entrants, the Eau Claire Distillery outside Calgary, Alberta, released its first whisky, a single malt, in December. “It was all presold, before we even put it in bottles, “ said David Farran, the founder.

And while many of the newer distilleries have yet to export to the United States, sales of Canadian whisky in America were up a healthy 7 percent between 2011 and 2016, with a 112 percent leap in the high-end premium category, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. In Canada, domestic consumption was up 4 percent for the same period, with a 28 percent jump at the high end, according to Spirits Canada/Association of Canadian Distillers.

In both countries, the figures signal a clear tilt in favor of more expensive, and more innovative, brands. “A lot more consumers are taking Canadian whisky seriously,” Mr. de Kergommeaux said. “They taste it and recognize the care that goes into it.”

“Canadian whisky” is both a simple geographic identity — it’s whiskey, made in Canada — and a specific, somewhat complicated style. While some new distilleries, like Eau Claire, make Scotch-style single malt as part of their lineups, all the large distilleries, and most of the start-ups, focus on Canadian-style whisky.

Like bourbon and most American ryes, Canadian whisky is typically made from a combination of different grains. But while the grains in bourbon and rye are mashed together first, then distilled and aged, in Canada each grain is processed separately, then blended together at the end.

And while most American whiskey must by law be aged in charred, new oak barrels, no such restrictions exist in Canada. Distillers there can work with any grain (though rye predominates), and they can age it in any kind of barrel — new, used or one that held another beverage, like rum or wine.

The result is a spectrum of flavors for blenders to work with. “Put these variables together, and there are literally thousands of different points we can hit in terms of flavor,” said Rick Murphy, who oversees production for Alberta Distillers, one of Canada’s largest.

That freedom, however, presents a problem in the United States, where 69 percent of Canadian whisky is sold, according to Spirits Canada. American law requires that Canadian whisky be labeled “blended” — which, in the United States, usually means a whiskey that combines a small amount of strong whiskey with mostly neutral grain spirits, creating a cheap, nearly flavorless drink.

As a result, many Americans assume that Canadian whisky is boring and poorly made, a misconception that the industry’s leaders are only now pushing back against.

“I think we’ve been apologizing for it too long, and haven’t gone out to tell our story,” said Don Livermore, the master blender at the Hiram Walker & Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario. “Canadians have been doing themselves a disservice for 80 years.”

Canadian whisky has done well in America; Crown Royal, made by Diageo at a plant in Manitoba, is the second-best-selling whiskey in the United States, behind Jack Daniel’s.

Still, for decades Canadian whisky has been stereotyped the same way Canada has been: as unassuming, a bit bland and averse to change. But these days the country is challenging those preconceptions, celebrating its diversity, its youthful spirit and its embrace of innovation. The same is happening with its whisky.

Distilleries are sending their master blenders around the world to promote their product, and inviting tourists into their plants with new visitor centers. And they are creating flavorful and exciting new expressions: peppery whiskys made with 100 percent rye grain, like Lot 40; whiskys finished in port or rum barrels, like Pike Creek; and weird but delicious blends like Alberta Dark Batch, which combines 6- and 12-year-old Canadian rye with bourbon and sherry.

“People are looking for heavier, bolder styles of whiskey,” Mr. Livermore said. “I grew up on meat and potatoes, my kids are growing up on sushi. What I like about Canadian whisky is that we can adapt easily to changing tastes.”

Though he is probably too modest to claim credit, Mr. de Kergommeaux is part of Canadian whisky’s success story. His book quickly became required reading for whiskey fans, and he became both prophet and proselytizer for the spirit’s resurgence at seminars and festivals around the world.

“I didn’t understand Canadian whisky until I read Davin’s book,” said Lew Bryson, a spirits writer and the author of “Tasting Whiskey: An Insider’s Guide to the Unique Pleasures of the World’s Finest Spirits.” “I don’t think you can overstate his significance.”

Mr. de Kergommeaux wasn’t the only one talking up Canadian whisky. In 2016, an Englishman, Jim Murray, the author of the annual “Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible,” named Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye, made in Gimli, Manitoba, the world’s best whiskey of the year.

The rye grain in Northern Harvest, Mr. Murray wrote, was “not just turning up to charm and enthrall but to also take us through a routine which reaches new heights of beauty and complexity. To say this is a masterpiece is barely doing it justice.”

Canadians celebrated the news as if they had just won the World Cup. Within days, stocks of Northern Harvest in Canada and the United States disappeared.

“When Murray’s award was announced, I got a call from someone at Canadian Club who said, ‘We won,’” Mr. de Kergommeaux recalled. “I said, Crown Royal won, not his brand. ‘No,’ he said, ‘Canada won.’”

The price for the world’s best whiskey? $35. Which is another thing Canadian has going for it. Prices for single-malt Scotch, Japanese whiskey and even bourbon have skyrocketed in the last decade, putting luxury bottles out of most drinkers’ reach. A bottle of 40-year-old single-malt Scotch from the Balvenie costs $4,000. A bottle of 40-year-old Canadian Club, in contrast, costs $200 (though you’ll have to go to Canada to get it; it is not yet available outside the country).

Robust flavors and variety make Canadian whisky popular with bartenders, too. Char No. 5, a hotel bar in downtown Toronto that is a hot spot for international travelers, features all-Canadian bar flights, as well as classic cocktails made with Canadian whisky.

“The way Canadian is blended opens up flavor possibilities, so you can choose specific whiskys for different cocktails,” said Ray Daniel, Char No. 5’s head bartender. “And it’s fairly modestly priced, so you don’t have to take a risk.”

What really excites Mr. Daniel — and anyone who’s betting on Canadian whisky — is the type of customer ordering his drinks. When Char No. 5 opened in 2014, business travelers from Europe and the United States would sidle up to the bar, and their eyes would skip right over Char No. 5’s lengthy list of Canadian whiskey, in search of Scotch or bourbon.

No longer. “American guests in particular are very open to trying new things,” Mr. Daniel said. “They’re not looking for Jack and Coke anymore.”

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