Rye whiskey makes the band sound better,
Makes your baby cuter,
Makes itself taste sweeter. Oh, boy!
-The Punch Brothers
I have friends that get mad when I say this, but Canadian whisky is not necessarily rye. Unlike, for instance, Bourbon, which has very specific requirements for the grain bill (at least 51% corn), Canadian whisky is not highly regulated. Actually you can read everything that the Food and Drug Regulations have to say about Canadian whisky in about 90 seconds, here. Basically to be called Canadian whisky the drink needs to be made of cereal grain (no mention of specific types like barley or rye), it needs to be at least 40% alcohol, and it needs to be aged in small wood for at least 3 years. That’s it.
That being said, many of the common Canadian whisky brands (Royal Reserve, Alberta Premium, Crown Royal, et c) contain rye. But since “rye” isn’t a regulated term, it’s hard to know how much is really in there. 50%? 10%? The truth is that the main ingredient in most Canadian “rye” is corn and wheat.
Producers rarely specify exactly what grains they use and in what proportions, and they almost never make mention of what non-cereal ingredients are contained in their whisky. Caramel, for instance, is such a common additive that the Food and Drug Regulations mention it explicitly as a permitted ingredient in Canadian whisky.
One notable exception is Alberta Premium Rye, which says right on the label is made with 100% rye. For most of my drinking life I never gave this whisky much thought: the 750 mL size comes in a cheap, dated cut-glass bottle, and retails for about $20. Then one day I was listening to CBC radio while driving and heard Englishman Jim Murray, author The Whisky Bible, say that he considers Alberta Premium one of the best whiskies in the world. I nearly drove off the rode. His words exactly: “One of the top six whiskies in the world.” You can listen to the interview here.
I’ve always grouped those cheap Canadian whiskies together: Crown Royal, Royal Reserve, Canadian Club… Could Alberta Premium really be so much different than the others?
I designed a blind tasting. Well, not really a blind tasting: maybe a myopic tasting. I bought a bottle of Alberta Premium and a bottle of Royal Reserve. I put tape on the bottom of two glasses and labelled one AP and one RR. I poured the whiskies into their respective glasses, then closed my eyes and hummed Uptown Funk while shuffling the glasses back and forth.
When I opened my eyes I had two glasses of whisky in front of me. I knew one was AP and one was RR, but I didn’t know which was which. I tasted each and came up with this:
- very pale, bronzy-gold, lustrous
- on the nose: medium-intense aroma, loads of butterscotch, butter, light brown sugar
- on the palate: medium weight, medium burn, slight sweetness leaving palate, a lingering tingling burn
- colour almost identical to first, maybe a hair darker, more brown
- on the nose: some butterscotch, but more grassy, with spices like black pepper, bay, and vanilla
- medium-full mouthfeel, slightly oily, low-medium burn – less lingering burn than first
- These two whiskies are not radically different. They both exhibit typical aromas of caramel. Whisky 2 is arguably more complex, with some spice notes.
Then I looked at the tape on the bottom of the glass to see the identity of each: Whisky 1 was RR and Whisky 2 was AP.
A rye revival has definitely been afoot the last several years, and there are many craft sipping and mixing ryes coming out of the US, labels like Pendleton and Masterson’s. The hilarious, unfortunate fact is that many of these are actually made from rye whisky that is distilled in Canada and exported in large quantities to be bottled elsewhere. I’m not saying that our cheapest Canadian whiskies deserve the solemn admiration accorded single-malt Scotch, but I do think that our low estimation of these products has a lot to do with packaging and marketing (or lack thereof).
For some shockingly thorough info and tasting notes on Canadian whisky, I highly recommend this site: www.canadianwhisky.org.
Rye whiskey makes the sun set faster,
makes the spirit more willing,
but the body weaker.
-again, Punch Brothers
Way up on Clinch Mountain I wander alone,
I’m as drunk as the devil, oh let me alone.
You may boast of your knowledge an’ brag of your sense,
‘Twill all be forgotten a hundred years hence.
Rye whiskey, rye whiskey, you’re no friend to me.
You killed my poor daddy, God damn you, try me.
1. This fascinating article from The Globe and Mail.