Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Once and Future Rye, Part 7: Why Canadian Whiskey is Stranger Than You Think


Chapter 7: Why Canadian Whisky is Stranger Than You Think


There is more that is strange about Canadian Whisky than the fact that they spell it in the Scottish manner. In the United States, for a whiskey to be labeled “rye,” the mash bill must be at least 51 percent rye. Canada takes a more laissez-faire approach. If Canadian whisky had a motto it might well be Blend What Thou Wilt Shall Be the Whole of the Law. So a Canadian rye may well be primarily corn or wheat whisky with a smaller amount of rye for flavoring.


But wait, it gets worse.


It is a peculiar but observable phenomenon that food gets spicier the closer one gets to the equator and blander the closer one gets to the poles. Similarly, Canadians prefer their whiskey smoother and lighter than their neighbors to the south. As a result, most Canadian Whisky is a blend of several grains, carefully chosen to result in a smooth, light drink. But that doesn’t mean that Canadians don’t like the flavor of rye! When distillers started adding small amounts of rye to the mash bill, the demand for rye-flavored whiskies was so great that Canadians started referring to all whiskies as “ryes.”


So it is possible in Canada to be served a glass of rye whisky that has absolutely no rye in it at all.


Nevertheless, Canadian whisky is traditionally both smooth and complex. For a long time, Canadian whiskies were the embodiment of what the sophisticated drinker wanted. And because Canadians valued the pop of rye in their blended whisky, the big distilleries in Indiana kept making it. Thus helping keep the craft of distilling rye whiskey alive at a time when it was in danger of going extinct.


To celebrate Canadian whisky, the American Martini Laboratory mixed two Toronto Cocktails, one with Canadian whisky and one with rye whiskey and did a taste test:



2 ounces Canadian whisky or rye whiskey

 ½ ounce Fernet-Branca

½ tablespoon simple syrup or pure maple syrup

2 dashes Angostura bitters

orange peel


directions: mix, add ice and garnish, serve


Like our neighbors to the north, the Toronto is very complicated. The Fernet Branca is a particularly bitter aromatic spirit, originally sold as a cure for cholera and for menstrual cramps. The maple syrup (you can use simple syrup, but why give up that added tinge of flavor?)  alleviates the bitterness without turning this into a sweet drink. The rye, either Canadian or Not, gives it oomph. This is a cocktail for grownups—it is a rare college freshman who will take to it.


And the taste test? The American Martini Laboratory’s blue-ribbon panel of two agreed unanimously that the cocktail tasted better with American rye. Canadians, however, would probably disagree.


Before Prohibition, the fact that Canadian ryes need not include rye was a mere curiosity. After that great disaster, it would be decisive in changing the taste of the United States.



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