Whether beer, wine or whisky, liquor privatization in Alberta has created one of the finest markets for liquor in the world, and by far the finest in the country.
There are well over a thousand different bottles of whisky on liquor stores shelves across the province. So how do you choose? Where do you begin? Terminology is as important in whisky as it is in wine. The words on the label of each bottle have meaning that can imply what grain(s) it was produced from, what style it is, or even what taste profile it might have. In most parts of the world (Scotland, Canada, Japan, mainland Europe, and Asia) whisky is spelt without an “e.” An “e” is for the most part only added to whisky from the United States and Ireland.
Although there is no firm proof, the Irish seem to have the most respected claim as the inventors of whisky. Many Scots will concede this point, but quickly add it was they who perfected it. Whatever the truth, Scotland’s whisky industry is the world’s largest and most respected. Scotch is a term that can only be applied to whisky made, matured and bottled in Scotland, and consists of five subtypes: single malt, single grain, blended malt, blended grain, and blended.
Any understanding of Scotch whisky must begin with single malts. Although single malts are the most sought after and prized style, they only account for about 15 percent of Scotch whisky sales by volume (a much higher share by value).
All the more surprising when you consider that all but a handful of Scotland’s 120+ distilleries, like Glenfiddich, Macallan and Glenlivet, exclusively produce single malt whisky. A single malt whisky is produced by malted barley in a pot still at a single distillery. If you blend together two more single malts, but no grains, you get a blended malt whisky.
Single grain whiskies, like single malts, are produced at a single distillery, but distilled from corn or wheat (usually corn) in a column still. This still refines the spirit to a much higher level of purity than a pot still can, leaving very little character. Grains are intentionally distilled to be neutral when coming off the still so they can serve as the body of a blend, to which more flavourful malt whiskies are added creating specific flavour profiles. Single grain whiskies are usually only ever seen from independent bottlers, and only at very advanced ages.
Blended grain whiskies are the rarest Scotch whisky style, with few examples in Alberta. Blended Scotch whiskies, like Johnny Walker, Chivas Regal and Famous Grouse, account for close to 85 percent of Scotch whisky volumes sold in bottle today. The blended whisky style came about in the mid 1800s when rules were changed, allowing grocers to blend malt and grain whiskies, and for the first time sell their whiskies in bottle.
Irish Whiskey was the most respected style in the world in the late 1800s, but the 20th Century would not be kind to them. By the 1970s, there were just two remaining distilleries, Bushmills in Northern Ireland, and New Midleton in the Republic. The latter distillery produced almost all the brands of Irish Whiskey available until very recently. The 21st Century is looking lot brighter, with more than a dozen distilleries now active, and more set to open in the next few years.
Most Irish whiskey is blended, a combination of malt, grain, and pot still whiskey, like Jameson, Tullamore Dew and Midleton Very Rare. Single Malts, like Bushmills 16 Year, Teeling Single Malt, Tyrconell, and Jack Ryan 12 Year, are a style rapidly growing in popularity, rising with the interest in Scottish single malts. A unique style of Irish whiskey is Single Pot Still. This style arose out of a desire to avoid a tax imposed on malted barley in 1785. While the tax was eventually repealed, the style lived on. Red Breast 12 Year, Green Spot and Writer’s Tears are all excellent examples of Single Pot Still Whiskies.
Although most people think of bourbon when considering American whiskey, the reality is much more complex. Craft whiskey is booming in the U.S., and new producers are not bound by tradition.
Not all American whiskey is bourbon, but bourbon can only be made in the U.S. One of the most closely regulated whiskey styles in the world, straight bourbon must be made from a mashbill of at least 51 percent corn, with the balance made up of barley, wheat, and/or rye. The whiskey must also be matured in new American oak barrels.
Jack Daniel’s and George Dickell are a similar, but slightly different, style known as Tennessee Whiskey. The rules for making Tennessee Whiskey are almost identical, except before filling into barrels the spirit is matured in sugar maple charcoal vats. Canadian Whisky Canadian whisky is not all rye; you can bottle a Canadian whisky without a trace of rye grain in it. Most Canadian whiskies like Crown Royal and Canadian Club are blended, and made almost exclusively from corn.
Some distillers will also add malt and a trace of rye to their mashbills for added character, like Forty Creek Confederation Oak and Wiser’s Legacy. 100 percent Rye Canadian whiskies are increasingly in vogue in Canada and around the world. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye and Canadian Club 100 percent Rye are recent additions following in the footsteps of stalwart 100 percent Rye whiskies. Single malts are also a growing category in Canada, with Glen Breton 10 Year as the first, now joined by Stalk & Barrel Single Malt and Shelter Point.
It may come as a surprise to some, but the Japanese have been producing whisky for nearly 100 years. Whisky is an important part of Japanese culture, adopted from the West during Japan’s modernization. The early Japanese distilleries looked to Scotland for inspiration. Though the whiskies can’t be called Scotch, Japan produces the same styles as the Scots do (although no blended grains have been bottled). Although suffering a major downturn in the 1990s and 2000s, demand for Japanese whisky has been surging over the last five years. As a result, Japanese single malts are very hard to come by in Canada at the moment. Blends like Suntory Toki, Nikka From the Barrel, and Mars Iwai Tradition are most common.
Other Parts of the World
India is the biggest “rest of the world” player in the world of whisky, the largest whisky producer and consumer worldwide. But while there are premium Indian whiskies like Paul John and Amrut, the vast majority is of low quality and not legally recognized in most parts of the world. Further east, Kavalan distillery in Taiwan also has a global reputation for its whiskies. Down under, whisky making is booming in Australia, too. Few Australian whiskies make it to Canada, but you should be able to find Tasmania’s Sullivan’s Cove if you look hard enough.