The early days of Prohibition, over a century ago, accomplished the intended feat of bringing Americans out of the mix. In 1920, alcohol consumption in the United States fell to less than a third of pre-18th Amendment levels. However, the government was unable to keep Americans away from their dogs for long. As the Roaring Twenties took off, so did our alcohol consumption, dropping back to over 70% of pre-ban drinking levels. For that, Americans have Canadians to thank.
While the criminal syndicates prospered by making sketchy bath gin which they sold to underground bars, the good things came from our neighbors to the north. That’s because although Canada enacted its own ban before the United States, its temperance laws still allowed the manufacture and export of alcohol. So Harry Hatch, who owned distilleries like Hiram Walker in the 1920s, wasn’t going to let her American neighbors get thirsty.
According to Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian whiskey: The new portable expert and the definitive guide to Canadian distilleries, a collective of fishermen turned rum runners called Hatch’s Navy would help deliver liquor across Lake Ontario to smugglers waiting on the American side. “They could hide in islands on the border, then unload their alcohol and be back in Canada before anyone knows the difference,” says the author and historian. “We had people in Detroit reporting when the coast was clear for the alcohol to go through.”
Likewise, Samuel Bronfman, a hotelier turned whiskey maker in Manitoba, readily sold his wares to Americans. Except that he didn’t participate in the run himself, instead creating a proto-distribution model where he let other people cross the border with his product for him. Such was the success that he bought out his Canadian rival Seagram’s and kept the name while leading the company to market domination.
Canadian Hiram Walker Club and Seagram’s VO flourished as one of the most popular brands during Prohibition, with the Canadian Club’s own official story now claiming it to be âNo. 1 smuggled whiskey in the United Statesâ during the Noble Experiment. These brands were not alone. Canada also had a large stock of whiskey made in the style of American bourbon and rye crossing the border. So much so that in 1935, the US Secretary of the Treasury demanded $ 60 million in retroactive excise taxes (the equivalent of $ 1.2 billion today) from Canadian distillers for spirits that have traveled illegally. south during Prohibition.
After that time, Canadian amber continued to rule even when American distilleries reopened. Partly because Canadians had the advantage of aging longer than their American counterparts who were replenishing their stocks from scratch. According to de Kergommeaux, some American companies actually filled bottles with Canadian whiskey, such as the Calvert distillery in Maryland. “Seagram bought [Calvert] and filled those bottles with Canadian whiskey because it was ripe and tasted better, âhe says. “[Bronfman and Seagramâs] had deliberately matured more whiskey than they could sell during Prohibition in anticipation of its end.
Brands like Canadian Club and Royal crown has remained immensely popular in the United States, the Don Draper types sipping sweet whiskeys from north of the border during the postwar boom years in the United States. While these distillers still moved units for years to come, the glory years faded as innovation in Canadian whiskey waned, paling against the vigor of the previous generation’s American craft movement.
It started to change. âWe are 10 to 20 years behind the United States in the artisanal distillation movement, but we have some really wonderful whiskeys,â says de Kergommeaux, noting the founding of Forty Creek Whiskey in Ontario almost 30 years ago as a turning point for the category. The past decade has seen an explosion of Canadian artisanal distilleries, with more than 250 currently in operation. These include peaty rye, whiskey produced in a variety of barrel types, and single malts made from malted grains beyond barley. A century ago Americans looked north because it was the only drink they could get. Now Canadians are making whiskey worth looking for, even with the abundance of options in the United States.
Canadian whiskey has come a long way since Prohibition, and its future looks richer than ever with new small batch releases and unique expressions from established manufacturers. Here are five to enjoy right now, below.
Crown Royal Noble Collection Rye 16 Years
This 16-year-old rye made its debut in early 2021 as part of Noble Collection of the Royal Crown, a series showcasing the variety of whiskeys made at the distillery using different wort bills, barrel types and maturation periods. The spices and fruits are balanced by notes of vanilla and caramel.
Canadian Club 42 years old
This ultra-premium bottle is something you would expect more from a single malt scotch than from a Canadian whiskey. Corn Canadian club produces some very good expressions, including this mature and tasty spirit, the second release of the brand’s CC Chronicles series. Look for notes of baking spices complemented by brown sugar, honey and dried fruits.
Pendleton Director’s Reserve 20 years
This premium blended whiskey is distilled in Canada, but cut-proof using Oregon glacial spring water by Hood River Distillers in Portland, Oregon. It is aged for 20 years, bringing a depth of flavor comparable to that of similarly matured scotch.
Masterson’s Rye 10 years
This 100% rye whiskey (spelled with the ‘e’) is distilled in stills and aged for a decade in white oak barrels, before being imported and bottled by Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits. American rye lovers will appreciate the balance of spicy, floral and sweet notes in one sip.
Hunting & Gathering Lot n Â° 2
The source of this whiskey is not disclosed, but it is a powerful, rich and flavorful spirit. It is aged for 15 years, unfiltered and bottled at 123 degrees. This intensity is mitigated by a wort bill with a high percentage of corn (unusual for a Canadian whiskey), highlighting a bourbon character of sweet grains and brown sugar.