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Book Review: Canadian Whisky Third Edition

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81wBXgAjY0L._SL1500_Boozy Book Review: Canadian Whisky: The Essential Portable Expert (Updated and Expanded Third Edition)

By Camper English


Canadian whisky has generally not inspired the culty fandom of whiskies from Scotland, Japan, or the US. The category is dominated by easy-drinking brands like Crown Royal, Black Velvet, and Canadian Club which disappear when mixed with ginger ale and come in a rainbow of flavored varieties. Fans of the category only pay as much attention to the history, heritage, and production of Canadian whisky as they do to vodka, which is to say little to none. And even the top-selling brands have done very little to raise their own standing in the eyes of the consumer.

The Nation’s Expert

Luckily, we have Davin de Kergommeaux to school us. He has been covering the Canadian whisky category for 25 years, long before the first edition of Canadian Whisky was published in 2012. Beyond Canadian Whisky: Updated and Expanded (3rd edition) (March 12, 2024, Appetite by Random House) this third edition of the category-defining work, de Kergommeaux has contributed to several other books including The Definitive Guide to Canadian Distilleries; he founded the Canadian Whisky Awards in 2009; and he was named by Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail as one of the most influential Canadians in food and drink.

In short, he’s the go-to independent expert on all things Canadian whisky, and this book is the go-to book on the category. It includes more than 100 tasting notes within its pages, but these notes are about 3 sentences each. Most of the text instead focuses on the unique production and regulations for Canadian whisky, and the historic factors and leaders that helped shape it.

Righting The Wrong Information

De Kergommeaux spends the first part of the book defining the ingredients and processes for making the nation’s whisky. One unique feature, for example, is that much Canadian whisky is aged separately and then assembled into blends – not just flavorful pot still and bulk blending whisky, but whisky made from the base grains wheat, corn, and rye are often aged separately and later blended as well.

He also describes what Canadian whisky isn’t: most of what people think they know about the category is just plain wrong. Despite the nickname “rye” given to Canadian whisky in some parts of the world, rye grains typically make up a small part of the overall blend of major brands. And no neutral grain spirit can be used in Canadian whisky, while it can be used in categories of American whisky.

De Kergommeaux clears up other misconceptions: It was English and German/continental Europeans who founded the industry in Canada as opposed to Americans, Irish, or Scots. Canadian whisky may have up to 9.09 percent of its final volume come from unaged wine or young spirits, but these additives are not there to cover up bad distillate: This practice became the norm as blending American products into Canadian whisky took advantage of big tax breaks for that whisky sold in America. (This practice is probably more common than popularly known – some liqueurs, for example, are sweetened in local markets with local sugar in order to secure similar tariff breaks.)

The Why Is As Interesting As The What

The first 60 pages lay out how Canadian whisky is made. The next twenty concern tasting and enjoying the product. The following section, the book’s largest, is “a concise history” of Canadian whisky. This is where we learn how everything got that way, and it is perhaps the most interesting part.

The Canadian whisky industry is more recent than in America, with large quantities produced only after the 1820s and much more during the US Civil War – and it is and was dominated by a very small number of influential companies with legendary leaders at their helms like Hiram Walker and Sam Bronfman of Seagram’s. (If you want to read a very long and epic history of the Bronfman family, the great cognac writer Nicholas Faith has you covered.)

The industry was born in Canada as a way to use up grains from brewing and leftovers from milling for flour. Rye distillate was added to the mix at the suggestion of Europeans, not due to local abundance as in Pennsylvania. The dominance of large distillers helped assure a regular (though not as massive as you might guess) supply to the USA during Prohibition, and established the fine reputation of Canadian whisky here. This lighter-style, easy-mixing spirit met the needs of American consumers all the way into the 1990s.

I like how the author phrases the historical circumstances that lead to the creation of the category in the Epilogue: “The story of Canadian whisky is a tale of the creative use of raw materials–grain and water–that are processed to meet the constantly shifting demands and opportunities of the marketplace.”

Those shifting demands seem to be shifting again.


Looking To The Future

Today the category still sells millions of cases in the US but probably suffers from the light-and-easy drinking reputation that was once its strong point. Times and tastes are changing, and people are drinking bolder flavored beverages and supporting brands that are transparent about their production.

The final section of Canadian Whisky looks at the modern leaders and up-and-coming distillers in Canada. As the author puts it, “Canadian whisky now has more than token space in connoisseur magazines and books, as authors and journalists forego the myths and support their stories with something approaching hard facts. Slowly, but assuredly, Canadian distillers are revealing more about their whisky and the details that make it unique. The doors are opening, if only slightly.”

As the category moves into the modern era with innovative micro distillers pushing the envelope and major brands releasing novel bottlings with unique barrel finishes and grain blends to appease the demand for new and exciting things, there will be even more to try from our northern neighbors. The current edition of Canadian Whisky gives us an up-to-date overview of Canadian whisky and provides a glimpse into what the future of the category holds.



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