Our province of Alberta is blessed with waving fields of grain, making us both Canada’s breadbasket and Canada’s supplier of malting barley for the beer and whisky industries.
The rising popularity of small-batch craft spirits has seen an explosion of small distillers popping up in Alberta, both as a side gig for craft breweries who branch out into distillation, and startups with just a single patent still running in a garage or rented shop bay.
However, if we look back at historical whisky production in the early years of Canada, we find it very much centered in the province of Onterrible.
In the 1700s, most of the population was located in the separate provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, the predecessors to modern-day Ontario and Quebec.
The first whisky distillery in Canada was opened in Quebec City in 1769 by an English immigrant named John Molson, who later opened up a little brewery in Montreal that you may have heard of.
Scottish immigrants soon followed Molson’s example, with distilleries popping up all over the land, made in the traditional Scottish style, which is why Canadian Whisky follows the Scottish spelling. Our Yankee neighbours, on the other hand, had a distilling industry mostly founded by Irish immigrants, which is why American Whiskey follows the -ey spelling used in Ireland.
The first Canadian whiskies were primarily made from the abundant wheat harvests, but growing numbers of Dutch and German immigrants preferred a spicier tipple, and caught upon the idea of adding in a small percentage of rye grains to impart a peppery taste to the whisky, which became wildly popular and is still a signature of Canadian whiskies to this very day.
Another old-timer in the whisky business is Canadian Club, which was founded in 1858 by Hiram Walker, a Yankee entrepreneur who opened a distillery in Windsor, just a stone’s throw across the border from Detroit. There were many clandestine trips across the Detroit River in heavily-laden rowboats under cover of darkness during the years of American Prohibition, which gave our neighbours to the south a hankering for Canadian Whisky, soon leading Canadian Club to be the most popular whisky in the USA, a title it held all the way until 2010, when it was finally overtaken by Bourbon.
With the whisky market in Windsor dominated by Canadian Club, a first-generation Canadian named Joseph Seagram decided to move closer to the growing population of Toronto, starting up a distillery in Waterloo in 1869, which experienced rapid growth and basically printed money during the years of American Prohibition by allegedly smuggling vast quantities of liquor into the United States.
The Seagrams name has all but disappeared today due to mergers and acquisitions, but back in the 1990s, Seagrams was the largest spirits company in the world. By the year 2000, different divisions of Seagrams had been sold off to other booze conglomerates like Diageo, Pernod Ricard, and even Coca-Cola.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Seagrams is Crown Royal Whisky, created in 1939 as a tribute to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who made the first royal visit to Canada that year.
Crown Royal is still produced today, with production moving from the Waterloo distillery which closed in 1992, to the current distillery in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
More than 50 million bottles of Crown Royal are sold each year, with those iconic purple bags known to boozers and non-boozers alike, as they often end up holding marbles or legos for the little members of the family.
Hockey fans may enjoy the Wayne Gretzky No 99 Whisky, a wee dram of which is rumoured to make you skate faster and shoot straighter on the rink. I was lucky enough to visit the Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery while touring the Niagara wine region in Ontario a few years back, and enjoyed the wines and spirits immensely.
Saving the best for last, my favourite Ontario whisky is from the Forty Creek Distillery, located right on the highway, about halfway between Toronto and Niagara Falls.
Forty Creek was opened in 1992 by a passionate winemaker with decades of experience who decided to branch out into whisky, and has been gathering accolades since day one.
There are a few gimmicky whiskies with added honey or spices, but my favourite is a traditional blended whisky called Forty Creek Copper Pot, made in an old-school copper still. There are fancier whiskies with more years in the oak barrels, but my everyday sipper is the Copper Pot, available for the bargain price of $35 at your local bottle shop. Taste a bit of Canadian history by sampling an Ontario whisky today!