The Canadian Whisky Guide

Canadian whisky is often overlooked as being on par with the quality of its Scotch, Irish, American and even Japanese counterparts. However, where Canada really excels is when it comes to manufacturing a spirit that is easy to justify mixing a drink with.

Being from the great white north, it would be nice to pay homage to my home by gallantly lifting our whiskies onto a pedestal and parading them as superior and exceptional spirits for all the world to see.

Well, you won’t see me doing that anytime soon.

It’s not because of the fact that Canadian whisky isn’t good. It’s simply because I find it far too light. As a Scotch drinker, I prefer a peatier and smoky dram, whereas, similar to Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky is some of the lightest and easiest spirits to consume, making it ideal for mixing or as an introduction to those new to the game of whisky.

Not to suggest there is anything wrong with Canadian whisky. Many, many people love it straight, including those who also enjoy Scotch. In fact, I have a few friends who prefer a Gibson or Canadian Club to that of any Scotch or Irish counterpart, yet still enjoy a dram of Lagavulin or Laphroaig when Gibson’s or CC isn’t available.

Gibsons Whiskies

Gibsons Whiskies

The History of Canadian Whisky

Canadian whisky has actually had quite an illustrious history, well known for its time where it was bootlegged into America during the heart of prohibition. In the year 1769, the first distillery was opened in Quebec by a man named John Molson, and by the mid-1800s there were more than 200 distilleries actively producing across Canada.

Many people often wonder why Canadian whisky is spelled the same as Scotch and without the “e”. This is because of the large amount of Scottish settlers that came to Canada, who were the ones responsible for the upstart of Canada’s whisky production. Since they used the same processes adopted from back home in Scotland, it was also decided to maintain the same spelling, as these distillers believed their product was similar, both in taste as well as quality.

One ingredient however, the really separates Canadian whisky from Scotch is the use of corn. Similar to that of American Bourbon, Canada has enjoyed utilizing the overflowing population of corn grown across its vast land. An interesting note is that often Canadian whisky is simply referred to as “Rye” or “Rye whisky”. This isn’t because rye is a primary ingredient, but because rye has such an overpowering authority over the taste of the whisky. The more rye used in the batch, the spicier the notes. Very rarely, is rye used as a majority ingredient, and often only makes up a very small percentage of its ingredient list.


Many may not be aware, but Canada too had its own prohibition from 1916 to 1917. However, it’s because of the American prohibition, that Canadian whisky became known the world over.

In 1920, right up until 1933, the American government banned the sale of all liquor nationwide. In fact, not only was the sale of liquor banned, but so was the importation, production and transportation of it anywhere on US soil. While private ownership and consumption wasn’t illegal in most States, there were still many regions that took it into their own hands to prevent it in their homes.

This is was an incredibly debated issue, as in those days, certain spirits were viewed as medicinal and the addiction levels were through the roof. Many believed this was the government’s way of controlling them and because of it, groups merged with the goal of illegally rum-running alcohol into the US from neighboring countries such as Canada.

With organized crime taking a stronghold over Atlantic City, New York and Chicago, mobsters like Al Capone switched priorities and began focusing heavily on the importation and sale of illicit alcohol. Recently, an entire TV show called Boardwalk Empire evolved around it.

While there is (obviously) very limited records as it applies to just how much Canadian whisky was illegally poured into America, it is well known that the speakeasies of the South were flowing.  A perfect example is Hiram Walker‘s distillery in Windsor, Ontario, which by happy-accident was directly across the river from Detroit and during prohibition was a prime site for bootleggers to smuggle it across the border using fast and small boats.

Following the end of prohibition, the Federal Alcohol Administration believed that Canadian whisky was similar to that of Tylenol, a cure-all for many American illnesses and a great remedy for pain, something many Canadians I know might agree with.

In 1933, the FAA imported 3,314,443 gallons of Canadian whisky, most of which was Seagrams, into the United States for allocation to various medical clinics, hospitals, pharmacies, and other public buildings including libraries. It was this action that confirmed Canada’s position in the global whisky market.

What Differentiates Canadian Whisky?

Canadian whisky, often referred to as “rye whisky” is typically made from a concoction of various grains blended together in harmony. Most common are barley, corn, rye and wheat, with corn being the most emphasized.

It’s style tends to be closest to that of Ireland’s blended whiskies being a light, palatable spirit that is often described as smooth and mellow with very little hints of peat.

Unlike most countries, Canada’s regulations for whisky are very broad and allow the spirit to be mixed with a variety of other spirits which can include bourbon, sherry, brandy and even non-alcoholic flavored liquids. The distillation by law occurs in column stills and must be matured for a minimum of three years before being released to the public.

In fact, one of the world’s best sellers is Crown Royal, whose distillery is just minutes from my family’s summer home.

Canadian Club Whiskies

Canadian Club Whiskies

Recommended Bottles

Canadian Club Small Batch Sherry Cask

One of the few Canadian whiskies I enjoy neat or with a splash of water. The sherry cask is proof that Canada is capable of producing a spirit that can be more than just another ingredient in a cocktail. This particular bottling makes use of very small quantities of Canadian Club’s finest blends that are aged for a minimum of eight years in white oak barrels before being double matured in Fino sherry casks imported from Jerez, Spain.

The coloring is close to what I would describe as an exquisite bronze with a nose that features strong wafts of fruits with just a hint of oak and a blast of sherry. The taste on the palate is full of figs, sultanas and dates with some light touches of vanilla, charred oak and toasted grains.

The finish is as mellow as the taste without a hint of peat. It’s strongly sweet and lasts for a considerably long time before enveloping your mouth with a subtle oak finale.

Canadian Club Small Batch 12 Year

If you’re looking for something a bit more robust in flavor than the sherry cask, try the 12 year.

It has a strong barley flavor profile and is a great step up from the other whiskies in the Canadian Club lineup. Aged for 12 years in bourbon barrels, it can be consumed neat, but I prefer it in the classic cocktails such as a Manhattan or even an Old Fashioned.

The color is more of a gold than bronze and the nose is soft but creamy with strong fruit statements. The flavor matches with the vanilla from the charred bourbon barrels and a hint of spice that matches nicely with honey and oak.

The finish is a bit longer than that of the sherry cask and far drier with strong bursts of butterscotch and a hint of smoke.

Crown Royal Whiskey

Crown Royal Whiskey

Crown Royal Cask No. 16

The 18 is what many consider to be the pinnacle of Crown Royal’s lineup. It’s a unique mixture of more than fifty different whiskies that are blended together before being finished in Cognac casks imported from the Limousin forest.

Unfortunately, I have only tried this whisky once and didn’t make note of it. What I can tell you is that it’s a far more complex whisky compared to most other Canadian drams. It can be consumed neat but I wouldn’t recommend it for those who don’t already drink unmixed whisky on a regular basis.

Gibson’s Rare 18 Year

If you asked me my opinion of Gibson’s Sterling I would tell you to go drink a beer. The sterling is abhorrent in my opinion, but the 18 year is about as good as it gets.

The second bottle I can withstand not to mix, this dram is delicate and velvety with rich layers of complex aromas and flavors that are often unseen in Canadian spirits.

The nose is rich and sweet full of warm brown sugars and fruit. The palate is medium bodied with wafts of vanilla and rye, succeeded by honey and dried fruits. The finish is long, less complex, but still about as remarkable as they come.


Glenora is an interesting whisky because it comes from Nova Scotia which is prominent for its Scottish, Irish and Gaelic communities. What really separates it from the rest of the pack though is that it was the first single malt distillery in Canada and, wait for it… finishes the aging process in ice wine casks.

Glenora has had a turbulent history and for years has been in battle with the Scotch Whisky Association which believes that the “Glen” in the name, is likely to confuse unsuspecting buyers who may accidentally believe it to be Scotch.

In addition, Glenora is well noted for being visitor friendly which is something not many distilleries in Canada are known for. In fact, most don’t allow visitors to enter the distillery, some even going to far as to prohibit media and delegates from touring their facilities.

The Glenora is a unique bottling, most known for their 10 year. The nose is full of Canadian maple and vanilla with hints of orange, chocolate and cherry. The palate is nutty with huge bursts of cherry and maple again. The finish is my favorite part which has obvious notes of apple pie with the freshness of ginger.

This is a bottling I often choose to mix with lighter cocktails and one I don’t typically enjoy straight up.

Forty Creek - Canadian Whiskey

Forty Creek – Canadian Whiskey

Forty Creek and Canadian Club

Two different bottles from two different companies, I have paired these together for one reason; they are the moonshines of Canadian whisky.

Why are they in my list of recommended spirits you ask? The answer is simple. They are some of the best bottles to have on your shelf for those with no appreciation, or who simply want a Rye and Coke.

I won’t even get into tasting notes on these. They simply aren’t worth the time. All you need to know about these two bottles is that they are the Smirnoff and Bacardi’s of the whisky world. Great for mixing, but call in sick if you plan on drinking them straight up.

For cocktail recipes, please take a look at our other whisk(e)y guides.


Today, there are 500 Canadian distilled spirits and it’s not difficult to find a few you’ll enjoy. While the whisky is quite mellow when compared to a Scotch, it has an unmistakably unique flavor profile and complexity imparted by the Rye.

In the end, Canadian whisky may not be my first choice, but it holds a special place in my heart and in my bar.  It’s the perfect dram for a newcomer turned off by the “harshness” of Scotch and it really shines in a plethora of mixed cocktails (click here to learn more about tools and mixing). Not to mention, you can’t go wrong with the price.

For more information about Canadian Whiskey, take a look at, who also provided some of the pictures for this article.

Article Name
Canadian Whisky Guide
Guide to Canadian Whisky, highlighting the best choices, history, differences & similarities to scotch and Bourbon plus Top 5 List.
16 replies
  1. Neil Kirby says:

    I’ve always liked Canadian Club as a ‘chaser’ (sadly we can’t get the Canadian Club special bottlings in the UK), and I particularly like Crown Royal, which was produced to commemorate the Royal Tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1947.

  2. Greg says:

    As a fellow Canadian, whiskey, and Canadian whiskey whiskey lover I’m glad glad to see this article. At the risk of being a snob, though (oh what the hell, I’ll risk it), I must take issue with your equation of CC and Forty Creek. Although both come come in at the same price point, in my experience there is a general consensus that the latter is a superior spirit in every way. For my own part, I categorically refuse to consume CC, even in a mixed drink, due to to it’s harsh flavour. Forty, on the other hand, I find mixes well and can even be enjoyed on the rocks, in a pinch, without regret. I more importantly, I’d encourage you to try one of the Forty Creek Limited editions, if you live in place they’re sold. Confederation Oak is one of the best ryes I’ve ever had, and, along with Cask 16 and Glenona, among among the first to seriously challenge Scotch whiskey when it comes comes to complexity. There’s also some great small batch stuff coming out of Western Canada these these days, well worth trying.

    • J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Greg,

      I completely understand where you’re coming from. In fact, I repeatedly paired both CC and Forty Creek side by side multiple times hoping I could justify going with the “standard” opinion that Forty Creek is superior.

      In my opinion though, I just couldn’t. And, in the end, that’s really all it is is my own opinion. I’m not suggesting that the original CC is far better than Forty Creek. I’m simply saying that I believe they belong grouped together. There are certainly some nice limited editions and special editions of Forty Creek but in my experience, they didn’t compare to that of some of the others listed. Unfortunately, I can’t list every bottle I love (sometimes I wish I could). With over 500 Canadian whiskies out there, it would be next to impossible. I will certainly be delving deeper into both Canadian Club and Forty Creek brands at a later date and if you’d ever like to discuss the various bottlings, don’t hesitate to contact me – I’m always interested.

      Since you like Confederation Oak, out of curiosity; have you tried John’s Private Stock No 1?

  3. Andrew says:

    What a terrible article! Talk about damning with faint praise.

    I thought this article was supposed to be a *guide* to Canadian Whisky, not a history lesson on Prohibition, your favourite cocktails or how you tried a whisky once but didn’t make note of it. Sheesh!

    As Greg mentioned above, Forty Creek is hardly moonshine and the author neglects to cover the small batch and 100% rye whiskies from the West. Alberta Premium certainly deserved a mention.

    The author states “I won’t even get into tasting notes on these. They simply aren’t worth the time.” Why attempt to write a guide to Canadian whisky in that case?

    As a Canuck living abroad where these whiskies are scarce, I was looking forward to reading this guide. What a waste of time. The fact that you would recommend whiskies you believe to be crap as good to have on hand to pour for those you deem too ignorant to waste the “good stuff” on tells us all we need to know. What a swell Host you must be.

    I generally like the articles on Gentleman’s Gazette but this one was poorly researched and poorly written. This blog needs an editor.

    • Sven Raphael Schneider says:

      This is part of a whole series about whisky and we elborated on the process and details in manufacturing in the past. There just isn’t that much variety.
      That being said, J.A. is a Scotch lover from Winnipeg Canada. As such he has exposure to Canadian Whiskies and it is his opinion. I agree, it could have been a bit more in depth but we have said time and time again, that tastes are not objective and each and every single one of us has different taste buds. So just because he doesn’t like something doesn’t mean you won’t. At the end of the day, you always have to try for yourself.
      What exactly about this article was poorly researched? Of course, you can disagree but insulting us by implying we don’t have editors weakens your own position and makes me wonder what qualifications you have in the first place to make such a bold statement.

  4. Joe says:

    I have taken to whisky (or whiskey) on the rocks in the evening after work and have been experimenting with various ones. I had a bottle of CC Small Batch 12 which was a bit hard to get and enjoyed it very much, as I did with a gifted bottle of Crown Royal XO. I liked the XO enough to try a bottle of the Black, which was a huge mistake as it tasted like it was flavored with dog poop and burnt figs. I sidestepped and tried Bushmills but it tasted so strongly of fennel/anise I could barely drink it. I understand it mixes well, but that doesn’t help me. I’ll go looking for the CC Sherry Cask and the Gibson 18, as they sound interesting, but after Black, I’m not going to pay to try the Crown Royal 16.

    • J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Joe,

      I too did not enjoy the CR Black, but I do like the Cask No 16 very much.

      I enjoy both the 12 year CC and the Sherry but I would encourage you to try and find the Sherry cask as, in my opinion, it’s one of the best Canadian whiskies on the market today.

      Best of luck in your ongoing journey. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have any questions.



  5. James says:

    Nice article on Canadian Whisky as a Canadian and a Manhattan drinker I find that our Rye makes the best Manhattans I prefer Canadian Club, Crown Royal or Gibson’s finest and alternate between when making drinks. Living in Nova Scotia I also have the privilege of sampling the offerings of Glenora at our local farmer’s market, my wife has even purchased bottle or two for me at the market. I look forward to the next whisky article.

    • J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi James,

      Sorry – I completely missed your comment somehow. As I said to the gentleman below you, The Manhattan originally called for Canadian whisky and is designed with its flavor profile in mind. You obviously have great taste!

      I love Nova Scotia. May I ask what part of NS you’re from?



  6. Peter Marshall says:

    I agree that Canadian Club makes for the best Manhattans. As for the “rye whisky” misnomer, makers like Wiser’s don’t help the matter by actually branding some of their products with that term.

    • J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Peter,

      I’m so pleased you enjoyed the article. An interesting rid-bit of information for you is that Canadian whisky is in fact, the original whisky used in a Manhattan. The cocktail was designed specifically to compliment a whisky like CC.



  7. Anthony says:

    Not a fan of Canadian Whisky? No problem, but to base your opinion on the bottles you slag in this article is hilarious. How about you try the Canadian Whisky of the year Lot 40 (Whisky Advocate) and 100% rye or top Canadian Whisky Blend (Pike Creek)? Wiser’s Legacy (Copper Pot Still), Dark Horse, Dillons….etc… There are some fantastic products in this country, I encourage you to try them. As a side note, Irish Whiskey is distilled 4 times, hence the light qualities and easy drinking nature of their base products. I would hesitate when comparing CDN and Irish Whiskies, they are not that similar. I am going to assume you haven’t tried a lot of Irish Whiskies either, hence the poor comparison.

    • J.A. Shapira says:

      Hi Anthony,

      I never said I wasn’t a fan. In fact, I am. Just not as big of a fan as I am of some other types of whisk(e)y when categorized into one style of product.

      My opinion isn’t based on the bottles mentioned in this article. If you’ve read the rest of my articles in the series, which I encourage you to do, then you would know that those bottles are simply the bottles I recommended in my list of favorites. In fact, I’ve tried all of the bottles you mention above and have a significant collection of Canadian whiskies, as well as other whiskies, in both my home bar as well as my office. As I said in the article, Canadian whisky has its merits and it certainly holds a special place in my heart. I simply feel (and it’s just my opinion), that Canadian whisky has a long way to go before it’s as perfected a spirit as that of some of the others when grouped as a whole.

      As for Irish whiskey, it’s actually generally only distilled three times, not four as you put it. I would encourage you to take a look at the Irish Whiskey Guide. The reason they’re so light is not just because of the three distillations in comparison to Scotland’s standard two, but for other reasons I described in detail in the article.

      Thank you for your comment and I’m pleased to see you have an obvious enjoyment of various types of whisk(e)y; just like myself.



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