In this day and age, when most of the civilized world has gone bonkers over American whiskey, it is important to remember a time not too long ago: a time when bourbon was considered bottom-shelf booze. A time when American rye whiskey had almost ceased to exist. A time when Scotch single malts were a new cult item, when Ireland was down to two distilleries in the entire country, and Japanese whisky was almost completely unknown. Back in those days, it was Canadian whisky that ruled the roost throughout the United States. And it wasn’t just a blip on the radar. From the end of Prohibition almost through the end of the 20th century, America was Canadian whisky country. If you ordered a rye Manhattan, you’d get Canadian rye—even though rye makes up very little of the country’s mash bill. Highballs like Seagram’s and 7 (7-Up, that is) were ubiquitous. Frank Sinatra bragged onstage about his stash of Crown Royal. The characteristic light, smooth flavor of Canadian whisky was the choice of millions of American imbibers, resulting in drinks that would be seen today as almost unbearably bland.
Yes, tastes changed. And when big, bold whiskies came back into fashion around the turn of the millennium, light and smooth was out. Canadian ryes suddenly became about as hip as your grandparents’ Lawrence Welk records. Sales of those languished, while American bourbon and rye soared. It did not help that Canadians had a reputation among whiskyphiles for keeping the good stuff at home. Clearly, it was time for reinvention. It took years—maybe longer than it should have—but it happened. There’s a whole lot of high-quality distilling going on north of the border. In addition to the light, smooth grain-whisky-dominated standbys, there are big and beautiful ryes that stack up well against just about anything America has to offer. Stateside, consumer perception has yet to catch up to the new wave of Canadian brands. But, as more of them trickle across the border, our notions of what Canadian whisky is and can be will change accordingly. In the meantime, here are a few of our favorites to get you started.