The trickle could become a stream

23 July, 2018

While innovation is creating a buzz around quality Canadian whisky, it’s up to the brands to get their products out there. Hamish Smith reports

THE CANADIAN WHISKY category is big in volume but not in personality. It has a quiet, unassuming presence in the global drinks industry – known but not renowned, its brands familiar to the eye but not necessarily the palate. Most have it down as ‘easy-drinking’, a term of dubious praise that lives in the same block as ‘approachable’, ‘crowd-pleasing’ and ‘inoffensive’. It’s a safe space in which to exist but, given the new quality and diversity of the category, Canadian whisky has to do more, get out more and make its mark in the wider world. Amid a global whisk(e)y boom, there’s never been a better time.

Canadian whisky has long had heavy legs. Unlike other categories that earned their stripes overseas, Canadian whisky made its name over the fence in the US, proliferating during and after Prohibition when the bourbon industry was on its knees. To this day the US makes up about three-quarters of the category’s 21m 9-litre cases – nearly all the rest is sold in Canada.

A regionally-honed category is nothing new, but in the case of Canadian, it doesn’t make sense. The big brands of the category are all owned by major international groups that have the distribution to take Canadian global should they be inclined. Crown Royal is in the Diageo stable, Wiser’s is part of Pernod Ricard, Gibsons belongs to William Grant & Sons and the fast-growing Forty Creek is with Gruppo Campari – all sell nearly entirely in North America. Of course, there is always an exception – Beam Suntory’s Canadian Club uses its passport (it has 30 stamps and counting), but in recent years hasn’t exactly led the way, with flat volume sales for 10 years when world whisk(e)y has flourished.


But things are evolving. The category is growing at about 1% (Euromonitor International) with lower-end brands such as Canadian Mist and Black Velvet losing volumes and the premium brands gaining ground. New expressions and limited editions are also now frequent. Indeed, in Canada and the US the underlying trends are premiumisation, innovation and a lot of optimism.

Davin de Kergommeaux, author of the book Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert, has witnessed the step change over the past three years. “It’s the quality whisky that’s taking off,” he says. “The big brands are going back to bold whiskies – you had to grab a case of the 40-year-old Canadian Club it sold out so fast. The new 35-year-old Wiser’s is staggeringly good. Producers are going back to the style before the vodka craze.”

De Kergommeaux is referring to the malaise of the second half of the 20th century, when white spirits ruled in North America and consumer preference was geared to neutral. Canadian whisky forgot what it was. But it has awoken, says De Kergommeaux. He points to Canadian whisky’s unique production process and lack of regulation, making it adaptable and diverse. How so? You can compare Canadian whisky production to blended scotch as it is generally a blend of two spirits: base and flavouring whisky. Base whisky is distilled to a high strength, like Scottish grain, and is a lighter spirit, while flavouring whisky is commonly distilled to a lower strength, producing characterful spirits, similar to the role malt plays in blended scotch. De Kergommeaux says he detects a move towards the use of more flavoured and less base whisky, creating a “more robust” product.

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