Among distilled spirits, Canadian whiskey is outsold only by vodka in the U.S., but the category is still struggling to shake off a reputation as an old-man's drink. "If I had a penny for every time someone told me their granddad drank Canadian Club," says brand ambassador Tish Harcus. "The category is considered boring."
While many drinkers (and Boardwalk Empire fans) believe Canadian whiskey— typically spelled "whisky" up north—owes its American presence to Prohibition, Harcus points out that Canadian whiskeys first became popular south of the border when the Civil War disrupted U.S. whiskey production and distribution. But in the last decades of the 19th century, the U.S. government imposed a suite of labeling requirements and excise taxes to combat the growing American preference for Canadian liquor, then celebrated for its superior quality.
If Canadians excelled at distilling, however, they didn't do a very good job of telling consumers. "The [U.S.] bourbon guys are tough cowboys, they've got it going on," says Harcus. "Here we are, we're passive Canadians with passive Canadian whiskey."
Yet the status quo may be unsettled by renewed interest in regional food-and- beverage styles and the acquisition of Canadian brands by the world's biggest distilling companies. For the first time in Harcus' memory, Canadian distillers last year gathered in Toronto to brainstorm ideas for recharging the category. "We need to put a fire under it, start making noise," says Harcus.
Canadian whiskey has already made inroads with savvy connoisseurs, an achievement partly attributable to the work of Davin de Kergommeaux, whose Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert will be published this spring. "People who have an open mind need to try these," he says of the finest Canadian whiskeys. "These are whiskeys the Queen would drink."
De Kergommeaux knows which Canadian whiskeys are best, since last year he established the Canadian Whisky Awards. This year, the awards ceremony was added to the program of the Victoria Whisky Festival, widely considered the continent's top whiskey event. "It was unbelievable," De Kergommeaux says. Within hours of the ceremony, liquor stores placed orders for the winning whiskeys and winning distillers reported distributors had sent them flowers.
"It's not moving at lightning speed, but there are big possibilities for us," Harcus says. "We're all trying to make Canadian whiskey bigger and better."