I recently had the most perplexing response from a well seasoned and knowledgeable bartender when I asked if he had any rye whisky. “I've got Canadian Club and Crown Royal,” he said, proudly displaying the bottles. Now, I've had this same interaction a few times over the years and had already looked into why in the world a bartender would call a Canadian whisky a rye. The short answer: he's Canadian.
The longer answer has roots in history, culture, and labeling laws seemingly designed to maximize consumer confusion. I intended to write this article simply articulating the differences between Canadian and American Rye whiskies, but my research has made the complexity to the average buyer even larger. I'll try to distill the more interesting bits down to a palatable size to help empower you to make more informed boozing decisions. Sorry about the puns. For those entirely new to rye whisky, it has been experiencing a resurgence as consumers demand for a spicier flavor profile has increased. Barley (Scotch) and corn (Bourbon) are what makes up the majority of whisky around the world.
Lets start with the history. When both North America was first being settled (read: taken over) by Europeans, drinking was a huge part of the culture (not much has changed). From the stories of the Pilgrims stopping at Plymouth rock simply due to running out of beer to Johnny Appleseed propagating apple trees West to facilitate cider production, our largest historical figures are often tied to alcohol. George Washington himself had the largest distillery in the nation during his time and produced mostly rye whisky, which is again in production. He literally led the charge to quell the Whisky Rebellion in 1794.
Speaking of history, I will be using the spelling “whisky” throughout this piece for simplicity's sake. Both terms share the same Gaelic etymology, but the “e” is used now only by Irish and American producers, the former of whom added it to the word to create added value by distinguishing it from the inferior Scottish distillates. This was the beginning of whisky producers utilizing every marginally legal method of creating a higher level of quality perception of their individual brands. Marketing is more responsible for the average consumer's understanding of spirits (and much more) than most of us realize; looking at you LVMH...
The crux of the modern day confusion about what it means to be a rye whisky, or any other style of whisky for that matter, comes down to the complex system of labeling laws that vary widely. Before the taxation of distillates began to create the structure that regulates the industry today, the market was awash with all sorts of additives that would maximize output and profit in a market that had very little expectations outside of inebriation. Despite being labeled as bourbon, some historical products were actually distilled from low quality molasses and were cut with prune juice, glycerin, caramel, and even sulfuric acid. Some of these additives are still allowed today in varying amounts. The most egregious example was the inspiration for this article, Canada. Canadian whisky is distilled to over 90%ABV (which essentially makes it a neutral spirit) and can then add up to 9.09% of pretty much anything; wine, brandy, caramel, rum, and more. The vast majority of whisky, regardless of where it is produced, is still colored (and flavored) with E150 (caramel). Despite the broad legal definitions, there are still plenty of high quality Canadian whiskys that do not contain additives.
Now the reason the Canadian bartender offered me his native drink when I requested rye is the cultural aspect of the story. Rye is a grain that grows well in newly tilled soil, just like the kind that greeted the first European settlers. While the first whiskies in Canada were made with wheat and barley, the addition of rye spirit became an instant hit and patrons were soon seeking out “rye” across the nation. The name stuck despite the fact that some of the most widely distributed Canadian whiskies are now made with zero actual rye grain. The primary argument is that “rye” and Canadian whisky are interchangeable terms that represent a style, not a mash bill (the pre-fermented grain makeup). To be called Canadian whisky, there is no requirement for any rye to be part of the production.
Suffice it to say, the Canadians should not be vilified for utilizing their loose national regulations. In the US alone, there are plenty of producers who stretch the limits of legality. The current hot topic involves Templeton, a company out of Iowa that purchases its distillate from Indiana, though its label makes no mention of it. After articles in the Atlantic and Des Moines Register called this to light, the company has now submitted a new label with its distiller's state listed to the ATT, the regulatory agency tasked with checking on the US standards. Its important to keep in mind that the ATT's own laws already required this information and had no part of motivating Templeton to change its label.
Another controversy includes two high end American rye producers: Whistle Pig and Masterson's. Both high end brands retail for over $70 and are distilled and aged by Alberta Distillers Limited in Alberta, Canada. While both are building their brand on American symbolism and themes, neither articulate the source on their label. Masterson's features a photo of its namesake, Bat Masterson who was Wyatt Earp's deputy (though born in present day Quebec) and proudly speaks of the “artisans” that produce the whisky with grain from the “Pacific Northwest” and water from the “Northern Rockies.”
Similarly, Whistle Pig has only recently become open about the source of its spirit, while its label continues to brand it an American product. The company's intention is to eventually utilize the rye grown on its farm in Vermont to make and age its own product. While a noble goal, it is delusive to continue to build its luxury brand by misleading consumers. Despite not even having an actual distillery, they even have a “Vermont Edition” bottling. It is worth mentioning that both of these producers (bottlers?) plan on actually producing eventually; distilling and ageing their own whisky from start to finish.
Ultimately a product should be judged on the merits of its taste. While true, we are all vulnerable to the deceiving marketing that is so pervasive today. We would hope that products that publicize themselves as craft, artisan, and small production are speaking truth, the reality is that most are only using these terms to add perceived value and real dollars to your purchase. Our best defense, whether buying whisky or anything else, is to educate ourselves and decide what we really value.
Single Malt – In Scotland, made from only one distillery and using only malted barley. Everywhere else, you're allowed to use malted rye as well.
Blended Malt – Made from only malted barley, but from multiple distilleries
Blended Whisky – multiple grains contributing to the distillate, whether blended before fermentation (US) or distilled separately and then blended (Canada)
Unchillfiltered – As most whisky is filtered by cooling it to remove fatty acid esters, some producers choose to leave 'em in. An unchillfiltered whisky will become cloudy when cold or when ice/water is added, similar to the louche effect in anise liquors (absinthe, Ouzo, etc)
E150-a – Synthetic caramel color that has been a part of most whisky production through history. It is used to create a consistent color. Its influence on taste and nose are constantly argued.
Mash Bill - Breakdown of malted grains used to make the pre-fermented wort. Different grains are blended before fermentation in America, while Canadian whisky traditionally distills each grain individually and blends resulting spirits.
Straight Rye - American whisky distilled from at least 51% rye to less than 80% ABV and aged at least 2 years.