Among whiskey geeks, Canadian bottles tend to take a backseat to whiskies from, well, anywhere else. Though Canadian whisky was hugely popular back in the Mad Men days, it doesn’t tend inspire the fanatical devotion of a cult-favorite bourbon or limited-edition Scotch.
But that’s a good thing! Turning to the Great Frozen North gets you really tasty whiskey at an excellent price. And there’s a renaissance going on right now: Old-school brands are coming up with great new bottlings at a rapid clip—writer Jim Murray named the new Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye his top whiskey of the year this year—while more and more new upstarts (or at least whiskies not previously imported) are showing up on our side of the border.
With that said, here are five bottles you should try to understand the range Canadian whisky has to offer. These are good not only with poutine and at the curling rink, but also anywhere else.
CROWN ROYAL DELUXE ($25)
Overlooked in all the recent attention on Northern Harvest Rye is Crown Royal’s classic original bottling. Created in honor of King George VI’s visit to Canada in 1939, it’s a blend of dozens of different whiskies made from different mashbills and aged for different amounts of time. Its smooth texture and mild flavor are a result of the fact that Canadian whisky is typically distilled to a higher proof than most other types, while vanilla and oak flavors from the barrel shine through strongly thanks to aging in warehouses that swing from hot summers to frigid winters in Manitoba.
ALBERTA RYE DARK BATCH ($30)
In a weird quirk of Canadian law, the country’s whisky is allowed to contain up to 9.09 percent of spirits that aren’t Canadian whisky. The new Alberta Rye Dark Batch takes advantage by blending 8 percent American bourbon and 1 percent oloroso sherry in with whiskey distilled from only Canadian-grown rye. The result is a rich spirit with some nutty dryness and lots of fruity sweetness.
FORTY CREEK BARREL SELECT ($22)
After 22 years making wine on the shores of Lake Ontario, John Hall decided to move into the hard stuff, and in 1994 opened a groundbreaking new distillery in Grimsby, Ont., just a short drive from Niagara Falls. Like many classic Canadian whiskies (and unlike American ones), Forty Creek ferments, distills and ages whiskies made from a single type of grain separately, combining them only after aging. This makes for a balanced whiskey with big notes of toasted walnuts and honey. After Gruppo Campari—the conglomerate behind Campari as well as big brands like Skyy, Wild Turkey and Appleton Estate—bought the company in 2014, it became much easier to find Forty Creek in the States.
PIKE CREEK ($40)
If the barrel is the most important contributor to whiskey’s flavor, Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender behind Pike Creek, is the ideal whiskey-maker: He holds a PhD in brewing and distilling from a Scottish university, with a specialty in the science of barrel-aging. It makes sense, then, that this whiskey stands out for how it’s aged. Every drop finishes its aging in former port barrels, an unusual choice that gives this whiskey big notes of raisins and other dried fruits, with a nice background of spice behind it.
STALK & BARREL RYE ($65)
The craft-distillery boom that’s brought an explosion of indie distilleries to the U.S. hasn’t spared our neighbor to the north, either. Among the best of these is Ontario’s Still Waters Distillery, whose Stalk & Barrel whiskies have been making waves since 2009. While Canadian law says that any Canadian whisky—even one that contains no rye grain whatsoever—can be called rye, this bottling is a true rye whiskey, made from only locally grown rye. (American-made rye whiskies must be made from at least 51 percent rye.) As you’d expect, it offers lots of peppery spice, with some nice floral notes atop it.
CANADIAN WHISKY: THE PORTABLE EXPERT ($20)
If you’ve tried the five above and are suddenly ready to dive deep into Canadian whisky, this book should be your next step. Written by Ottawa’s Davin de Kergommeaux, who is almost surely the world’s foremost expert on Canadian whisky, the book is more than just a series of tasting notes. Its engaging chapters cover everything from the details of production, to how to taste, to the fascinating stories behind distilleries big and small. And there are plenty of bottle suggestions, too.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM SOME BARTENDERS