As we continue our examination of “Whisk(e)y”, let’s now take a look at the unique product coming from our neighbors to the north, Canadian whisky.
In the US, the birth of our whiskey industry is usually attributed to Pennsylvania and the rye whiskey which was being made there, and later to Kentucky, with the advent of Bourbon. In Canada, their whisky history revolves around the Ontario region and the whiskies which were primarily being produced by the various grist mills that serviced the farmers of the area.
Whisky appears to have not been as deliberately produced in Canada as it was in the US. Its origins revolve around the country’s grist mills, because it was here that farmers would bring their grain harvests to be milled into flour and animal feed. Millers would commonly charge 1/10th of a farmer’s crop to for their services. As you might expect, this could often leave the mill owner with a surplus of grain. With storage technology, not to mention transportation technology, rather primitive in those days, these stockpiles of grain were in danger of rotting before they could be used or shipped to other consumers. The best option for the mill owner was to employ the techniques which settlers from Ireland and Scotland had been using for the last couple centuries, distilling. This would turn the perishable grain into a product which took up far less space (one bushel of grain produced about three gallons of whiskey), could be kept virtually forever, and could easily be transported to wherever it needed to be sold. Because millers were less apt to be able to control what types of grains were going to be available for their use, Canadian whiskies didn’t adopt the rules like we have in the US, where “rye whiskey” has to include 51% rye, and “bourbon whiskey” has to include 51% corn.
During the 1800’s, whiskey manufacturers in both the US and Canada were fine tuning their processes. Since whiskey distilleries were getting larger and larger, it was becoming important for distillers to produce as high a quality of product as possible in order to be better than their competition, and thereby grow market share.
Let’s take a brief “Science Detour” for a closer look at distillation. During the distillation process, a batch of distilled spirit comes off the still in three phases: the “heads”, “hearts”, and “tails”. These represent the stages that the liquid goes through as it heats up to the boiling point, and the boiled vapors are released. Alcohol has a boiling point of 172° F, while water boils at 212° F. If you mix alcohol and water, and put it to a boil, the temperature will level out at 172° F while the alcohol boils off, and then, as the last bits of alcohol dissipate, the temperature will start to rise to 212° F, where the water will now boil and release water vapor. So when you take the “beer” that is to be turned into whiskey, and boil it, the alcohols will be released as vapor, which is gathered and condensed back to a liquid. This is the basic principle of distillation. The problem is that right around 172° F, several other ingredients in the “beer” will also vaporize. This makes the distillers job that much trickier. The first vapors to come across — the “heads” — will include additional congeners of aldehydes and methanol. At this stage, the liquid coming off the still is slightly cloudy, and needs to be separated from the rest of the batch. Eventually the liquid turns clear, which indicates the congeners have all been released, and now is made up mostly of ethanol. This is known as the “heart” of the batch, and is specifically what the distiller is carefully trying to collect. As the ethanol boils off, the temperature creeps up just slightly, and we are now into the “tails”, which is when the fusel oils start to get released. The term “oil” is somewhat misleading, because these are actually other forms of alcohol: propanol, butanol, amyl alcohol, furfural, and others. Their chemical similarity to ethanol is what makes them so hard to remove. So, the distiller focuses on extracting the “heart” of the batch during the distillation process.
In both the United States and Canada, whiskey manufacturers focused on fine tuning their distillation process to create as pure a product as possible, and thus make a better quality product then their competitors. The cogeners and fusel oils were known to be major culprits in giving whiskies “off” flavors, or even making them slightly poisonous. So arriving at ways to keep these out of the bottle became the goal. Each country, however, took a slightly different approach to how to achieve this. In the US, distillers focussed on secondary filtration, using charcoal, gravel, fine sand, linen, or even woolen blankets to purify the spirit. They also noticed that aging the whiskey in barrels removed the off flavors, and thus apparently the cogeners and fusel oils. In Canada, however, disillers latched on to the recently introduced column still, which gave them a much finer level of control over the distillation process, and allowed them to distill their “beer” into almost a pure ethanol, also referred to as “neutral grain spirit”. A problem with this approach, however, was that the resulting spirit was… well… neutral. It lacked the flavor one expected to find in a whisky, a flavor which was partially based on some of the very cogeners and fusel oils (or other associated components) they were trying to strip out. So, the Canadians came up with a process of blending additional “flavoring whiskies” back into the highly distilled spirit in order to achieve the balance of flavor they were after.
This gives us two rather distinct types of whiskey. The “blended” whisky of Canada, which is made up of neutral grain spirit combined with several flavoring whiskies, and the “straight” whiskey of the US, which is just, well, straight whiskey. This difference created a bit of a debate between the distillers of both countries. Those in the US claimed that their whiskey was unadulterated, while those in Canada claimed that theirs was freer of the unwanted cogeners and fusel oils.
All of this came to a head when the US “Pure Food Law” was passed in 1906. The result of this was that by 1908, the US distillers had convinced the government that US whiskies were “true whiskies”, while Canadian whiskies were not, because they were actually blended with neutral grain spirit, which might be based on grain, but was no longer a whiskey. Canadian whiskies were refused entry into the US, and existing stocks were seized. Hiram Walker and Sons appealed to the US Supreme court, and in 1910 the final report came down, which stated: “It was supposed for a long time that by ageing of Straight Whisky in the charred wood a chemical change took place which rid the liquor of Fusel Oil… It now appears by chemical analysis that this is untrue; that the effect of the ageing is only to dissipate the odor, and to modify the raw, unpleasant flavor, but to leave the Fusel Oil still in the Straight Whiskey. After an examination of all the evidence, it seems to me overwhelmingly established that for a hundred years the term Whisky in the trade and among the customers, has included all potable liquor distilled from grain.” And thus, Canadian whisky was in fact whisky, and the borders were once again opened. And in ten short years, this openness would increase even further, when Canadian whisky would come to the rescue of their parched neighbors when American Prohibition became law.