Bar Belle’s Wide World of Whiskey Part 4 — Bourbon vs. Canadian Whisky

Discover the key differences between bourbon and all other whiskeys. | Photo by Sara Havens

Welcome to the final Wide World of Whiskey session. The good news is there will be no test, and everyone gets an A — we’re on the Bar Belle Curve, after all.

We’ve been across the Atlantic for the past two classes, and now we’re back in North America to visit our overly nice neighbors to the north, Canada. They’re so nice, if you ask to borrow an egg, they’ll come over and cook you an omelet — packed full with Canadian ham and bacon, of course. And they won’t leave. Ever.

Our focus, however, is not on eggs or hospitality, it’s on whiskey. More specifically, Canadian Whisky.

(If you were paying attention in Parts 1 and 3, you’ll note it’s spelled “Whisky” in Canada because the country’s name does not contain an “e” in the spelling. And if you missed those classes altogether, you’ll need to write “Taylor Swift is my spirit animal” on the chalkboard 10 times and catch up on them here: Tennessee Whiskey, Irish Whiskey and Scotch Whisky.)

Colin Blake, director of spirits education at Moonshine University | Courtesy of Moonshine University

Helping us out for this debriefing is, once again, Colin Blake, director of spirits education at Louisville’s Moonshine University; David Dobbin, general manager of the Brown-Forman-owned Canadian Mist Distillery; and Brown-Forman‘s Cammie King, who worked in product development when we talked but is now on the marketing side.

Canadians are mellow, and so is their whisky

Blake’s overall term for Canadian Whisky is “mellow.” It’s actually the broadest category of whiskey, meaning it doesn’t have as many pesky rules and regulations as bourbon, and it can contain not only caramel coloring but flavoring as well.

Its basic rules, however, include being produced and aged in the land of Celine Dion, aged in wooden barrels for at least three years, and distilled at no more than 190 proof. Like Scotch and Irish Whiskey, the distillate is typically aged in used American whiskey barrels.

O Canada, you’re so damn friendly.

The biggest point to note, however, is that nearly all Canadian Whisky is blended, which produces a much smoother, mellower whiskey, notes Blake.

“It’s very easy to sip, usually low proof — around 80 — and is a non-aggressive, very approachable whiskey,” he says. “It’s a great way to get into drinking whiskey neat.”

So basically what he’s saying is Canadian Whisky is the gateway drug to bourbon — but in a good way. And isn’t it ironic (yes, Alanis Morissette is from Canada, too) that like its whisky, the country’s people also are non-aggressive and very approachable? I’ll let you chew on that for a minute.

Blake says Canadian Whisky became huge during Prohibition because it was easy to sneak across the border. Also, its mashbill contains rye, malted barley and corn — like many bourbons — but is heavy on the rye because it grows so well up there.

So why isn’t it spicy like some of our high-rye bourbons like Basil-Hayden’s? Because it’s blended and spends less time in the barrel — and since those barrels are used, less oaky notes from the barrel are imparted into the spirit.

You may recall Blake’s tea bag analogy of a barrel from Part 3: “Think of a barrel like a tea bag — the first time you use it, you’re gonna get the most flavor, aroma and color out of it.” So Americans are the first to tea bag, and then we pass it on to Canada, Scotland, Ireland and many other countries.

I’m pretty sure that means there’s a little bourbon in every whiskey.

This chart helps define the different whiskey categories. | Courtesy of Moonshine University

So Canadian Whisky is lighter in color, mellow and smooth. It’s also a helluva lot cheaper. So if you’re trying to get a friend to dip her toe into the Wide World of Whiskey, perhaps it’s best to start in Canada.

The gist of Canadian Mist

Mr. Mellow

The Canadian Mist Distillery sits on the shores of Ontario’s Georgian Bay and is the country’s oldest continuously owned and operated distillery.

What separates it from its competitors — like the popular Crown Royal brand — is it uses only once-used barrels because Brown-Forman owns its own cooperage and can do what it wants with its wood.

Cammie King, who worked more on the science and development side of the brand, points out that Canadian Mist also doesn’t re-use its barrels as often as other whiskys, and they’re able to make special toasted and charred barrels specifically for Canadian Mist.

And because the category is so wide open, there is more room to play.

“There is lots of room for innovation in this category, which is exciting,” she says. “Canadian Whisky is for someone who wants a lighter profile to their whiskey — it’s a good introduction to brown spirits.”

Distillery general manager David Dobbin gets a little more detailed with the nuances. He notes that some of the Canadian Whisky used in the final blend is triple distilled — a process that helps lower the number of congeners (aka bad stuff) during fermentation. The less the congeners, the softer the whiskey.

Canadian Mist Distillery general manager David Dobbin | Courtesy of Brown-Forman

“Canadian Whisky in general is deliberatly made to have a lower congener level and to be a more milder, lighter flavor with a smoother finish than other whiskeys,” he says.

There currently are nine Canadian Whisky distilleries, and most of their products are aged about four years. While some bourbon snobs might look down on the blended whiskey category in general, there is certainly room for all of it, Dobbin believes.

“In some people’s minds, blended is associated with lower quality, and that’s not the case,” he says. “It’s just a different approach to making whiskey.”

I sipped on a sample of Canadian Mist with Dobbin and detected light fruit characters as opposed to the dark oaky flavor of some bourbons. Also, the aroma wafted of vanilla and brown sugar — another pleasant surprise. The finish was quick, almost non-existent.

In college, I thought I was a badass when I downed a shot of Crown. Turns out I was consuming the most mellow whiskey of them all. Go figure.

Whiskey Retrospective

So what did we learn from the Wide World of Whiskey? Well, I’m still a bourbon girl at heart — not even a charming Irish accent could sway me away. I have much more respect for all varieties of whiskey and whisky, and I’m even willing to try Scotch again — as long as it’s not peated.

This globe of whiskey is available on Amazon! Santa, are you paying attention?

Just like genres of music, movies and books, there is room in this world for every type of whiskey. Exploring them all and being open to new things make you a better person — and luckily, all of these spirits I mentioned in the series are available locally.

No passport needed; just plant your butt on a bar stool and sip your way around the world. If you need a tour guide and are buying, I’m always available.

Cheers! Slàinte!

This is Part 4 of a four-part series. The others are linked below.

Wide World of Whiskey Part 1: Bourbon vs. Tennessee Whiskey

Wide World of Whiskey Part 2: Bourbon vs. Irish Whiskey

Wide World of Whiskey Part 3: Bourbon vs. Scotch Whisky