The brown spirits revolution has spread to the Great White North.
As in the United States, where premium bourbons and other high-end whiskies have been making a splash, Canadian producers are raising the bar with new — and better — offerings.
"The distillers have really upped their game in Canada," says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of "Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert."
Canadian whisky's popularity in the U.S. dates to the Civil War, which disrupted U.S. distilling, says De Kergommeaux. There's long been a myth that Prohibition was a boost for Canadian whisky, too, but in fact that was a difficult period and several Canadian distilleries went bankrupt thanks to losing their U.S. market.
In recent decades, Canadian whisky has been a steady seller in the U.S., though it dipped some a few years ago. The downward trend reversed in 2013 when sales were up nearly 3 percent by volume over the year before, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Significantly, the increase in revenue was even higher, at just over 6 percent, indicating that people have been willing to shell out more for premium Canadian whiskies.
At its best, Canadian whisky has a smooth quality that sets it apart. On the other hand, the country also has traditionally produced a lot of product that's been considered more of a mixer than a sipper. That's changing.
Canadian whisky is produced differently from U.S. whiskies; the various grains usually are distilled separately, i.e. individual barrels of rye, barley and corn liquor, and then are blended together before bottling. In U.S. whiskey, grains are mixed together before distillation and aged as one spirit.
The Canadian approach makes a master blender like Crown Royal's Andrew MacKay key to a brand's success, and he aims to keep a steady hand.
"If we have a motto for our department, it's keep it consistent over time," says MacKay, whose most recent creation is the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend, which marks the three-quarters of a century since the brand was founded.
Crown Royal comes by its name — not to mention its traditional packaging of a purple drawstring bag — because it was created especially for the visit of the king and queen of England to Canada in 1939. One hundred cases were made, with 10 going on the train carrying the royal couple, and the blend proved so popular that a brand was born.
The new limited-edition — and incredibly smooth — Monarch whisky was created by MacKay from the brand's stock and includes a special whisky from the historic Coffey rye still in Manitoba, Canada.
"It's a tricky category to really nail down," says Andrew Abrahamson, manager of Seven Grand, a high-volume whiskey bar in Los Angeles. "The more I've learned about Canadian whisky what I do really appreciate about it is the palate they give their master blender. The blender is really coming from the artistic side."
Looking to try some of Canada's finer offerings? Among Abrahamson's picks for great Canadian whiskies include Caribou Crossing, a single barrel whiskey, Forty Creek and Pike Creek.
De Kergommeaux also lists Lot No. 40 and Collingwood among his favorites and tags Black Velvet 8-year-old as a great value. And he's a big fan of the premium Crown Royal XR (extra-rare) blend. "I love the rye notes and the depth and the breadth of the flavors," he says.
"The whiskey culture's changed so much, it's really unbelievable," says Abrahamson. "People are less and less likely to hide it in a cocktail. You can't reach for a whiskey any longer that's not going to make it taste good. A lot of the new Canadian products are keeping that in mind."