Globe-Trotting Whiskies

The rise of Canadian and other worldly whiskies
Staff Writer

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

When it comes to the production of whiskey, many countries are responsible for churning out some very fine products. While we have covered American and Irish whiskies so far, it’s time to look at whiskey (or whisky) in other parts of the world, specifically Canada and Japan!

The production of distilled spirits has taken place in Canada for more than two centuries, with the first distillery opening in Quebec City in 1769. By the 1840s, there were more than 200 distilleries in Canada.

From 1916-1917, Canada experienced its own prohibition. During this prohibition period, alcohol production was limited to military, medicinal, scientific, mechanical, and industrial purposes. When Prohibition in America was repealed in 1933, Canadian whisky gained popularity again, both legally in Canada and in the United States.

Scottish immigrants were the first to make whisky in Canada, making it the same way that they did back in Scotland. And just like the Scottish spell it, the word whisky is missing the "e." By definition, Canadian whisky is a grain spirit that has been aged in charred oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

The most important grain ingredient used in Canadian whisky is corn, used along with smaller quantities of barley malt and rye, similar to American bourbon whiskey. Whisky distillers search for different types of corn since each kind makes for different flavors in the final product. The rye that is used in the blend is in small amounts, but it contributes the most in terms of flavor. The more rye used, the more spice that is present in the aroma.

Today, there are more than 500 Canadian distilled spirit brands available. Canadian whisky is the number one selling product category.

On the other side of the world, we have Japanese whisky, which was first produced around 1870 but didn’t see its first distillery until 1923. Yamazaki, which was the first distillery in Japan, opened the style of Japanese whisky that is similar to Scotch whisky. This is why their spelling also typically does not have the "e."

Several companies in Japan produce whisky, but the most well-known are Suntory and Nikka. Both of these companies produce blended as well as single malt whiskies.

One of the most influential people in the history of Japanese whisky is Masataka Taketsuru. After studying whisky distilling in Scotland, he brought back the knowledge to Japan in the early 1920s and became a key figure in the creation of Japan’s two first whisky distilleries. While he was working for Kotobukiya, which later became a part of Suntory, he helped to establish the Yamazaki Distillery.

In 1934, Taketsuru left his post at Kotobukiya to form Dainipponkaju, which later would change its name to Nikka. In this new venture, he established the Yoichi distillery in Hokkaido.

Currently, there are around 10 whiskey distilleries in Japan, including Yamazaki, Hakushu, Yoichi, Sendai/Miyagikyo, Karuizawa, Chichibu/Hanyu, and Fuji/Gotemba.

The production of Japanese whisky is very similar to that of Scotch whisky, however there are many distinctions between the two. To start, the grains that make up the mash for Japanese whisky are maize, millet, sometimes rice, and a few others. Wheat and rye are almost never used. Additionally, the initial fermentation process uses an ingredient that is similar to the koji used during the fermentation of sake. These two differences are what sets Japanese whisky apart from other whiskies made around the world.

Below are some tasting notes on a couple of Canadian whiskies that I was lucky enough to try. 

Fireball Canadian Whisky — This has some serious kick! The cinnamon is very present, but in a hot cinnamon type of way. High acidity with a lot of spice, this would be great in a hot and spicy shot of some sort, or even served warm in a twist on a hot toddy. Really fun stuff.

Spicebox Canadian Whisky — Spiced caramel and apple on the nose, this has a fantastic fragrance. Toffee and butterscotch, too. The spice is so subtle, flavors of cooked apples in cinnamon and honey are at the forefront. Slightly acidic, this has a creamy mouthfeel and is very smooth going down. The flavors of apples and cinnamon linger for several minutes. 

— Sara Kay, The Spir.it

Rate this Story