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Canadian whisky deserves its good name

Canadian whisky has enjoyed a noble reputation for quality ever since Hiram Walker founded his distillery in Walkerville, Ont., in 1858.

Canadian whisky has enjoyed a noble reputation for quality ever since Hiram Walker founded his distillery in Walkerville, Ont., in 1858. But it was Canada's ignoble supplying of bootleggers such as Al Capone during American Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, that firmly established our country's reputation for fine whisky.

First, some etymology. The word whisky, or whiskey (Americans and the Irish spell it with an e), means many things. In simple terms, it is distilled alcohol made from fermented grain mash - barley, rye, wheat or corn - aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years. The rest depends on how it's made, where it's made and what laws apply.

Ireland is credited with the first record of "uisce" in 1405, but Scotland is regarded by many as the true Holy Land of whisky. Styles vary considerably, but the dominant grain in both countries is malted barley.

Things differ in the New World. In the U.S.,whisky made from rye and corn is more popular, but there are scads of regulatory hangovers lingering from America's "noble experiment" with Prohibition, so the making and labelling of whisky is strictly controlled.

Without getting into the detail of American liquour laws, suffice to say the dominant grain in each style of whisky must account for at least 51 per cent of the mash, and whisky made from corn is called bourbon. (Notable exceptions are Tennessee whisky, which is identical to bourbon but undergoes charcoal filtration, and corn whisky, where corn accounts for at least 80 per cent of the mash.)

Canadian distillers have a much freer hand; there are fewer limitations on labelling and the uses of grains and mash percentages.

The common thread is that Canadian whisky is generally considered a multi-grain blended style of whisky that is smoother, sweeter and lighter than most.

Oddly, Canadian whisky still enjoys greater popularity abroad than at home. Most likely, this is a simple case of not knowing what we're missing in our own backyard. If so, give the following a taste and find out for yourself:

Alberta Premium Canadian Rye Whisky, $24

Don't let the cheesy dimpled bottle and no-frills Alberta label fool you: This is an excellent whisky made from 100 per cent rye grain. And at this price, it's one of my favourite bargain finds. Flush with spicy aromas and silky notes of toffee, caramel and vanilla, this is one whisky that can be enjoyed as an everyday tipple.

Canadian Club Reserve 10 Years, $24

Notwithstanding my fondness for the taste and price of Alberta Premium, Canadian Club Reserve is an equally fine bargain purchase. The Reserve is a blend of rye, rye malt, corn and barley malt that produces a remarkably light and smooth whisky full of fruity sweetness, caramel and vanilla notes, as well as hints of pepper, cinnamon and ginger.

Collingwood Whisky, $40

Few things are more Canadian than the maple leaf, and Collingwood is the only whisky made with toasted maple-wood staves added at the end of the aging process. The result? You could pour this whisky on pancakes. Unfortunately, the peculiar maple flavour detracts from the more delicate notes of vanilla, caramel and butterscotch.

White Owl Whisky Century Reserve 21 Year Old, $60

This was one of my happiest discoveries at the Victoria Whisky Festival this past weekend. Made from 100 per cent corn spirit aged in oak, this honey-hued whisky is way smoother and more complex than you would expect a pure corn whisky to be.

After so much time coexisting with wood, it has delicate oak characteristics of caramel, toffee and vanilla, alongside subtle citrus and spice.

Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve, $70

Most Canadian whisky is aged in a combination of new white American Oak barrels and re-charred bourbon casks.

Whisky-maker John Hall went out of his way to buy three Canadian white oak trees felled near the distillery in Grimsby, Ont., which were used to make casks for barrel-blending aged corn, rye and barley spirits.

The fruit of Hall's labour is a whisky infused with aromas and flavours of toasted and fresh-cut wood, vanilla, caramel, butterscotch and a hint of berry sweetness.

Crown Royal Cask No. 16, $100

Finished in cognac casks, this rye whisky is aromatic and rich in complex aromas and flavours of dried fruit, combined with butterscotch, vanilla and spice. A tad pricey, perhaps, but a worthy indulgence if you are so inclined.

Note: all bottles are 750 mL and 40 per cent alcohol by volume.

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