Since Canadian whisky is mostly made from corn, why is it known everywhere as “rye?” History, culture, and national pride blend in the distillery. Two centuries ago, Canadian flour millers began making whisky from the wheat they had leftover. This was when wheat was the predominant grain for Canada’s pioneers. Along the way, someone decided to spice up their whisky by adding a small amount of rye grain to it and a distinctly Canadian whisky style was born. This tangy new whisky packed more flavour than common wheat whisky and almost everyone preferred it. Customers started demanding “rye” – wheat whisky with a small amount of rye grain added. Soon, the word “rye” entered the Canadian lexicon as a synonym for whisky.
In the twentieth century some Canadian distillers started using corn for their whisky. Driving across Canada’s corn-belt today, you would never suspect that these hardy varieties of corn were not even developed until the 1950s. Before that, corn for whisky-making was imported from the U.S. But why corn? Because it produces more alcohol than wheat. And by adding even a small amount of rye grain, distillers can still maintain that traditional and distinct Canadian whisky flavour.
So is Canadian whisky really “rye”? You bet it is, and that’s the way it has been for some 200 years now.
Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of the book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert published in May 2012 by McClelland and Stewart.