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Eat & Drink

What's the difference between rye, whisky & bourbon?

Posted by Guest Contributor / December 28, 2012

whiskyRecent bar trends such as the revival of The Manhattan has seen an upturn in interest for Canada's native contribution to the world of beverage alcohol: Rye whisky. Now that the bourbon fad is slowing down, established American brands such as Knob Creek and Wild Turkey have been launching ryes. To get more insight, I went to visit Toronto's resident authority on all things whisky: Andrew Kaiser of The Emmet Ray.

With 27 Canadian whiskies on a list of 179 in total (including 46 Bourbons, 56 Scotches, and 16 Irish whiskies), The Emmet Ray houses one of the largest collections of Uisge Beatha available to the public here in the GTA. Andrew's been greedily grabbing everything in sight for his bar selection since opening in 2009. If its become available for sale in Ontario at any point in the last three years, you can expect to find it on the list.

Kaiser is quick to point out that people need to separate Canadian whisky from whisky that is made with rye. Though it has been traditionally referred to as 'Rye' by bar patrons the world over, Andrew holds that this is a throwback to Prohibition times, when Rye was simply a term to distinguish the whisky coming from Canada to that of other available whiskies, such as moonshine (made with corn and wheat), and Scotch or Irish (made with barley or wheat).

Until bourbon came to dominate the USA's whisky scene, rye was a common ingredient. Once prohibition kicked in, that deliciously spicy flavour spice was only (reliably) available from one source: with governmental regulations stipulating the necessity for 3 years of aging, and an official seal to designate it as Canadian whisky, the stuff coming from North of The Border was regarded as the finest, and only regulated whisky to pour at a decent speakeasy.

History aside, Canadian whisky might be known as 'Rye', but it doesn't really contain any more rye content than even most bourbons. Whilst there is a tradition of referring to Canadian whisky as rye, Andrew charges that the designation is a poisoned chalice for Canadian whisky makers, as the lack of appellation control over Rye in Canada has led distillers here to quietly accept the moniker in order to boost international sales.

A bar order, for example, of 'rye and ginger' is typically responded to with a Canadian Club and ginger ale, despite the whisky making no claims as to its rye content. Of the 27 on the list at the Emmet Ray, only 8 of these even have the word 'rye' on the label.

Andrew goes even further, claiming that as far as he is concerned, there is no such thing as whisky made with 100% rye - the alcohol yield is far too low to reliably (or profitably) make spirit with it. What he hopes people will understand, is that Canadian whisky deserves an identity of its own: as a spirit with a lively spice tempered by delicate smoothness - perfect for inclusion in the finest of cocktails.

The revival of rye production in the States might be producing some cracking whiskies, but even the finest distilleries in the world hold a special place in their heart for the distillates of the Great White North: both Caribou Crossing, and Royal Canadian are made with Canadian whisky that is imported to the world-famous Sazerac distillery in Kentucky, where it is lovingly aged before being released to the public.

Andrew's given us some of the highlights from his Canadian whisky list. It's worth checking them out first hand at 924 College. Along with the excellent new independent kitchen, Mess Hall (inside the Emmet Ray), and all the meat being provided by Sanagan's Meat Locker it's definitely worth a try.

Andrew Kaiser's top Canadian whiskies that won't crush your wallet:

Alberta Premium ($23.90)
'My favourite. I'll defend it to my death. It's listed as 100% rye on the bottle, but it's been with me through thick and thin since I was 15. This is my go-to.'

Wiser's 18yr ($65.95)
'This is a great session drinker, you can really knock this back. Also, it's a great price for an 18yr old'.

Danfield 21yr ($44.95)
'From Alberta, this whisky coats your whole palate, with a richness you don't see very often.'

Forty Creek Double Barrel ($54.95)
'Because it is made by a distiller who cares, who creates his own sherry just to have access to sherry barrels for aging. Forty Creek is blended after distillation, which allows for a finer distinction of the components on the palate.'

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve ($26.45)
'Also has to be included. This has a higher rye content, with a bigger spice'

Glen Breton ($77.95)
'This has to be on there too. Maybe not worth the price, but I still really like it'. This is Canada's first and only single malt whisky. 'Barley's much more expensive than rye or wheat, hence the price.' (Technically, it's not a rye in any sense, but always worth a mention when discussing Canadian Whisky)

McCloughlin and Steele ($44.25 - not available at LCBO)
'From BC, this is designated as Rye, but is super smooth. A great session whisky'

Century Reserve 15-25 Whiskey ($29.95)
'From Alberta, I'm including this for the exact same reasons as the McCloughlin and Steele.'

Writing by Jen Hunter. Photo from the County General Facebook page.



belvedere / December 28, 2012 at 12:28 pm
great article. anyone who orders rye and ginger is wasting a good rye. next time i'm back in to i'm gonna go direct to this place from yyz.
Terex / December 28, 2012 at 12:31 pm
Alberta Premium was the first sipping whisky I ever tried as a young lad (or older teen) and fell in love at first sip.
JillianTO / December 28, 2012 at 01:18 pm
It disgusts me that this site is promoting the Devil's tool as being OK. I pray for the soul of both the author and owner of this wicked place. Hopefully one day you will repent and changes your sinful ways. If you think liquor burns, wait to see what's in store for you in the afterlife.
Matt replying to a comment from JillianTO / December 28, 2012 at 01:38 pm
Col. Hapablap replying to a comment from JillianTO / December 28, 2012 at 01:46 pm
Bahahahaha. Oh man that's good satire.
Kasual / December 28, 2012 at 01:55 pm
Great article, very informative. I've always heard good things about the Emmet Ray and never been, have to rectify that real soon.

As for being the devil's tool, any good who does want me to enjoy brown liquor is no friend of mine.
iSkyscraper / December 28, 2012 at 02:11 pm
I was always confused by whether or not Canadian whisky was by definition rye whisky. Too bad we don't use strict European-style appellation codes to define and protect such labels.

NPR did a great piece on the comeback of rye whisky the other day, you can listen to it here. The Americans are eating our lunch on this stuff:

r / December 28, 2012 at 03:07 pm
About 2 dollars a shot.
haha replying to a comment from JillianTO / December 28, 2012 at 03:09 pm
Devil's tool? What's vegetarianism have to do with whiskey?
Mikey / December 28, 2012 at 03:22 pm
WOAH WOAH WOAH, lingo check: are "session" whiskeys and "sipping" whiskeys synonymous? Are those the kinds of whiskeys I'm supposed to enjoy with my stones to avoid dilution?
Robert replying to a comment from JillianTO / December 28, 2012 at 05:27 pm
Never understood the need to indulge in a miserable life cutting out all joy hoping for something better after you die. Particularly since there is no evidence that there is life after death.
nick d / December 28, 2012 at 06:42 pm
Solid piece, Guest Contributor!
Too bad Bourbon is considered "trendy," it's by far my favourite drink. Bulleit makes an excellent bottle (and is reasonably priced); they also make a decent Rye (made from 95% Rye, so as to actually deserve the name) but is sadly not available north of the border. Get on it LCBO!
bikeroo replying to a comment from Jojo / December 28, 2012 at 08:40 pm
Snow Phoenix is definitely an interesting Scotch and is perfect around this time of year but I don't think it fairs well on the price/value point for me. It's a definite must try but I'd only recommend buying the bottle if you are a big Glenfiddich drinker.
bikeroo / December 28, 2012 at 08:56 pm
Neat article but the title is misleading since it actually does not state the difference between Rye & Bourbon. A loose definition I was taught for defining Rye is a distilled mash of grain containing a minimum of 51% rye and Bourbon is a distilled mash of grain with a minimum of 51% corn, aged a minimum of 4 years in new charred oak barrels, produced in the USA.

To nitpick further, the biggest offerings of whisky in Toronto are Via Allegro (claiming over 1000 whisky and attaining Best Scotch List in the world from Whisky Magazine), Academy of Spherical Arts (they claim to have roughly 600 whisky offerings), and Feathers Pub (home to roughly 400 single malt Scotch).
robbiecrash replying to a comment from bikeroo / December 28, 2012 at 10:36 pm
Those are scotch bars, let's not confuse things further by pointing out that it's scotch whiskey, just leave it as scotch and let them think they're superior to us and our whisky whisky.
Russell / December 29, 2012 at 08:55 pm
This headline doesn't correspond to the article.
loramacantoch / December 30, 2012 at 06:12 am
I totally agree that every new habit begins with mental shifts
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Ewan / December 30, 2012 at 10:03 am
Confusing article for a couple of reasons

1. It's only Candian 'straight' rye that requires 3 years aging by law, you can have much younger Canadian Rye's.

2. "Andrew goes even further, claiming that as far as he is concerned, there is no such thing as whisky made with 100% rye". This is simply inaccurate as there are a few 100% rye whiskies that use enzymes to push through the distillation process. In fact one of them is Alberta Premium from Canada which you even reference in your article?


mike in parkdale / January 2, 2013 at 03:47 pm

I think there's a conspiracy behind Wild Turkey. It's been pulled off the LCBO shelves at least twice over the past 6 years, only to be immediately restocked (and often replaced by a premium version of the product). It seems like there's a plan in action to turn the brand into a premium product, but it just makes things frustrating for bourbon drinkers.
6889dini / January 4, 2013 at 01:12 pm
GREAT article and very informative. I'm going to meander over to the Emmet-Ray,and have me a glass or two of Alberta Premium!
Bronson / January 25, 2013 at 05:13 am
I had no idea that you guys were crating such good Canadian whiskies - I'm definitely going to have to keep an eye out for tastings which feature your brands or try my speciality booze peddler to discover them for myself.

I'm a bit common in that regard, give me a single barrel JD and I'm set.
mark priestas / December 27, 2014 at 12:49 pm
I too believe in a higher order, but I also have an open mind. I definitely believe in a good neat drink, medicinally if you will.
I've tried them all, well quite a few, and the drink I used to loathe now pleases my palate, Scotch Whisky. The one I prefer so far - Johnnie Walkers Double Black.
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