Canadian whisky: nostalgia bumps up against reality

The persistence of memory is strong. But in my own mind, the persistence of VO and ginger ale might be even stronger.

By VO, of course, I mean Seagram's VO Canadian whisky. As a kid growing up in the 1970s, I enjoyed it when my parents threw parties. Many of their friends also drank Canadian whisky in some form: VO old-fashioneds, VO Manhattans, Seven-and-Sevens (Seagram's 7 and 7-Up).

Now that I'm a little more educated about whiskey, my fond nostalgia for VO came crashing against the rocks of reality a few weeks ago. Here's what I now know: Most Canadian whisky is just awful. I confirmed that when I did a tasting of the usual Canadian whisky suspects, several purchased in cheap pint-size flasks.

I sipped through VO, Canadian Club 6-year-old, Canadian Club 12-year-old, Canadian Mist, Black Velvet, Windsor and the standard Crown Royal.

Crown Royal Black, at around $40, is admirable but also pricey for what you get. Even better, I tasted the special Crown Royal Cask No. 16, aged in cognac barrels. It's an excellent whisky. It also sells for $80 to $100 a bottle.

As for the other old standards, including my mom's VO, they tasted thin, dull and out of balance, and with a nose that's too marshmallow-sweet. These whiskies clearly are going for the adjective "smooth" at the expense of everything else: complexity, flavor, richness.

Part of the problem is how Canadian whisky is made. Unlike with bourbon, the base spirit is often distilled at a very high 180 proof, which creates a more neutral spirit that lacks flavor. It's then blended with smaller amounts of lower-proof whiskies, and the distillers are allowed to add 9.09 percent of just about anything: rum, brandy, neutral spirits, caramel, or other types of flavoring.

Finally, it's usually bottled at 80 proof, which makes it taste watered-down.

How did these whiskies become so popular? Canadian whisky came to prominence during Prohibition, when American distilleries were shut down and bootleggers smuggled it across the border to supply a whiskey-starved nation. Once Prohibition ended, companies such as Seagram's had huge reserves ready to sell on the American market, which was one of the major reasons for Canadian whisky's prominence throughout the mid-20th century.

Canadian whisky became known as rye (not to be confused with American rye whisky, which has become so popular lately). When Don Draper orders rye on "Mad Men," he's actually ordering Canadian whisky.

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