Canadian whisky has an image problem. It’s actually the result of vague governmental wording. By law, Canadian whisky, Canadian rye whisky and rye whisky can all be labeled as rye, even if the drink in your glass isn’t rye. Don’t blame the very pleasant, non-discriminatory Canadian people, though. Blame history.
For the past two centuries, “rye whisky” and “Canadian whisky” have been interchangeable, regardless of whether the whisky is actually rye. Canadian distillers made whisky from whatever grain was left over from the wheat mill. The leftover grain, called “middlings,” as the website Canadian Whisky writes, didn’t taste all that great when distilled. To boost up that middling flavor (or “flavour” as they write in Canada), distillers put in a bit of whisky made from rye grain.
Whisky made without rye was just common whisky, while whisky that had any amount of rye in it became known as just “rye.” Calling whisky rye became so common that rye and whisky became synonymous in Canada. In the U.S., however, the Standards of Identity states that anything labeled rye whisky must be made from at least 51 percent rye grain.
According to Canadian law, Canadian whisky only needs a few characteristics:
1. Must be made from cereal grain or cereal grain products fermented by yeast or yeast mixed with other microorganisms.
2. Must be aged in small wood for at least three years.
3. Must posses “the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.”
4. Must be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada.
5. Cannot have less than 40 percent alcohol by volume.
So no, not every Canadian whisky you pick up is truly a “rye” by U.S. standards. It does, however, have a history and Canadian law backing up its somewhat misleading name.