For decades, the Canadian spirits market has been dominated by a handful of major players, most of them whiskey makers like Crown Royal, Canadian Club and Seagram’s. And while mass-produced whiskey is still the king of the north, things are steadily changing, as the repeal of prohibitive provincial laws is making it easier for small producers to distill and sell liquor.
In 2013, British Columbia introduced entrepreneur-friendly legislation that has resulted in a micro-distillery boom, with dozens of distilleries now calling the province home. That same year, Alberta, which grows some of the best barley and wheat in the world, rescinded a regulation that required distillers to make at least a half million liters of spirits each year in order to hold a commercial license. With that onerous law out of the way, distilleries sprung up to meet the rising demand for locally-made booze, taking Alberta’s craft distillery count from zero to more than two dozen.
It’s the same story farther east, in Ontario. After the government lifted its own cumbersome production requirements, enterprising individuals quickly took up the reins. Now, more than 25 distilleries are plying thirsty drinkers with homegrown spirits.
What’s happening in Canada mirrors America’s own craft spirits boom. Canadians are showing that when given the opportunity, they will make something good. And, in many cases, it will be alcohol. Not just blended whiskeys, either, as Canadian distilleries are putting out a range of spirits, from vodka and gin to single malts. Here are six bottles to try now.
Eau Claire Parlour Gin
Located outside of Calgary in Turner Valley, this diminutive distillery and tasting room is housed in a former brothel. So its street cred is strong. And inside, distillers are hard at work making a range of spirits, including the superlative Parlour Gin, a London-dry gin with notes of rosehip, Saskatoon berries, orange and mint for a welcome left turn that tastes great in a gin and tonic.
Empress 1908 Gin
The first thing you’ll notice: this stuff is blue. But lest you relegate Victoria-based Empress to gimmick status, know that you’re not dealing with blueberry-flavors or artificial coloring. Instead, you’ve got a gin that’s distilled from non-GMO corn and infused with eight botanicals, including juniper, grapefruit peel, ginger, and butterfly pea blossoms — the culprit of that indigo hue. It’s full of citrus, coriander and luscious floral notes, and it turns G&Ts a surprising pink color when mixed. So you’ve got that to look forward to.
Stalk and Barrel Cask Strength Single Malt
Located just north of Toronto, the Stillwaters Distillery is known for its flagship range of Stalk & Barrel whiskeys. The most interesting is the Cask Strength Single Malt, which is made from Canadian barley and aged in ex-bourbon casks. It’s young, brash and loaded with flavors like cinnamon, oak and dried fruit. A little water will tame the high-proof heat and refine those edges for easier sipping. So while this whiskey isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s intriguing and certainly enough to get excited to taste more of the brand’s (hopefully older) releases down the road.
Schramm Organic Potato Vodka
Pemberton Distillery calls British Columbia home, and that’s where the inventive spirits makers bend potatoes to their will. They turn the area’s local spuds into organic vodka, gin, absinthe, schnapps and liqueurs. The award-winning vodka in particular is worth sampling and features more than 15 pounds of Pemberton potatoes in each bottle. It’s silky smooth, full of fresh earth and floral notes, and it all ends with a clean, cool finish.
Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask Whisky
Turns out, hockey’s greatest player has a winery on the shores of Lake Ontario — and that winery has a whiskey. Dubbed Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask, it’s distilled in small batches from local rye and corn, and then finished in red wine casks. Those casks give the whiskey a rich oak character alongside notes of vanilla, spice and caramel.
Park Distillery Alpine Dry Gin
Vacationing in Banff is reason enough for drinks, and you can find several good ones at Park Distillery, a restaurant-bar-distillery hybrid that’s making gin, vodka and whiskey. Its Alpine Dry Gin is distilled from local grains and blended with glacier water straight out of Banff National Park. It combines traditional botanicals like juniper, coriander and citrus peels with Canadian spruce tips for fresh, piney aromas and flavors. Mix it with tonic, or try adding it to a thirst-quenching long drink like a Tom Collins or Southside.