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Bourbon vs Canadian Whisky: Which is Better? (2022)

Last Updated on October 15, 2022 by Lydia Martin

The world of whiskey (or whisky) can be confusing because of its different requirements and classifications. In this blog post, we will discuss bourbon vs Canadian whisky. 

The major difference between these two classifications is that Canadian whisky has to be made in Canada, while bourbon is made within the United States. Let’s dive deeper into their differences and what makes them unique. 

Comparing Bourbon and Canadian Whisky

whisky glasss and decanter on a wooden table

Bourbon is more stringent when it comes to its laws as opposed to Canadian whisky. [1]

Bourbon must be aged inside new, charred oak barrels, while Canadian whisky can be aged in either charred or uncharred, virgin or used barrels (which can impart additional flavors to the final spirit). 

You’ll also probably notice that the terms Canadian rye and Canadian whisky are used interchangeably, no matter what cereal grains are used in their production.

On the other hand, bourbon can only be labeled as “rye” if it has plenty of it in the mash bill. 

Their flavors are also massively different: bourbon tends to be softer and sweeter, contrasting with Canadian whisky’s spicier taste. 

Main Differences 

History

Although better known as a brewer, John Molson is credited with bringing whisky to Canada in 1799.

This was soon followed by American and European immigrants, who brought their distilling methods and technologies to the country and began producing whisky from wheat and rye. 

Because barley was pretty uncommon, they settled on using corn, wheat, and rye instead and used improvised stills. This resulted in Canadian whisky having varying proof and quality. 

In 1801, John Molson purchased a copper pot still and partnered with James Morton to open a distillery in Montreal. The country’s first legal distillery opened in 1832, with the two men starting the commercial-scale whisky production. 

On the other hand, bourbon can be made anywhere in the United States, but it is most strongly associated with the American South (Kentucky in particular).

They first started to distill the spirit in the 18th century, brought upon by the Scots, Scots-Irish, and other immigrants. 

The invention of bourbon is credited to Elijah Craig, who was the first to age the spirit inside charred oak casks. This process gives the bourbon its signature brown hue and smoked oak flavor. 

Origin

Canadian whisky must be produced, distilled, and matured in Canada. 

On the other hand, bourbon must be made within the United States. It can be found anywhere in the country, but most of the world’s supply comes from Kentucky. 

Read: Who Makes Kirkland Canadian Whisky?

Mash Bill

bourbon distillery mash bill

Bourbon must be made with a mash bill comprising at least 51 percent corn, with barley, wheat, and rye flavoring grains.

The grain components could be adjusted depending on the desired flavor: more wheat means the spirit will take on a fluffy, bread-like flavor, more rye is equal to a spicier bourbon, and more malted barley results in a peaty profile. 

The handling of grains in making Canadian whisky is a bit different. Instead of combining them to make a mash bill, the grains are individually mashed, fermented, distilled, and matured separately before the mature whiskies are blended.

Corn and rye are most commonly used. 

Aging

Bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years before it can be labeled as “straight bourbon.”

Those aged for at least four years do not require an age statement on the bottle. Finally, it must be bottled with at least 40 percent ABV. 

On the other hand, the laws regulating Canadian whisky are not so stringent. It can be aged in new, old, charred, or uncharred oak barrels. It must only meet the minimum age requirement of three years.

To quote the actual law: “It must age in small wood for at least three years in Canada.” Similarly, it must also be bottled with at least 40 percent ABV. 

Labeling 

You’re probably confused as to why there seem to be two variations of the word “whiskey/whisky.”

To simplify things, if there is a letter E in its origin country (AmErica, IrEland), it’s spelled with an E, as in American whiskey or Irish whiskey. 

Conversely, if its origin country does not have an E in its name (Japan, Scotland, or Canada), it would be spelled whisky. 

To give a bit of a back story, Scotland spelled the word “whiskey” without an E according to Gaelic tradition, which they brought to Canada when they emigrated. The Irish spell it with an E, which the Americans adopted. 

Flavor Profile

American bourbon has a softer and sweeter profile, thanks to the high amount of corn used in its mash bill. It usually has a vanilla, caramel, and oak profile and a long, warm finish. 

Conversely, Canadian whisky has a spicier palate, thanks to the high amount of rye in the final spirit. This type of whisky is more rugged, with a sharp and spicy finish. 

Read: Pendleton Canadian Whisky Guide

Flavorings

The flavorings of bourbon highly depend on what kind it is. It can only be legally called “straight bourbon” if it does not contain additional colorings, flavorings, or other spirits. 

Those labeled “blended bourbon” may contain additional colorings, flavorings, and other spirits, provided that at least 51 percent of the final spirit is straight bourbon. 

Canadian whisky has what they call the “9.09% rule.” The spirit may contain added flavoring as long as it has been aged for at least two years inside an ex-wine or oak cask. The flavoring must also not exceed 9.09 percent of the final spirit. 

Do Canadian Whisky and Bourbon Have Similarities? 

liqour bottles

One of the biggest similarities between Canadian whisky and American bourbon is that it uses grains, like corn, rye, barley, and wheat, for their main ingredients. The spirit must also be aged inside oak barrels. 

Finally, Canadian whisky and bourbon must be bottled at no less than 40 percent ABV. 

FAQs 

Can you substitute Canadian whisky for bourbon?

Yes, you can substitute Canadian whisky for bourbon. The important thing to note is their varying flavor profile, so if you think the spicy profile of Canadian whisky will do wonders for your cocktail drink, go ahead and substitute it. 

What is the best way to drink Canadian whisky?

It’s best to drink Canadian whisky neat, but it’s equally delicious when mixed with a bit of ginger ale or club soda. Drinking the spirit neat allows you to appreciate its depth of flavors more. 

Can you drink bourbon neat? 

Yes, you can drink bourbon neat. It’s a dark, woodsy drink that is extremely rewarding when sipped neat. You can also add a pipette of room temperature water to allow its flavors and aroma to bloom even more. 

Final Thoughts

It can be confusing to know the difference between Canadian whisky and bourbon, and we hope this article helped you understand things better. 

Firstly, as the name suggests, Canadian whisky must be made in Canada, while bourbon is an all-American product. 

American bourbon and Canadian whisky are made with grains, but bourbon combines them first to create a mash bill and ferments and distills them together.

On the other hand, the grains are mashed, fermented, and distilled separately in Canadian whisky before the mature whiskies are blended to create the final spirit. 

Both spirits are aged inside wooden barrels, but bourbon must be aged in charred virgin casks. Canadian whisky can be aged in either used or unused, charred or uncharred casks. 

Both spirits must also be bottled at no less than 40 percent ABV. 

Reference: 

  1. https://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/04/5-rules-that-make-it-bourbon.html 

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