NOW's weekly whisky series continues through October, with the spotlight on Canadian blends: the spirit's history, what makes it so good, where to drink it and a kick-ass cocktail made with it. Next week, say aye to Irish.
Here's a puzzling tidbit: what we tend to call rye rarely contains much rye at all. The term "rye whiskey" is used in the United States to describe whisky distilled with at least 51 per cent of the titular grain, but up here it's pretty much synonymous with Canadian whisky (spelled the Scottish way, without the "e"), a category much more diverse than the label would lead you to believe.
The "rye" misnomer has caused many discerning connoisseurs to turn their noses up at the Canadian stuff, but it's never hurt its popularity. Owing to the widespread prominence of brands like Canadian Club, Crown Royal and Seagram's, Canadian whisky actually accounts for 11.5 per cent of all distilled spirits consumption, trailing only vodka in market share.
Canadian brands are often disparaged as "mixing" whisky, used freely as one-half of a rye-and-ginger, but not often enjoyed on its own merits. That's beginning to change as discerning drinkers, helped along by Davin De Kergommeaux's recently published Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, have begun to reassess the smooth, light-bodied spirit.
The only legal requirement is that Canadian rye be made here and aged in wooden barrels for three years. Beyond that, distillers can differ wildly in their blends. Wheat, corn, barley and, yes, rye, are all fair game.
This perfectly reflects rye's strange dalliance with American history. There are at least a dozen variations on the classic cocktail named after New York's most famous borough, but the most basic is traditionally made with Canadian whisky.
2 oz rye
½ oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes and stir well. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry.
WHERE TO DRINK IT
(231A Roncesvalles, 416-792-7729) A not quite one-year-old Roncesvalles throwback diner/bar, the Ace puts the emphasis on brown spirits, especially bourbon and rye, to complement its upscale comfort food menu. Particularly worth a try is the old-school/new-school Ace Manhattan made with Crown Royal Black and an apricot spiced with red wine and cinnamon rather than a cherry.
(487 Adelaide West, 647-277-1187) This brand-spanking-new King West lounge has its grand opening tonight (Thursday, October 11) and immediately takes a spot on the list of our top rye bars. The reason? As the training facility for the Toronto Institute of Bartending, which operates out of the same building, SpiritHouse has the largest spirit selection in town, second only to the LCBO's, and that includes a 22-entry list of Canadian whiskies.
(587 Yonge, 416-928-0008) Sure, Bar Volo is best known as a beer bar, but its patriotic focus on home-brewed-distilled drinks means it also carries a damn good rye list.