There’s a ton of good whiskey on the shelves these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Following prohibition in the United States, the whiskey supply took some time to recover and quality sometimes took a back seat to quantity. To get a better idea of what whiskey was like during this mid-century period, we’re going to be taking a look at four whiskies that were popular in the 1960s. And where better to start than with the favorite of Don Draper himself: Canadian Club 1858 Original Blended Canadian Whiskey.
Hiram Walker was born in Massachusetts in 1816, the son of a schoolteacher. He moved to Detroit in 1838, where he worked his way up from being a grocery clerk to owning his own grocery store by 1846. He invested in a number of business ventures over the course of his life and, in 1849, decided to start producing vinegar. His product was known for it’s high quality and low cost and he sold that successful business for a tidy profit.
Using the profits from his grocery and vinegar businesses, he decided to get into the whiskey business. He produced whiskey in Detroit for five years despite the local prohibition laws. Seeing an opportunity with the relaxed laws in Canada, he purchased some land across the river in Windsor, Ontario and in 1857 began construction of a dedicated distillery which opened the summer of the following year. Hiram’s original whiskey process used grains from his grain business in the United States to create the mash, and ran his finished whiskey through a charcoal filter much like the Lincoln County process.
The distillery was a success, and with the outbreak of the American Civil War, demand for Canadian whiskey skyrocketed. This demand included the smuggled variety in the “dry” Michigan, and there are apocryphal rumors that Hiram actually built a pipeline across the river from his Canadian distillery to the United States to surreptitiously sell his booze.
Walker’s whiskey became particularly popular in gentleman’s clubs of the late 19th century and in 1889 this fact, combined with the country of origin, created the “Canadian Club” brand that remains to this day.
Walker died in 1899 and the distillery passed to his son, who continued to build and expand production. At one point the facility was so large and employed so many people that they built housing on-site for the workers that was dubbed “Walkerville” and even sported police and fire stations.
During prohibition the distillery remained open thanks to its location in Canada, and its best customer became the famous gangster Al Capone who smuggled thousands of cases into the United States.
After the end of prohibition, Canadian Club remained a popular spirit. At some point in the mid-20th century, the company was sold to the Japanese spirits company Beam Sutory. Canadian Club remains in production to this day, and was most recently featured as the favorite whiskey of Mad Men character Don Draper.
Canadian whiskey is typically rye based, and reports indicate that this is no different. There’s no official statement on the grain bill, but sources say that this is a mixture of rye, malted rye, barley, and corn. That grain is fermented and distilled into raw spirits.
As a blend, this whiskey is a combination of different runs of spirit — but instead of waiting until the end of the aging process, in this case blending happens immediately. The blended whiskey is then placed into barrels to improve the flavor, aged for an undisclosed period of time, and bottled to be shipped across the river (and around the world).
This might possibly be the most boring label I’ve seen in a long time.
The bottle itself is a boring standard shape, with a round body, sharply tapering shoulder, and medium length neck. The glass is tinted a dark brown color, which obscures both the color of the spirit inside as well as the volume of spirit left in the bottle. Around that glass bottle is a plain white label with black cursive lettering for the brand information and some minor gold accents.
The whole thing is capped off with a plastic screw-on top.
All I get coming off the glass is nail polish remover. It’s straight acetone, with a tiny hint of malty cereal in the background. There might be some slight tones of citrus as well… but really, to call the acetone dominant would be an understatement.
As for the flavor, thankfully it’s less acetone and more like a standard rye. There’s some brown sugar and orange flavors that appear at first, and that telltale peppery spice starts building and lasts well into the aftertaste. There’s just a touch of bitterness on the finish, but it’s not significant.
As usual, a touch of ice seems to improve the situation greatly.
The acetone smell is gone, thank goodness. And I think I can actually sniff some flavors in this glass with that 800-pound gorilla out of the way. I get some vanilla and cherry on the glass, which I didn’t smell before and it’s actually quite nice.
As for the flavor, it’s all still there. You’ve got the brown sugar and citrus flavors followed by the peppery spice, but what’s missing is the bitterness on the finish. Now it’s nothing but smooth sailing.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
You know, there’s something to this whiskey. Normally when I get that much acetone on the nose, it’s a sure-fire indication that nothing good will follow… but in this case I’m proven wrong with both the on-the-rocks and cocktail formats of the spirit.
Especially in this old fashioned, there’s a lot going on. The bitters are interacting well with the brown sugar and citrus flavors, and the peppery spice is adding a bit of complexity to the drink that’s much appreciated. It does need a bit of sugar to bring the whole thing together, but on the whole it works as a traditional cocktail.
Usually what I’m looking for here is for the ginger beer to balance out with the flavors of the whiskey and for something more complex to come through (like a peppery spice). In this case, it meets the expectations of the exercise in every category.
The only thing I’d say is that it’s a little light on the flavors. Some of the more powerful bourbons add a significant depth and complexity to the flavor profile that’s quite enjoyable, and while there’s some added depth here, it’s like the difference between the reflecting pool in Washington, D.C. versus the Potomac River… technically, they both have water, but one just is so much deeper than the other.
As long as you use it as a mixer, things are pretty good — it’s only when you try to drink it straight that you run into a nose full of acetone. In it’s price bracket, it’s definitely not as good as Evan Williams Black Label — but it’s still a versatile and inexpensive tool for the whiskey shelf.
|Canadian Club 1858 Original Blended Canadian Whiskey|
Produced By: Canadian ClubOwned By: Beam Suntory
Production Location: Canada
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $9.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating: 4/5
Don Draper may be a fictional philandering con man, but he ain’t wrong about this whiskey.