Highwood Ninety 5 Year Old
It can be quite challenging to find good quality whisky reviews of entry-level expressions – given the natural tendency of expert reviewers to focus on premium and mid-range products. In my own case, my familiarity with assembling the meta-critic scores can dissuade me from picking up or trying perceived lower quality expressions.
Which brings me around to the Highwood Ninety 5 yo. 😉 This is a relatively entry-level expression from the Alberta distiller Highwood (better known for their Centennial and Century Reserve lines). This is one of two whiskies released under their own name in the “Ninety” series (for 90 proof), along with a 20 yo expression.
Here are how some of the Highwood whiskies perform in the meta-critic database, alongside a couple of other entry-level rye whiskies from Alberta:
Alberta Premium: 8.32 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.54 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($)
Highwood Centennial 10yo: 8.42 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.37 ± 0.89 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.40 ± 0.55 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews ($$)
As you can see, the Ninety 5yo falls in well with the pack of entry-level ($) Canadian whiskies. Not available outside of Western Canada, I had the opportunity to pick up the Ninety 5yo last summer on a trip to BC, when it was on sale for ~$24 CAD, taxes in. Given the price, I thought it was worthwhile picking up a bottle to try.
Here’s what I find in the glass:
Nose: Very sweet and creamy, but with a strong solvent smell (both acetone and turpentine). The solvent note dissipates a bit with some time in the glass, but never goes away completely. Fruity notes are mainly tropical, with banana and pear, and some mixed berries. Vanilla enters the mix as well. Somewhat grassy, with dry baking spices (i.e., dusty rye). If it weren’t for the solvent aromas, this would be pretty decent.
Palate: Sweet and fruit forward, with the same elements as the nose. Also picking up definite citrus now, especially orange. Some vanilla and butterscotch, and a strong spicy mint (like peppermint) that is very distinctive. The solvent notes from the nose morph into a varnish sensation in the mouth, with some bitterness (ginger?). There is a light dusting of the classic rye baking spices toward the end (more prominent than on the nose, though less than most Canadian ryes). A bit watery in composition, despite the creamy nose.
Finish: Bitterness is probably the longest-lasting characteristic, which seems to co-exist with the creamy sweetness initially. Definitely getting more of the baking spices lingering as well (especially spicy cinnamon), which helps on the way out.
This has all the makings of a good Canadian rye – if only the solvent/varnish notes weren’t so prominent. In some ways, the rye component reminds me of the classic Alberta Premium, but with some interesting new elements – like the candied mint. There is actually a lot going on here, for such a young whisky.
That said, my initial assessment of this whisky was rather poor, due to the strong solvent smell (which I presume is coming from young grain whisky in the mix). Coming back to the bottle a few weeks later didn’t result in an improvement. But now that it has been sitting on my shelf for last six months, I find the worse of the solvent smell has dissipated slightly.
As such, and in keeping with the meta-critic ranking, I would probably give it a slight edge over standard Alberta Premium. But I would still score both whiskies lower in absolute terms than the average meta-critic scores above – i.e., in the high 70s, not the low/mid-80s. And I personally like the Canadian Club 100% Rye, which I would score closer to the premium Canadian whiskies above.
In my view, the Ninety 5yo definitely needs some additional aging to tame the solvent/varnish components. But the overall complexity makes me very curious to try the Ninety 20yo.
UPDATE April 4, 2016: my review of the 20yo is now available.
For some additional reviews of the Ninety 5yo, Davin de Kergommeaux and Chip the RumHowler both give it mid-range marks. But also check out the more variable scoring of André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky.