Author Archives: selfbuilt

Whisky Volume in Ontario

display rack of whisky bottles

Summer is apparently a slow time for whisky sales in Ontario – at least judging by all the marketing push at the LCBO for everything but whisky these days.

I look forward to the lead-up to Christmas, when the LCBO stocks a much wider array of mid-range and higher-end whiskies (especially single malts). Right now, it is the high volume, low-end whiskies that seem to dominate on the shelves. With Canada Day almost here, I thought I would do an analysis of the summer product distribution of Canada’s largest distillers (thanks to the helpful LCBO app).

What I’ve done is to search the LCBO app and website for all “budget” Canadian whiskies (i.e., in the $25-30 range). From this, I developed a list of all producers/distillers currently offering entry-level products (as a proxy for the largest distillers). I then tracked the LCBO inventory for the entire brand and expression range of the whiskies these distillers produce, in all bottle sizes. There were half a dozen distillers with less than 6000 liters of product on inventory at the LCBO, which I excluded from the further analysis (you’ll see why in a moment).

At the end of the day, this gives me a good dataset of the full pre-Canada Day LCBO inventory of all the products made by the largest Canadian whisky producers. The full searchable data table is available at the bottom of this post.

Before I get into the top-line observations from this whole dataset, there is one interesting feature to note in a subset of whiskies. Most of the entry-level expressions of these major distillers are available in a range of bottle sizes (i.e., from 200mL up to 3000mL). For all whisky brands where multiple bottles sizes were available, here is the distribution of the total current LCBO inventory (combined from all producers), as of June 28, 2015:

LCBO-bottlesAs you can see, the 750mL and 1140mL sizes are the clear “sweet spot” for the production and sale of budget whiskies (not surprisingly). What may be a little surprising is the absolute number of bottles in inventory. Again, the above chart is only for expressions that are released in multiple bottle sizes (which are typically just the base expression of each producer).

So what are the key observations from the whole set?  Let’s start with a ranking by production levels, for each identified distiller on the LCBO site. Note that these distillers may in fact be distributors (and some are owned by the same conglomerates). As such, I will also provide the names of the specific brands they produce, since that is what you are likely to recognize. Here they are, in order of total inventory of all whisky products (in liters) at the LCBO right now:

  1. Corby Distilleries Ltd (Wiser’s, Hiram Walker, Royal Reserve, Lot 40) – 148007 liters
  2. The Crown Royal Distilling Co. (Crown Royal) – 105383 liters
  3. Forty Creek Distillery (Forty Creek, Canada Gold) – 96603 liters
  4. Canadian Club Whisky Company (Canadian Club) – 79156 liters
  5. Schenley (Seagram’s, Black Velvet, Golden Wedding) – 52258 liters
  6. William Grant & Sons (Gibson’s) – 43819 liters
  7. Carrington Distillers (Alberta Premium, Alberta Springs) – 41460 liters

The relative rankings aren’t too surprising to me, especially with the Wiser’s juggernaut in Canada. I’ve noticed a lot people buying Crown Royal, so that makes sense as second place. But Forty Creek is certainly quite the success story, given that they have only been around for a short period of time. The Alberta distillers do remarkably well in Ontario as well, it seems.

The absolute volume of whisky in Ontario is a bit of an eye opener for me. Just focusing on these major distilleries, that’s over 566,000 liters of Canadian whisky currently sitting on LCBO shelves (at the time of year when whisky sales seem to be at their lowest).

What percentage of those whiskies are mid-range or higher? Very little. If you crunch the numbers, it turns out that (by volume) 96.1% of the output of these Canadian distilleries goes into <$30 whiskies. That means that less than 4% of their output (based on current LCBO inventories) could even have a shot at being called a “sipping whisky”. The vast majority is clearly designed for mixed drinks, as entry-level product.

To add insult to whisky-snob pride, want to guess how much of this total output is geared toward flavoured whisky products? According to the dataset, 8% of the above are flavoured whisky drinks. And that is likely an underestimate of the true market share, since there are other popular flavoured whisky drinks that are not being captured in this analysis. For example, if we add the popular cinnamon-flavoured shooter “Fireball” into the dataset, the overall proportion of flavoured whisky rises to 10% of the new total.

For the higher-end whisky enthusiast, these results can only be described as … sobering.

EDIT: As an aside, here is an interesting article from ScotchBlog.ca outlining their challenges with the LCBO.

Below is the full table, in number of bottles sitting in inventory for the LCBO on June 28, 2015.

Distributor
Brand
Standard Pice (750mL)
# 200mL
# 375mL
# 750mL
# 1140mL
# 1750mL
# 3000mL
Total Litres
Carrington DistillersAlberta Premium$25103901389088776426664532899
Carrington DistillersAlberta Premium Dark Horse$3133512513
Carrington DistillersAlberta Springs$251272416816048
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club (Premium)$2614118138371571513505717986150341
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Reserve$2730822312
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Clasic$2813461447183793161612423
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Maple$2743013226
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Rye$2775871642156510301
Canadian Club Whisky CompanyCanadian Club Sherry$33738554
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal$2995731220132400714881117075344
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Apple$301772813296
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Maple$3052263920
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Black$33716525218248
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Limited Edition$4022751706
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Special Reserve$551200900
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Monarch 75th$6021461610
The Crown Royal Distilling Co.Crown Royal Extra Rare Blue$180479359
Forty Creek DistilleryCanada Gold$2511320721637449
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Barrel Select$2718743141971922513292562748491
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Spiked Honey$2892346926
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Copper Pot$30106966891289720947
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Cream$298057404010648
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Double Barrel$6017211291
Forty Creek DistilleryForty Creek Confederation Oak$701133850
William Grant & SonsGibson's Sterling$2766967144432020726
William Grant & SonsGibson's 12yo$30512981557202362922601
William Grant & SonsGibson's 18yo$75656492
SchenleySeagram's 83$2537273729273511833
SchenleySeagram's Five Star$2554
SchenleySeagram's VO$2555166696327117495
SchenleyBlack Velvet$2424121304002
SchenleyBlack Velvet Toasted Caramel$2726561992
SchenleyGolden Wedding$251443293552351213447
SchenleySchenley's OFC$259319313485
Corby Distilleries LtdRoyal Reserve$2555085754317316243
Corby Distilleries LtdHiram Walker's Special Old$256496740655004924407420944
Corby Distilleries LtdLot 40$4017131953
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Special Blend$25121611264010280641736989
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Deluxe$2716926164151647621014851155662416
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Torched Toffee$281162872
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Spiced Vanilla$28318436723948
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Small Batch$3037742831
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Legacy$50789592
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's 18yo$701007755
Corby Distilleries LtdWiser's Red Letter$100619464

Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottle

This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.

There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉

The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.

Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.

Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).

What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.

Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottleHere is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).

I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.

For a balanced perspective on this whisky, you can check out Andre and Patrick’s reviews at QuebecWhisky.com, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis for other ideas.

If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!

Further Reading

Canadan whisky on ice

It can be hard to find reliable information on whisky out there. In addition to the specialist websites that I have linked to throughout this site (and on my reviewers page), here are some worthwhile reads to consider (in no particular order)

Dave Broom’s The World Atlas of Whisky is a classic. Frequently reprinted (and updated), this is the best “coffee table” whisky book I know. Gorgeously illustrated, with tons of background information on distilleries and individual whiskies. Provides recommendations on whiskies to try next (but these seem very idiosyncratic and personal, and not based on any objective analysis). Same goes for the flavour mapping, as discussed here. Still, as long as you not expecting an explanation of why whiskies taste the way do, you should find this book to be a good general resource.

While I’m on the subject, Dave Broom’s Whisky: The Manual is also a good read. The title is misleading though – as one Amazon reviewer noted, it should be called “Mixed Drinks: The Manual”. Again, though highly personal and subjective, it details the author’s sequential experience with mixing a large number of malts and blends with 5 specific agents: soda water (club soda), coke, ginger ale, green tea, and coconut water. Some of his conclusions are directly at odds with received wisdom, but it is certainly thought provoking if you like to, uhm, mix it up a little. 😉

Ian Buxton’s 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die is a lot of fun. The author goes to some pains to explain that this is not a “best of” type of book. The selections are certainly not evenly distributed among whisky types, countries or price. Indeed, there are some ridiculously priced rare whiskies in the list, and some (really) common budget blends. I do like the range of international whiskies included. A highly personal look at what one author considers distinctive. Each whisky is well described, with some interesting perspectives. Take it with a grain of your favourite grain whisky. 😉

if you were to buy just one book on whiskies, I would recommend the latest printing of Dr David Wishart’s Whisky Classified. It is surprising to me that this book is not better known among whisky enthusiasts, but I imagine the statistical methodology is not something most people are familiar with. But as I show on this site, the approach taken by Dr Wishart is the most appropriate to clasifying whisky. The book also has plenty of interesting background on whisky making, and detailed discussions of over a hundred individual whiskies (one per distillery).

Lastly, Whisky Advocate magazine is a good read. Tons of articles in every issue, often with a strong travelog feel. As a result, I find they tend to go a bit over the top on the “terroir” aspect (see my discussion here of what to watch out for on this topic). And of course, you get the short blurbs and scores on recently whiskies (although those are also available for free on the whiskyadvocate.com website).

Hope you find those to be good starting off points!

Helping you choose your next whisky

Selfbuilt

The goal of this site is to help you make sense of whisky flavours and quality, to aid you in selecting ones you may be interested in trying – based on your personal preferences. Please refer to the menu bar at the top of the page for all the detailed background and analysis articles, as well as the link to the full Whisky Database.

This site aims to provide a comparative assessment of whiskies, based on a proper scientific meta-analysis of descriptions and scores given by whisky reviewers with extensive experience.

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