Tag Archives: Alberta

Masterson’s 10 Year Old Rye

Masterson’s 10 year old rye whisky is distilled in Canada by Alberta Distillers, for 35 Maple Street in California. A similar arrangement exists with Whistlepig in Vermont – although in that case, Whistlepig does extra cask finishing of the Alberta Distillers whisky. As far as I know, 35 Maple Street simply selects the casks it wants from Alberta Distillers, and then bottles them immediately.

35 Maple Street has a long history in the California wine industry. The Masterson’s name comes from Bat Masterson, a larger-than-life adventurer of the American old west  – and one who, like this whisky, was born in Canada (and inspired a certain amount of controversy). You can read more about the history of this whisky at CanadianWhisky.org.

Ironically, coming from an American producer, it actually has to be imported back into the Canada to be sold here. That said, the LCBO website correctly identifies the country of origin of this whisky as Canada (while citing 35 Maple Street as the producer).  I couldn’t help but notice that all the bottles on the shelf at my local LCBO have a blacked-out statement on them (contrast enhanced to reveal on the right).

I won’t belabour the point, but a lot of commentators (on both sides of the border) don’t particularly like the lack of clarity around country of origin in how this whisky is presented by 35 Maple St. The LCBO magic marker solution is novel, though. 😉

Like with Canadian Club 100% Rye (also made by Alberta Distillers), Masterson’s 10 yo is a straight 100% unmalted rye whisky. This means that enzymes have to be added to help break down the rye starch into sugar for fermentation.  A common enough practice in Canada (especially for Alberta Distillers, who produce their own enzymes).

In keeping with the U.S. “straight” designation, the whisky used for the Masterson’s brand is matured in virgin charred oak barrels – giving it a bolder taste than what you normally find in most Canadian rye whiskies. It is bottled at 45% ABV (also unusual for Canada).  It currently sells for $105 CAD at the LCBO – which makes it one of the most expensive Canadian ryes (although that again is probably due in part to the re-importation issue).

Here is how it compares to other Canadian rye whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Alberta Premium: 8.22 ± 0.58 on 11 reviews ($)
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.61 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.33 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 8.99 ± 0.29 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel: 8.61 ± 0.42 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.76 ± 0.50 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.58 ± 0.35 on 16 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (all batches): 8.77 ± 0.42 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.03 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.66 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.86 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40: 8.91 ± 0.36 on 20 reviews ($$)
Masterson’s Straight Barley: 10yo 8.58 ± 0.61 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo: 8.88 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews ($$$$)
Masterson’s Straight Wheat 12yo: 8.63 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Whistlepig 10yo: 8.85 ± 0.43 on 15 reviews ($$$$)
Whistlepig The Boss Hog (all batches): 8.82 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)

As you can see, Masterson’s 10yo rye gets a very high score for this class.

My bottle is from the recent batch 015. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very woody nose, with tons of oak. Lots of fruit, with bananas, peaches, apricots – and even pineapple. The rye has a sweet and light floral element to it, like cherry blossoms (I’m also getting some raspberry now). The sweetness is almost candied in fact. There is vanilla of course, and something dry, like seasoned tobacco or tannic tea. Pepper. Faint solvent note, more like toluene than the typical acetone. Very rich and deep rye nose, it’s a pleasure to keep coming back to it.

Palate: It is all sweet honey, vanilla and caramel up front. Then tons of zingy spice hit you – with hot cinnamon and all spice, mixed with pepper. It packs quite a kick, and has that candied cinnamon sensation of Swedish fish (which I like). The fruity and floral elements re-enter and linger afterwards. Interestingly, both black and red licorice make an appearance. A vague earthiness also shows up, with that tobacco note again. Good mouthfeel, leaves you wanting more.

Finish: Very long (for a Canadian rye whisky). Pepper and cinnamon lead off, but then fade as the sweet fruits and some brown sugar come in.  The tobacco note lingers throughout, with some definite leather now. Frankly, there are a lot of the palate notes coming and going during the finish on this one – very tasty, and surprisingly complex.

I can see why this a top-ranked whisky in my database – it is a very impressive presentation. The virgin oak cask aging in particular is really adding to the character here. Is it worth the retail price here in Canada (as an imported product)?  Perhaps not, but I am happy to have my bottle. Like many here though, I wish Alberta Distillers would release quality products like this directly into the home market.

Most reviewers of this whisky are extremely positive, such as Jason of In Search of Elegance, Davin of Canadian Whisky, Jim Murray, and S.D. of Whiskey Reviewer. More moderately positive are Geoffrey and John of Whisky Advocate and Josh the Whiskey Jug. The least positive review I’ve seen comes from Chip the Rum Howler (and a number of reviewers on Reddit). Mark Bylok of Whsky Buzz explores the various batches of Masteron’s. Sadly, batch 015 doesn’t score as well as most of the others in his assessment (making wonder what I might have missed out on by not buying a bottle sooner).

Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old

The Highwood Ninety 20yo is one of the higher-end expressions from the Alberta distiller Highwood – better known for the Centennial and Century Reserve lines of Canadian whiskies. And note that while this is marketed as a “rye whisky” (like all Canadian whisky), I believe the Ninety 20yo is actually a pure corn whisky.

I previously reviewed the more entry-level 5yo expression of the “Ninety” series (so named for the proof – both whiskies are bottled at 45% ABV). As you saw in that earlier review, while the 5yo had potential, I felt it really needed extra aging to tame its youthful characteristics.  Let’s see if the 20yo lives up to the promise.

Here is how the Highwood Ninety whiskies compare to other higher-end and/or aged Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.39 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.95 ± 0.4 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, for the price (~$50 CAD at the LCBO), the Highwood Ninety 20yo scores very well for a Canadian whisky.  I received two samples of this whisky from  Canadian Reddit users Devoz and wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Slightly sweet, but my main impression is that of a dry dustiness. There is grassiness and definite floral suggestion – very “earthy” overall.  Little fruit to speak of.  Unapologetic organic solvent smell, mainly acetone (with a touch of glue). You can sense the higher ABV. A classic grain-forward Alberta nose.

Palate:  Definite sweetness up front, with a strong toffee/butterscotch flavour. Gives me a creamy Caramilk bar sensation.  Dusty rye-like spices pop up quickly (cloves and nutmeg), and there is a spicy, peppery kick to it – with distinctive peppermint. The earthy notes from the nose continue (leather? tobacco?).  Maybe even a touch of anise now. This is a complex body, and the flavours come in waves. Definitely one you want to keep exploring. Very nice.

Finish:  Fairly long finish, well balanced overall (although the solvent aroma may linger). The light sweetness persists, along with a somewhat earthy/grassy feel.  Makes you want to go back and explore the palate further, though. A bit of dry heat builds up over repeated sips, due the higher ABV.

Highwood.Ninety.20I would think this one is fine as is (i.e., neat). A splash of water helps dampen the acetone on the nose slightly, and further accentuates the creamy butterscotch/caramel in the mouth. Also seems to soften the “earthiness” in the finish, without affecting the grassiness.

Looking over my tasting notes, I can see how this 20yo expression fits in well with the Ninety line. The evolution of the flavours from the 5yo makes sense, with the extended barrel aging. I particularly like the rich caramel/toffee notes now.

I’m not a fan of solventy smells myself, so I would rate this whisky just a touch lower than the Meta-Critic average.  I’m actually a bit surprised that the extended aging hasn’t attenuated this characteristic further. It was of course more pronounced on the Highwood Ninety 5yo.

For additional reviews, David de Kergommeaux of Canadian Whisky and Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance provide comparable ratings of this 20yo expression. The four lead reviewers at Quebec Whisky provide a nicely balanced set of views and commentaries.

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.

Highwood.Ninety.5As 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.

 

 

 

Alberta Premium

Some things mystify me in the whisky reviewing world (okay, many things!). When looking into entry-level expressions, sooner or later I come across a reviewer who just seems to love one of these cheap budget products. Now, in the case of the entry-priced Canadian Club 100% Rye, I could understand that – it is actually an impressive quality product, clearly priced low to gather attention. But outside of the fictional Don Draper, I can’t imagine anyone actually recommending standard entry-level Canadian Club (aka “CC Premium”) as a top-pick in the world of whisky.

The recently discussed Alberta Premium Dark Horse is another example of an excellent bargain, as it is typically priced just a few dollars more than the base Alberta Premium. But what to make of the entry-level Alberta Premium? Identified as a straight 100% rye grain whisky, Alberta Distillers explains on its website that it is a blending of two whiskies, one of which is a “flavouring whisky” that was aged in used bourbon casks. The final product has apparently been aged for 5 years.

For an entry-level expression, Alberta Premium has an impressive Meta-Critic Score – a just slightly below average 8.37 ± 0.51, based on 9 reviews. Could a mass-produced Canadian rye whisky really compete on that scale, across all whiskies in the database?

The tip-off that something unusual is going on here is the fairly large standard deviation above. Basically, two reviewers love it, putting it in the top ~15-20% of all their whisky reviews. One reviewer finds it about average. The rest didn’t care for it much – with four putting it in the bottom ~15-25% of all whiskies tasted. I describe a slightly more balanced example of this divergence phenomenon with the Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 18 year olds here. In the case of AP, I personally have to side with the majority opinion and consider this to be one of the least interesting rye whiskies I’ve tried.

That said, I don’t find anything seriously wrong with it. For me, many whiskies at this price point are marred by undesirable characteristics in either the nose or finish (and would most likely benefit from extended aging to help smooth out the base spirit further). Although Mrs Selfbuilt reports a distinctly chemical solvent smell and taste to AP, I find it to be relatively inoffensive (for this entry level class). I just don’t see what there is to recommend it. Given its somewhat bland nature, I can only presume AP is designed to appeal to those who plan to use it as a rye for mixed drinks (given its lack of a strong character, one way or the other).

But there is one thing that is distinctive about Alberta Premium – the distribution of bottle sizes. I recently did an analysis of Canadian whisky inventory at the LCBO. Like most entry-level Canadian whiskies, Alberta Premium is available in a wide range of bottle sizes. However, unlike the industry heavyweights, the distribution of sizes for AP is skewed to smaller-than-typical bottles. Here is a comparison to the entry-level expressions from Canadian Club (Premium/Classic) and Gibson’s (12yo/Sterling):

Canadian whisky bottle size distributionMost high-volume distillers offer their entry level products in patterns similar to Canadian Club (roughly equivalent numbers of different size bottles) or Gibson’s (weighed toward larger bottle sizes). AP differs in that it offers a proportionally large share of smaller sized bottles, at least in Ontario.

Alberta Premium bottleOne possible inference from this is that the other makers already have significant market share, and are thus able to more easily sell large bottles of their product. In this interpretation, AP may be trying to get people to taste their product by offering it predominantly in smaller bottles. After all, you are more likely to take a chance on new product if it is in a small bottle at a lower price. Of course, the opposite interpretation would be that they may figure their best option to sell the stuff is by keeping the price particularly low to move inventory. 😉

In any case, to get some contrasting views of Alberta Premium, please check out the Quebec Whisky site. Whisky Won is another review site that I think has the measure of this whisky.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Alberta Premium Dark Horse is a very distinctive offering in the Canadian landscape.

Known for their expertise in producing 100% rye whiskies, Alberta Distillers has produced an unusual beast with their Dark Horse (also known as Alberta Rye Dark Batch in the US, due to copyright issues with the dark horse name).

Alberta Distillers has been up-front about what is in here. Most of the bottle (~90%) is a mix of two types of Canadian rye whisky: High ABV rye aged for 12 years in used barrels, and low ABV pot still rye aged for 6 years in new barrels. Rounding out all that rye whisky is ~8% of US-made bourbon (believed to be Old Grand-Dad – we’ll get back to this in a moment). But the really distinctive element is ~0.5-1% sherry added directly to the mix. The final whisky is then aged in heavily-charred American oak barrels, bottled at 45% ABV, and sold at a very competitive price.

While the addition of actual sherry into the mix may seem like a cheat to single malt fans, it is the net effect of traditional aging of whiskies in ex-sherry casks. I’ve seen estimates online that 500L first-fill casks can contain up to 7L of the previous product (stored in the wood staves). Over time, this migrates and mixes with the new make product, producing a distinctive end result (i.e., a sherry bomb whisky). Rather than aging Dark Horse in (expensive) first-fill sherry barrels, they went right to the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and simply added in an equivalent amount of actual sherry before aging in traditional barrels. This makes Dark Horse a sherry-bomb version of a Canadian rye whisky.

But what about the main elements of the mix, specifically that corn whisky? Note that despite the “rye whisky” moniker, most Canadian whisky is actually a blend of a relatively small amount of low-proof rye “flavouring” whisky added to high-proof grain whisky. Sometimes that includes Canadian-made corn whisky in the mix.

While this composition may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you know about the 9.09% rule. A long time ago, it was decided that you could add 1/10 volume of non-Canadian whisky to a Canadian whisky and still allow it to be sold as such. Legend has it that this was to allow Canadian whisky to be sold in the US under generous tax break exemptions given to US products. Basically, Canadian distillers would import cheap US-made Bourbon, add it to Canadian whisky (up to 9.09% final volume, which is an additional 1/10) and then sell the concomitant blend back in the US as “Canadian whisky” and reap a tax break.

Here in Canada, there was no need to actually use US bourbon. Apparently, distillers just kept the original Canadian formulations intact for the products intended for domestic consumption. This was possible since the US versions were adjusted to match the standard Canadian flavour profile. But this practice seems to only have been applied to value blends destined for mixing – premium products are a different story.  While it was initially reported that Dark Horse would be using Canadian corn whisky (done bourbon-style), this was quickly corrected by Beam-Suntory, who were open about the use of US bourbon from the beginning.  At some point, they also confirmed that it was Old Grand-Dad bourbon specifically (although I can’t find an official published source for that).

FYI, there’s a good public article about the 9.09% rule – as it applies to the US-release of this whisky – by Davin de Kergommeaux on Whisky Advocate.

Personally, I find the Dark Horse to be an exceptionally good value in the Canadian whisky landscape. The Meta-Critic database seems a bit mixed on this one though, giving it an 8.67 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews. While that is above average for a Canadian whisky, it is still toward the mid-range of scores in this category. But you can’t beat the price – along with CC 100% Rye, this is a quality product masquerading at an entry-level budget price. It is different though, so I would recommend it to fans of Canadian rye who are looking to expand into new flavour profiles.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen of the Alberta Premium Dark Horse is by Davin de Kergommeaux. Jason Hambrey gives a more typical rating on his Whisky Won site.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Something else that stirs up mixed feelings about this whisky – its suitability for mixed drinks (sorry for the pun). 😉 Because of the strong sherry influence, I would have thought that this whisky is best served as a gentle sipper (preferably neat). Dave Broom seems to agree – in his mixed-drink book The Whisky Manual, he gave this whisky relatively low scores when mixed with five classic mixes (i.e., Soda, cola, ginger ale, coconut water and green tee). But he does point out that it could work well in a sazerac style cocktail. According to David de Kergommeaux in the earlier link above, Dark Horse has apparently become a popular mixing rye in bars, as well as a bartender’s favourite for their own concoctions. Hopefully you will enjoy experimenting with this versatile and distinctive Canadian whisky.