Tag Archives: Canadian

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.

 

 

 

Whisky Prices World-Wide

A recent excellent series of price analyses by Michael of the Diving for Pearls whisky blog – entitled “Scotch Ain’t Dead Yet” – got me thinking about common perceptions of whisky pricing world-wide.  In particular, his second post about changes in US prices over time.

Like Michael, I too use wine-searcher.com to track typical current whisky prices (this is in fact the main resource for generating the “$” estimates in my whisky database). But this is supplemented by various Provincial liquor agency websites in Canada, as well as my own records during international travels (e.g., see my recent Whisky in Korea and Whisky in Japan articles). I have provided some very limited analyses of Canadian whisky volume and recent LCBO pricing here in Ontario – although if you really want to track LCBO prices over time, I suggest you try out the excellent LiQuery website.

My concern here is a bit different. One of the challenges to integrating reviewer scores is how each reviewer feels about prices, and whether or not they explicitly take prices into account with their scoring. As previously observed here, there is a weak correlation between scores and price (i.e., it isn’t as strong as you might expect). Cearly, we can all be influenced by price – after all, it is natural to associate more expensive with higher quality.

But another confound to this analysis is whether or not reviewers actually discount their scores on the basis of price (i.e., giving more expensive whiskies a lower rating due to a lower perceived value for money). I adjust for this in the analysis for the limited cases where it is explicitly made clear as part of the reviewer’s scoring method – but it’s hard to know how price affects everyone’s relative quality perceptions overall.

The other challenge is whether reviewers are using a very regional filter for price (i.e., their personal experience, locally). One thing I come across a lot in review commentaries are statements as to how relatively expensive certain classes of whisky are in the reviewer’s home country.  For example, it is a common complaint to note how much Japanese whisky has increased in price over the last couple of years (and how availability has dropped), due to excessive demand. It is also natural to assume that the whisky produced in one own’s country is relatively cheaper than imported whisky.

But are these assumptions valid, world-wide? It seems as if most reviewers imagine their target audience are those who experience similar pricing constraints as their own – which may not be the case, given the reach of the globalized internet. I’ll come back to this point again at the end.

It is of course difficult to accurately compare whisky prices world-wide, due to limited regional availability of certain classes and styles (and limited internet sales in some countries – especially Asia).  Currency fluctuations also wreak havoc in making general observations.  But I have followed a small basket of commonly available international whiskies world-wide in my travels (and online researches), and have found a few peculiarities over time.

First let’s start with the big picture: how much does a basket of widely available (i.e., largely entry-and mid-level) international whiskies cost from one country to the next? Ranked from lowest to highest price:

Japan << Canada = USA < UK < Taiwan << Korea

Note that ALL whisky in Japan right now is remarkably cheap, when currency-adjusted, due to the relative low value of the Yen (January 2016). Typically, Japanese, Canadian, American and UK whiskies currently sell in Japan for about half what they cost in the rest of the world (!).  For example, right now in Tokyo, I could pick up Jim Beam White for $12 CAD, JW Red or Crown Royal for $16 CAD, Glenfiddich 12yo for $29 CAD, and Hibiki Harmony for $48 CAD. Mind you, it wasn’t always like this – two years ago, most everything sold for only a slight discount compared to Canadian prices. And it may easily revert in a short while – again, that’s currency fluctuations for you.

But a key thing to note above is that Japanese whisky is actually as expensive to purchase in Japan as it is in other countries, in relative terms. Note that I am specifically referring to the commonly exported whiskies that I track world-wide. There are certainly cheaper domestic budget blends that are still affordable in Japan. But proportionately-speaking, quality Japanese whiskies available for export remain equally as expensive on their home territory as they do in Canada, the USA or the UK.

In contrast, Korea is one of the most expensive places I’ve found to buy whiskies – likely due to unusually high government taxes.

In any case, that’s the current big picture assessment.  But it gets even more interesting when you break it down by whisky type.

For this analysis, I will include a focus on the most populous Provinces in Canada (BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). I will leave out Taiwan and Korea, since I have less data (and the pattern doesn’t change much from above anaway). I will bold the host country in the listings below, for clarity. And as before, I am ranking countries/provinces from lowest price to highest price (from left to right).

UK whiskies:

Entry-level UK blends (e.g., JW Red, Ballantines Finest, etc):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level UK blends (e.g., JW Black, Chivas 12, etc):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = USA < BC = UK

Entry-level UK malts (e.g., Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie 12 DW, Laphroaig 10, etc):
Japan < UK < AB = USA < ON = QC < BC

Now that’s a surprise: on a currency-adjusted basis, the cheapest UK blended whiskies are actually relatively cheaper in Canada – compared to either the USA or UK.  But as you start to go up in quality (and price), the trend quickly reverses. By the time you get to entry-level malts, they are definitely cheaper in the UK, with Canada being noticeably more expensive. The exception is Alberta, which is typically the best place to pick up Scottish single malts in Canada (i.e., you can find typical USA prices).

I haven’t tracked medium and higher priced single malts in this basket, but my quick checks tell me this latter pattern persists (i.e., UK is cheaper, followed by USA, then Canada). So the presumption of UK reviewers that single malts are cheaper in their country seems to be true (except, of course, for Japan at the moment).

American whiskies:

Entry-level whiskies (e.g., Jim Beam White, Jack Daniels Black, Four Roses Yellow, WT, etc.):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level bourbons (e.g., Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig 12, Woodford Reserve, etc.)
Japan < USA = ON = QC <  AB = BC < UK

Again, Canada does surprisingly well price-wise for US bourbon, being equivalent (or cheaper!) on a currency-adjusted basis.  Unfortunately though, we don’t really get much of the top-shelf stuff here.  The few we do get are still quite attractive, especially in Ontario and Quebec (e.g., Bulleit 10yo is $50 CAD in Ontario, compared to an average USA price of ~$72 CAD). If the Canadian dollar continues on its current downward course, we soon may have American tourists visiting Canadian border towns for better deals!

Japanese whiskies:

Note that true entry-level Japanese whiskies don’t typically get exported – we are looking at a better class of whiskies here.

Mid-level whiskies (e.g., Nikka Coffey Malt/Grain, Taketsuru NAS/12, From the Barrel; Hibiki Harmony, etc.):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = UK <= USA = BC < Taiwan << Korea

Again, Alberta is the place to be in Canada to find reasonably-priced Japanese whisky. In some cases, the USA does as well as the rest of Canada or the UK, but it is somewhat variable.

I’ve added Taiwan and Korea back in the list above, as Japanese whisky is relatively easy to find in both places. You really pay a lot for it in Korea, though (I believe there is an additional surtax for Japanese goods).

Canadian Whiskies:

Entry-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal, Canadian Club, etc.):
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB = USA < UK

Mid-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal Black, CC Classic 12, etc.)
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB < USA << UK

Basically a similar pattern. Although there are some states in the USA where entry-level Canadian whisky is cheaper or comparable to here, for the most part the best deals on Canadian whisky are in Canada. Note that we actually export a lot of really cheap stuff to the USA that is not even sold in Canada. And we really don’t export much of the higher-shelf whiskies.

As you go up in quality (and price), Canadian whisky gets harder to find in the world – and proportionately more expensive when you can.  It’s an interesting finding that Alberta has worse prices on Canadian whisky, compared to the others (but the difference isn’t huge).

Korean whiskies:

No such thing, really.  Although there are a couple of domestic Korean brands (with a good number of expressions each), these are actually all sourced from imported Scottish whisky blends. The prices tend to be comparable to standard Scottish whiskies, and these domestic “brands” are not sold outside of Korea.

Given how popular whisky is in Korea, it’s actually a bit surprising to me how much it costs across the board there.

Taiwanese Whiskies:

Taiwan = Japan < AB < ON = UK < USA << Korea

I wasn’t able to find a lot of full bottles of Taiwanese whisky in Japan, so I’m really going more by miniatures above. You also don’t find a lot of Taiwanese whisky available in Canada. But the general trend is certainly that Taiwan is the best place to buy Taiwanese whisky (along with Japan). It was hard to find in Korea, and fairly expensive when I did.

Wrapping Up!

Ok, so what is the general take-home message from the above?

The general presumption that domestically-produced whisky is sold at lower prices than imports to that country is generally true – but only for the decent mid-level (and higher) expressions. At the entry-level, it can be surprising just how cheap foreign whisky can be – and domestic whisky can often be sold more cheaply in other countries.

Shop_LocalI know that’s not what advocates of “buy local” initiatives want to hear – but it can actually be cheaper for consumers to pick up higher quality products shipped from further away, compared to what is produced domestically. I’m personally struck by that every time I see the Ontario wines at the front LCBO – I can typically head to the Vintages section in the back of the store and get much better gold-medal winning French reds for the same price. Don’t get me wrong – we make a lot of decent wine here in Ontario – it is just typically  too expensive relative to the quality of imports that I can buy for the same price.

Getting back to whiskies, I suspect part of the reason is the differing tax regimes in different countries on different classes of goods. In all countries, the predominant determinant of final whisky price is government tax. So if governments decide to charge less tax for domestic products, the local consumer (and/or local industry) is better off. But surprisingly, this isn’t a given. Here’s a recent price mark-up sheet from the LCBO: note that the relative discount for Canadian whisky production is actually quite low (i.e., not that much better off than foreign imports).

Beyond taxes, there are other peculiarities at play. just look at how Alberta fares for Canadian whisky compared to Scottish single malts, or Ontario for American whiskies.  I am not sure what the reasons are for these apparent discrepancies – but it means that the savvy shopper can look out for what is the best deal where they live.

I also think it’s a good idea for whisky reviewers who factor price into their assessments to consider the relative price of whiskies world-wide. It’s certainly a fair approach to discount the rating of a given whisky based on its relative price – but that needs to be explicitly stated, and the price really should be considerate of the wider international reading audience, not just domestic. Of course, this is more work for all involved. Personally, I find it easier to ignore relative price (as best I can), and just focus on the taste and character when reviewing or ranking a whisky.

One final point to re-iterate, since it comes up a lot: surprisingly, decent Japanese whisky is expensive everywhere – both in its domestic market and abroad.  And it’s actually harder to find the higher-end stuff in Japan than it is elsewhere right now, as they seem to be bleeding their domestic market to meet international contracts. It will be interesting to see if this trend persists in the coming years. As I point out in my November 2015 Whisky in Japan article, a lot has changed there in less than two years!

Gooderham & Worts Four Grain Whisky

For those from the Toronto area, the name Gooderham & Worts name should sound familiar – it is still prominently displayed in the city’s trendy and historic distillery district.  Of course, the distillery itself – once the larger distiller of alcoholic spirits in Canada – has long since closed.

Canadian whisky connoisseurs will know of Gooderham & Worts from Corby’s limited release “Canadian Whisky Guild” series of the late 1990s. These were meant to showcase earlier styles of whisky making, apparently using older recipes and approaches. While short-lived at the time, two of the other members of this series – Lot 40 and Pike Creek – have both returned in recent years, apparently as modern staples of Corby’s craft whisky line.

Completing the triumvirate is the return of Gooderham & Worts – a “four grain” whisky blend of corn, rye, wheat and barley, now bottled at 44.4% ABV.

Let’s see how it does in my Whisky Database:

Gooderham & Worts: 8.61 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews

That is an above-average score for my database, with below-average variance – despite the limited number of reviews. Currently, my database Meta-critic average is ~8.55 ± 0.56, for all whiskies, world-wide.

To put that in perspective, let’s see how some of the other popular blended Canadian whiskies in the same ~$40-50 CAD price range compare. The Gooderham and Worts is currently $45 at the LCBO.

Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Pike Creek 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews
Stalk & Barrel 11+1: 8.28 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.06 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews

The Gooderham & Worts seems well within the typical score range for Canadian whisky at this price point.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet up front, somewhat floral, and surprisingly fruity for the relatively high ABV.  Notes of pear, cherries, oranges, peaches and apricots. Bubble-gum too. There’s a sweet creamy texture to the aromas, like condensed milk or creamed wheat, which is quite distinctive. There is a noticeable solvent smell initially, with acetone particularly prominent (i.e., nail polish remover). Fortunately, this fades once you let it sit in the glass for awhile – so I recommend you pour yourself a dram, and leave it alone for at least 5 mins before sampling.

Palate:  A real Canadian rye blend, through and through. The sweet floral and fruity notes show up first (and that bubble-gum again), then waves of the classic rye “baking spices” of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and all-spice. These notes really dominate and persist for a good while, drowning out almost everything else in the blend. A bit of the wheat persists throughout, but it’s subtle below the rye (and the corn is nowhere to be found). Odd that I wasn’t really getting all that much rye on the nose – too much else going on, I guess. You get some of the classic vanilla and caramel flavours as well – along with a slightly woody character.

Gooderham.WortsFinish: Medium long, with cinnamon hearts and cloves all the way to the end – a very nice spicy finish. Somewhat drying on the tongue, there is a bit of the wheat sweetness persisting for a good while as well. This makes a nice change from the bitter finishes of some of the cheaper Canadian blends (with their up-front corn sweetness).

As you can tell from the above, I quite liked this whisky. I do think the overall meta-critic score is fair, given the unfortunate initial solvent note (that mercifully dissipates over time). This is a likely a sign the young age of the grain whiskies in the blend. I would also have expected a bit more of the wheat and barley to shine through – although this does make a very decent Canadian rye blend as is.

Although Lot 40 has been a success for Corby, I don’t know if the resurrected Gooderham & Worts will catch on and persist as long. So if you are curious to try G&W, you may not want to wait too long.

For some additional reviews of this expression, I recommend you check out the reviews by Jason at Whisky Won, Ryan at ScotchBlog.ca, Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail, and Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky.

Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary)

Crown Royal is a well established Canadian blended whisky maker, with a fairly wide range of products available. I have been exploring some of the higher-end offerings lately, and thoughtfully received a bottle of Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary Blend) this year for Christmas.

Apparently, Crown Royal had some trouble with using the “Monarch” label, so they had to switch to calling this the “75th Anniversary” blend. It is designed to simulate the original style of Crown Royal produced in honour of the Royal Family visit in 1939. As such, it apparently contains a high proportion of coffey-still rye, including some old stock made at the original Waterloo, Ontario plant.

Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average meta-critic score (highest first):

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.94 ± 0.55 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.25 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.27 ± 0.53 on 13 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.75 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)

There are certainly more expressions available out there, but these get among the greatest attention. See my Whisky Database for more examples.

This bottle was picked up at the LCBO for $60 CAD, although availability is currently limited.

Here are my detailed tasting notes on Monarch 75th Anniversary (batch 6):

Nose: Rye spices are present (cinnamon and cloves in particular), along with the classic oaky aromas. The main “sweet and fruity” aroma that I get is pleasant, but somewhat candied. Frankly, it reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum (although slightly flat Coke also comes to mind).  I get a bit of green apple (which is common to Crown Royal) – but nothing like the overwhelming apple I detected on the Northern Harvest Rye. Maybe a bit of banana – but not in an offensive way (and I am personally sensitive to rotting banana aromas). A well done nose, with no false notes. It especially lacks that solvent smell which is common to cheaper Canadian blends.

Palate: A relatively sweet entry for a rye whisky – but not cloying in the way that most Crown Royals are (IMO). There is a good integration of the rye spices with classic grain whisky “smoothness” throughout the palate. I get a lot of the well-aged charred oak barrel vanillins (caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, etc). I also get the some of the concentrated darker fruits that I like in a whisky (i.e., figs, raisins, etc). Personally, I find no trace of the typical grapefruity bitterness that quickly creeps in on most Crown Royals. Well done!

Finish: Pleasantly long, creamy, and with no unexpected after-tastes. The same notes as the palate just gently mellow away over time.

Although the term is overused, this is a “smooth” and easily drinkable whisky. The Northern Harvest Rye is interesting, and a great way to experience a lot of rye “kick” within the confines of the classic Crown Royal characteristics (i.e., cloyingly sweet on the entry, very bitter on the exit). But the best thing I can say for Monarch is that it doesn’t taste like a typical Crown Royal. 😉

Crown.Royal.MonarchI think Monarch makes for a great sipper, and is likely to be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced whisky drinkers alike. Basically, it reminds me of a lighter (and younger) version of Gibson’s 18yo. Alternatively, you could think of it as akin to a longer-aged Hibiki Harmony. Either way, an easy-drinking dram.

For more opinions on this whisky, I note that Davin de Kergommeaux at Whisky Advocate named this whisky  Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2015.  Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail is also a big fan, giving this the highest whisky score I’ve seen from him to date. For a dissenting voice, check out André at Quebec Whisky. Jason at Whisky Won also has a more balanced overall score.

Update (January 19, 2016): Judging from the comments on my corresponding review of this whisky on Reddit, it seems like there may be significant batch variability (with most recent batches being less impressive). Also, note that the LCBO has removed this whisky from their online website, although some stores may still have inventory. Here is the last recorded inventory list for this whisky on Liquery.com.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

It is very rare to have a relatively entry-level rye whisky fly off the shelves – but that is what you get for being named “world whisky of the year” by Jim Murray. 🙂

A new product from Crown Royal, Northern Harvest Rye is a blended Canadian whisky composed of 90% rye. Priced attractively at ~$30 CAD, it is now virtually impossible to find it here in Ontario. Indeed, despite having secured the largest allocation of this product in Canada, the LCBO has just taken the extraordinary step of removing the direct inventory link for this item from its website.

Having personally tracked inventory patterns for several weeks now, it appears the LCBO is consolidating shipments. That is, only a single store in any given geographical region gets a delivery – but with a sizable allotment of bottles when it comes. These focused deliveries have been revolving through the local stores in my area, with no advance warning (according to those outlets). Yet despite this, any store that receives a shipment sells out within hours – due to word quickly spreading by social media (which is how I finally managed to find a bottle).

So, does the whisky live up its hype? Given the interest, I thought I’d do a full review with detailed tastings notes before exploring the whisky database results in more detail. On that front, I will also present a statistical analysis and discussion of Mr Murray’s scoring patterns later in this review. 😉

Nose: This is a fragrant whisky  – I could smell it while pouring the glass, at counter height. The overwhelming aroma is one of sweet apple – red apples, green apples, pear apples, etc. There is a creamy sweetness overall, with some notes of caramel and vanilla. You also get some of the classic rye “baking spices”, especially nutmeg, but these aren’t overly strong. Taken together, this is a veritable baked apple pie in a glass! There are additional fruit notes present (e.g., berries, cherries, etc.), but I find they take a back seat. If you search for it, you might be able to detect a slight acetone smell – but its well buried below the fruit.  Initial impression is quite favourable, but the candied sweetness may be off-putting for some (i.e. it smells like it is part apple liqueur).

Palate: Bold and fruit-forward, with all the initial hallmarks of a good Canadian rye whisky. I find the apple (while still present) is mercifully subdued now, and the other fruits quickly come to the surface (especially red fruits and berries). Butterscotch/caramel and vanilla are also more prominent, and the rest of the classic rye baking spices show up – including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all-spice. Maybe even cardamon – there’s something that reminds me of chai masala here (i.e., black tea with Indian spices and milk). There is also definite oak now, which I found was missing on the nose. The only problem for me is the bitterness which comes in at the end (think strong grapefruit) – it’s quite prominent, and ruins what would otherwise be a consistently top-tasting Canadian rye blend.

Finish: Unfortunately, the bitterness that develops at the end of the palate is slow to clear – and when it does, so has everything else!  I suppose this encourages you to take another sip, but then you just start the whole cycle over again. Putting this lingering bitterness aside, there is not really that much else going here – the same flavours as the palate, only more subdued and fading. I find the finish to be rather weak, and out of character with the impressively strong nose and palate.

So, how does this whisky compare to other inexpensive (and predominantly rye) Canadian whiskies in my database?

Alberta Premium: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews

This relative reviewer ranking shows pretty clearly where Northern Harvest Rye fits in – which is also pretty in keeping with relative prices (at least at the LCBO). Personally, I would rank Alberta Premium Dark Horse and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye both a bit higher in that list, but the overall ranking seems reasonable.

Let’s see how it does relative to the other well-known Crown Royals:

Crown Royal: 7.72 ± 0.52 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Black: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Special Reserve: 8.79 ± 0.62 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.91 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews

Corwn.Royal.HarvestInterestingly, Northern Harvest Rye effectively ties with Special Reserve, and rests below Monarch 75th Anniversary (although the number of reviews there is limited). I know there’s a bottle of Monarch waiting for me under the tree this year, so stay tuned for a follow-up review. 😉

Overall, I find this to be a decent Canadian rye whisky, with a lot going for it. I suppose it could be a good choice as a “sipping whisky” – although the overt sweetness on the nose and the bitterness on the finish detract for me personally.

If you want to read more opinions of this whisky, the three highest-scoring reviews in my database come from Jim Murray, Chip the Rum Howler, and Jason of Whisky Won. Personally, my relative ranking would fall closer in line with André, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. See also Josh of the Whiskey Jug for a slightly lower score and review.

Understanding Jim Murray’s Score

Jim Murray’s annual “whisky of the year” tends to garner a lot attention and controversy – and this year’s top pick has elicited more than the usual hand-wringing online and in the media. Much of the online commentary has been quite negative, with many accusing Mr. Murray of pulling an attention-seeking publicity stunt (see for example the Whisky Sponge).

While all would likely agree that Northern Harvest Rye is an above-average Canadian rye whisky blend for the price, it is a bit hard to understand how anyone could consider this one of the highest ranking whiskies ever – especially such an experienced reviewer like Mr Murray. His 97.5 score and “world whisky of the year” designation thus seem rather over the top!

A thoughtful concern, as expressed on Whisky Won, is that superlative scores by Mr Murray for entry-level Canadian ryes – like Alberta Premium and Northern Harvest – may actually be harmful for the reputation of Canadian whisky world-wide. Many will rush out, keen to try whiskies that routinely exceed 95 points on Mr Murray’s scale – only to walk walk away disappointed by the relative quality in the end.

But are these selections really as surprising as they seem?  What is lacking in many of these discussions is an understanding of how Mr Murray (or any reviewer) actually scores their whiskies.

One the advantages of running a meta-critic analysis site is that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how individual reviewers score whiskies. As explained here, scoring is simply a way of providing a relative rank to all the samples you have tried. It turns out most reviewers are actually quite consistent to each other in terms of their relative ranking. This is evidenced by the very good typical correlation of each reviewer to the properly normalized meta-critic scores (r=~0.75 across all reviewers). It is also the reason why you are better off just going by the meta-critic score – and not any one reviewer – when assessing overall quality. It’s good to keep in mind the biases and limitations inherent in quality ranking.

Mr Murray is actually something of an extreme case in my database. He has one of the lowest overall correlations to the combined meta-critic score (r<0.50). Indeed, he correlates quite poorly to all other reviewers in my database (paired correlations range from  r~0.10 to r=~0.45 to each reviewer, which are lower than typical). But that doesn’t mean he is entirely inconsistent in his scoring – there can be patterns in how he differs from the other reviewers.

For this simple analysis, I’ve looked at all the whiskies where Mr Murray’s normalized score deviates from the meta-critic score by a considerable margin. Using a cut-off of 1.5 standard deviation units, there are ~75 whiskies (out of >400 tracked) where Mr Murray’s score is that divergent from the combined meta-critic score. In particular, there are ~25 whiskies where he scores well above the norm, ~50 well below.

The larger number of cases where Mr. Murray scores below the norm are almost exclusively all single malt whiskies. These include many popular mid-range and high-end single malts (i.e., the mean and median costs are of these whiskies are higher than typical for my overall database).

In contrast, the smaller number of cases where Mr Murray scores above the norm are predominantly blends – including many Canadian rye whiskies. As you can imagine, the mean/median cost of these whiskies are below typical for the database.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the top scoring blends in this divergent high-ranking group. To limit the list, I am including only those that make it into the 65th percentile of Mr Murray’s scores (i.e., ones that score 92 and higher). I am also putting them in rank order, from lowest to highest Murray score.

Pendleton Let’er Buck (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic 8.12 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews
Canadian Club (Canada): – $ – Meta-critic: 7.25 ± 0.97 on 11 reviews
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.19 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews
Black Grouse (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.04 ± 0.56 on 15 reviews
Green Spot (Ireland) – $$$ – Meta-critic: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews
Jameson’s Whiskey (Ireland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 7.73 ± 0.62 on 13 reviews
Alberta Premium (Canada) – $ – Meta-critic: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Chivas Regal 25yo (Scotland) – $$$$$+ – Meta-critic: 8.73 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews
Ballantine’s (Scotland) – $ – Meta-critic: 7.66 ± 0.77 on 8 reviews
Johnnie Walker Black Label (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.37 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews

Notice something interesting about relative cost?  With a couple of exceptions, these are mainly entry-level budget blends.  There is thus a very consistent pattern in how Mr Murray deviates from the rest of the review community: whew he differs, he preferentially favours inexpensive blends, and is less impressed with more expensive single malts.

It is clear (from the Meta-critic scores above) that Northern Harvest is a better quality whisky than the other Canadian blends on that list. So Mr Murray may indeed still be providing a personal relative ranking among blends with his scores – it is just that the absolute value of his scores are inconsistent across blends and single malts.

For experienced whisky drinkers, it is hard to reconcile this scoring pattern with a consistent overall ranking across classes. One possible interpretation of the data is that Mr Murray is explicitly factoring price into his scores. There are several reviewers who do this when providing categorical labels (i.e, “must have”, “recommended”, “avoid”, etc). But Mr Murray’s self-reported method for assembling his scores leaves no room for this.

Further, there seems to a preference for budget blends over budget malts in his scoring, so it is not strictly limited to just price. Thus, an alternative interpretation – and one that seems to fit the data the best – is that Mr Murray is applying a different relative scale for his scoring of budget blends than he does to other whiskies (single malts in particular).

To sum up, the apparent inconsistency is not that Mr Murray gives Harvest Rye such an incredibly high score. Rather, it is that he gives so many entry-level blends such high scores to start with. He is thus fairly unique in the whisky reviewing universe, giving a good number of mass-produced budget blends equivalent (or higher) scores than selective smaller batch whiskies – even when made by the same producers.

 

 

Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).

 

Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.

 

Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.

 

Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.

 

 

 

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 

Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.

 

American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.

—-

Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

 

 

Lot 40

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottle

You can’t write a whisky blog in Canada and not mention Lot 40. 🙂

Lot 40 is made by Corby at the Hiram Walker facility (Corby is the same distiller responsible for the Wiser brand of whiskies). Lot 40 is actually a straight (i.e., 100%) rye whisky, and traces its ancestry back to the 18th century in Ontario, Canada. The name apparently refers to the lot where the distiller Joshua Booth’s farm was built. His whisky was resurrected by a descendent of the Booth family in the late 1990s as part of Hiram Walker’s short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series.

Lot 40 apparently developed a strong (if small) following, and was profoundly missed when production ceased in the early 2000s. Corby brought it back in 2012, with similar composition and packaging. AFAIK, it is all produced from a single 12,000 L copper pot still at the Hiram Walker & Sons plant in Windsor, Ontario. Originally a mix of rye grain and a small amount of malted rye, they switched in 2013 to using 100% unmalted rye whisky (meaning enzymes have to be added). Later batches (e.g., 2015 onward) may also have received more extensive barrel aging, but no age statement is given.

Since its re-release, it has remained a continual favourite with critics and rye whisky drinkers alike – racking up an impressive series of awards. It scores 8.99 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews in my database – which is impressive both for absolute value and consistency. It edges out the Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo (8.94 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews) and considerably out-competes the recent Canadian Club 100% Rye (8.64 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews). As previously discussed, I think the CC 100% Rye is a great whisky in its own right – but I have to agree that Lot 40 is better overall.

A truly stellar aspect of Lot 40 for me is its nose – a rich bouquet of baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular) and fragrant floral notes (including heather), with some dark fruits evident underneath. You can also smell the candied sweetness that is the characteristic of new charred oak barrels. Rich and complex, there are absolutely no false notes here­. Honestly I could smell it all night long (which, as my lovely wife has opined, would certainly make it last longer!). 😉

The palate is very pleasing as well, with much the same layered flavours as found on the nose. Not quite as fruit-forward as I was expecting, although still plenty of apple, pear and some prunes. A touch of anise. In addition to baking spices, it also reminds me a bit of the hot/sweet cinnamon candies I grew up on. However, I must admit that I find it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that wonderful nose. As mentioned in my CC 100% Rye review, I actually like the more fruit-forward profile of the CC offering (as least as far as initial palate goes). Again, there is nothing offensive in the palate here – it is just a touch more subdued than I would have hoped for. Simply put, if the nose is a home-run, I’d rate the palate as a triple.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleThe finish is relatively long for a Canadian rye whisky, with a soft rye glow that fades into more typical vanilla sweetness (there’s that new oak again). A definite improvement over the very short-lived finish of CC 100% Rye. Again, it’s not going to compete with an expressive single malt, but it is a nice (if fairly simple) finish for this class of whisky.

Lot 40 is the first whisky that really got me appreciating the Canadian rye style. Like many people, I previously tended to turn my nose up at our home and native hooch. If you haven’t tried it, Lot 40 is a real eye-opener. It’s also a great bargain at $40 at the LCBO.

For typical Canadian reviews, you can try the rumhowler’s blog, Whisky Won, or CanadianWhisky.org. For some international perspectives, you can check out the Scotchnoob or WhiskyNotes.be.

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.

Canadian Club 100% Rye

Canadan Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye bottle

The Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye is an interesting innovation to the somewhat staid CC line of whiskies.

The premier U.S. spirits-maker Beam was acquired by Japan’s Suntory early last year (and with it, the well-known CC brand, which was in Beam’s stable at the time). This set the stage for a shake-up of the Canadian whisky scene, as Suntory already owned Alberta Distillers – which is a premium source of Canadian rye whisky. After much careful experimentation with this Alberta source stock by the Beam-Suntory craft makers in Kentucky, a new straight rye whisky was born – under the popular CC label. You can read more about the fascinating story of its creation in Davin de Kergommeaux’s blog post on the Whisky Advocate site.

What’s surprising to me is the price – at $27.45 CAD (list price) at the LCBO, this CC 100% Rye whisky is priced the same as the somewhat entry-level CC Reserve. But it is frequently on sale for $25.95, which is even cheaper than even the regular base CC (aka CC Premium). And it clearly does a lot better than the entry-level CC whiskies in my Meta-Critic dataset:

  • Canadian Club Premium ($26.35): 7.28 (±1.22 on 11 reviews)
  • Canadian Club Reserve 9yo ($27.45): 8.07 (±0.54 on 4 reviews)
  • Canadian Club Classic ($28.45): 8.35 (±0.37 on 10 reviews)
  • Canadian Club 100% Rye ($27.45, on sale $25.95): 8.66 (±0.38 on 5 reviews)

To put those numbers in context, the average Meta-Critic score in my database for all Canadian whiskies is 8.44. That puts the CC 100% Rye at well above average, despite having one of the lower price points in the whole dataset.

Canadan Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye bottleWhat is interesting to me is the taste – this is a fabulous straight rye whisky in my view, far belying its budget price. I have brought this one out during structured whisky tastings at my house, and have surprised quite a number of my guests once I revealed the price.

In those sessions, I have always done direct head-to-head (nose-to-nose?) comparisons to the popular Lot 40 from Corby – also a 100% Canadian Rye, priced at $40 at the LCBO, with a Meta-Critic score of 8.97 (±0.26 on 10 reviews). Surprisingly, it tends to be an equal wash of who prefers the CC 100% Rye and who favours the Lot 40. Invariably, most agree that the Lot 40 has a better nose, but a number of people have commented that they like the more “fruity” body of the CC 100% Rye (i.e., it’s more fruit-forward on the palate).

Personally, I don’t think you can’t go wrong with either – although the Lot 40 does have more to offer the experienced Rye drinker. But at this bargain-basement price, I would definitely encourage every Canadian whisky drinker to give this one a shot.

Davin de Kergommeaux has a clear and concise review of the CC 100% Rye on the Whisky Advocate website. For a more detailed review with tasting notes, please check out Whisky Won.

As always, interested to hear your feedback below.

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