Tag Archives: Canadian

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.

Gibson’s Finest 18 Year Old

Gibson's Venerable 18yo bottle

Gibson’s whisky has a long history in Canada, with production having passed through several producers and distilleries over the years. Through it all, the 18 year old expression has remained the top of their line. It currently holds the distinction as the highest ranked Canadian whisky in my Whisky Database (for the “Finest Rare” 18 yr): 9.12 ± 0.41, on 8 reviews.

The latest bottlings at the LCBO have a “Finest Venerable” subtitle. Although I think “rare” still applies – I received this bottle as a Father’s Day present, and I know it took some driving around by my family to find a LCBO that stocked it (it was on my list of wanted whiskies). 😉

That subjective impression is borne out in my recently posted analysis of LCBO inventories. Looking at the data table in that post (compiled from the LCBO iPad/iPhone app), you will see that there are only ~650 bottles of the 18yr available in all of Ontario right now. Compare that to >42,000 bottles of the base Gibson’s 12 yr and Sterling expressions. And most of those 12yo/Sterling bottles are the larger 1140 and 1750mL sizes. So if you do a comparison by volume, only 1.1% of Gibson’s whiskies available in Ontario right now are this top-shelf 18 yr.

In case you are wondering, I agree with the consensus wisdom in the Meta-Critic score – this is an outstanding Canadian whisky!

Nose: Very creamy sensation from the start, with oaky caramel, butterscotch and vanilla aromas that seem more like creme caramel in this case. “Yellow-flesh” fruits come to mind: plum, pear and pineapple especially (I admit that last one seems a bit weird). Something slightly nutty. like crushed peanuts. Nice nose.

Palate: Much the same flavours as found on the nose, with even more butterscotch up front. Luxurious creamy mouthfeel. Rye “baking spices” start to come out now (nutmeg, cinnamon, touch of cloves), but not as strongly as most quality Canadian blends. I’d swear there a bit of wheat sweetness in this blend – definite bread-making flavours come out, in addition to the rye. A bit of bourbon sweetness throughout. Finally, a touch of bitterness comes in at the end, but doesn’t seem out of place or glaring (like it does in cheap blends)

Finish: Still sweet up front – although more focused on those bread baking characteristics than any of the fruits. Still relatively creamy, it moves more toward a slight bitterness over time (although well balanced with the sweetness). Not hard to handle at all.

As I describe in recommendations for hosting a whisky tasting, I always suggest people ignore their taste impressions on the first sip (to allow your palate a chance to cleanse and recover from the initial alcohol burn). But this is an example of that rare whisky where I knew I was in for a treat from the first few seconds – a nice compilation of aromas and flavours.

Gibson's Venerable 18yo bottleI guess the only question now is who do I give that old bottle of Gibson’s 12 year old to – the one that has been sitting in my cabinet barely touched for awhile? As an aside, the 12yr is a decent budget whisky for the price, but it’s really best suited to mixed drinks.

One thing for Gibson’s – and this is a plus or minus, depending on your point of view – they have very plain packaging. The 18 year old doesn’t come with a box, just the bare bottle is sold off the shelf. And some of the “decoration” around the top is just part of the security packaging (i.e., comes right off when you open it). So while it may not make for the prettiest gift package – your recipient is likely to thank you once they sample it!

For a recent review of this whisky, you can see Jason Hambrey’s Whisky Won review here, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis.

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
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