Tag Archives: Rye

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.

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