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.


  • This is an effective mixer, but I wouldn’t mix it for one of Broom’s five “standard” drinks. However, in a shorter drink, it works very well.

    Regarding Canadian whisky, the base whisky isn’t really “bourbon” base. Most of the base isn’t matured in new oak, but bourbon or refill casks so doesn’t have the same bold wood characteristic and is generally more dominated by the grain. Many of the flavouring whiskies are matured in new oak to get more flavour into it.

  • Thanks for the comment Jason. And I agree about the Canadian base whisky – sorry, that wasn’t worded well. I’ve clarified the text to say “sometimes” including bourbon-style corn whisky (as in this case, and others where they are applying the 9.09% rule for US market distribution). Didn’t know about the new oak for the flavouring whiskies specifically, but that makes sense.

  • I am a devout rye drinker, from Alberta Premium to Gibsons, whatever I’m in the mood for.
    Sometimes I like to treat myself, as I did with the Dark Horse…Bad choice…I’ve had some fine ryes
    but this I would say ranks as the worst. Heck I’d even drink Newcastle beer before that.

  • Nothing wrong with this whiskey as a sipper. The convoluted arguments on what is a good sipper or not is up to each person. I’ve seen criminals using top notch scotch as mixers, such as dalmore and macallan and I made no derogatory comment on their actions.
    We need to appreciate the fact that someone patiently spent the time trying to improve the Canadian rye landscape reflecting on what everyone else is doing out there. Oloroso, PX, port, rum, cognac, Marsala or even Madeira are expressions that never faulted with the Scottish or Irish drams. So lay off Alberta Premium for trying something different. Good work boys and girls.

  • Meanwhile out here in British Columbia. I’m a big fan. Not only is it a “sipper”!

    It is undervalued as a mixer. As a farm to table chef turned artisan cocktail maker I am in disagreement with a certain comment. If yes you want to replicate a drink and have the same thing over again yes maybe it not going to be what you expect. I am a fan of using the tools you have been given and make lemonade out of lemons. This might not meet all you whiskey cocktail needs BUT!

    Have you ever attempted twists off a whiskey sour. Find the right avenue for the product and you allow it to shine and you taste buds will thank you. Dark Horse has the depth to pair with some beautiful pairing that I would have found out of character for Canadian style Whiskey. Chef traditional pairing are what I base my cocktails off eg:

    Morello Cherries (sour cherries) and lime
    Peaches with pink grapefruit

    Take this further into old fashioned land & you will go down a rabbit hole. Make your own bitters and stop following someone else’s grade one textbook

  • What is dark horse sold under in the states and it is a good whisky unlesd your a snob

    • Dark Batch.

      FYI, Dark Horse appears to have recently been discontinued in Canada, so I expect the same will hold true for the US (although I don’t have confirmation of that).

      • This news has me horrified. Dark Horse has become a regular favorite of mine. Can you recommed some alternatives? Great reviews!

        • Well, you could always make your own by adding a small amount of sherry (and bourbon) to a favourite Canadian whisky. 😉

          Canadian Club Sherry Cask and Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask are both slightly poorer substitutes on quality, but have some of the notes at a comparable price. If you could find it, something like Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished is super nice (but more expensive). Haven’t tried it yet, but the similarly pricey Gooderham & Worts 19yo 49 Wellington (2019 edition) could be good – but more wheat-forward.

          • I might have to buy that infinity bottle I’ve always wanted and do some blending 🙂 Thanks for the other suggestions.

  • I cant find Dark Horse in Ontario anymore. Its my go to whiskey. Smooth with a sweet finish , you cant beat it. Help me find it. Cheers

    • It’s gone, no longer made. See my comments above for some substitution suggestions.

      I would add Crown Royal Black to list, as a similarly price and quality.

  • So sad that Alberta Distillers have dropped this offering from their list. Bought 41 (i.e. all I could find) bottles once I realized this was the case. I’m good for a while.

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