Hiram Walker Special Old Rye

Hiram Walker & Sons is the largest distillery operating in Canada today, as well as the longest continuously operating distillery in North America. Indeed, according to one source, it may now actually be the largest single distiller in North America.

Located in Windsor, Ontario, Hiram Walker & Sons is currently owned by Pernod, and operated by Corby. This massive distillery produces many of the well-known Corby brands, such as Canadian Club, Gibson’s, Lot 40, and Wiser’s. According to Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky Portable Expert, a significant proportion of their operation is sold as bulk whisky to US producers.

There is very little information about their namesake Special Old whisky available online. The only real info on the Corby website is a repeat of what is already shown on the bottle label – namely, that this is a Canadian rye whisky, and that Hiram Walker & Sons was established in 1858. Not exactly a lot to go on. According to Davin’s review at the Whisky Advocate, this whisky is only available in Canada.

Hiram Walker’s Special Old is an example of an ultra-low cost, entry-level Canadian whisky. You will consistently find this whisky sold at the lowest spirit “floor” price at the various Provincial liquor outlets. At the LCBO, that means you can pick up a standard 750mL bottle for ~$25 CAD. And like many of these entry-level whiskies, it is also available in a number of sizes (i.e., 200mL, 375mL, 750mL, 1140mL, 1750mL).  As you can tell from the image, packaging is very plain (and reminiscent of Alberta Premium, another entry-level whisky).

Here is how it compares to the other ultra-cheap, entry-level Canadian whiskies in my database:

Alberta Premium: 8.24 ± 0.60 on 10 reviews ($)
Alberta Springs 10yo: 8.33 ± 0.50 on 8 reviews ($)
Canadian Club: 7.28 ± 0.87 on 13 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist: 7.61 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Hiram Walker Special Old: 8.23 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s VO: 7.73 ± 0.79 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s Canadian 83: 7.28 ± 0.90 on 7 reviews ($)
Schenley Golden Wedding: 8.02 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($)
Wiser’s DeLuxe: 8.14 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($)

As you can see, the average Meta-Critic score puts it at the top of the pack, along with Alberta Premium and Alberta Springs.

Note that it is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. My review sample came from a 200mL bottle. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose:  Rye spices are the first thing you notice, especially cinnamon and cloves. It has a pleasant fruitiness, with red apples, currants, and a bit of citrus. Some oaky vanilla, with a little caramel. Actually reminds me a bit of flat cola – but it’s not as sweet overall. There is a slight peppery spiciness, tingling the nose. Impressively, there are no obvious solvent notes – a rare find in a budget Canadian whisky. A pleasant surprise so far.

Palate: Very rye forward initially (led by cinnamon), but the kick fades quickly, leaving soft, lingering flavours. There is an almost immediate sweet creaminess that coats the tongue with vanilla/toffee, and some light fruitiness in the background. Overall rich, it leaves a nice buttery sensation on the lips and gums (though still a bit watery). It is not uniformly sweet though, as citrus and sour apple eventually take more prominence.  I would consider this fairly well balanced – it maintains distinctive individual flavours, and doesn’t blend them all together.

Finish:  Medium length for a Canadian rye, with some bitterness creeping in – but more like bitter chocolate than the typical bitter grapefruit of some Canadian blends.  I get the flat cola note again, with just a hint of the softer rye spices (maybe nutmeg) persisting to the end. Somewhat tannic, leading to a drying effect over time. Leads to a very cleansing finish, which gently encourages you to take another sip.

Hiram.Walker.Special.OldUPDATE JANUARY 2016: Like many bargain Canadian ryes, lot variation can be considerable on these.  I recently picked up a second bottle, and find the nose is muted in comparison, especially for the rye spices – and there is a distinct glue-like solvent smell now. The palate is generally similar, but feels “hotter” (i.e., more raw ethanol taste). Finish is comparable, although perhaps a touch less bitter (which would actually be an improvement).

I didn’t have high hopes for this whisky – I initially bought it as an impulse buy in the LCBO checkout line, as one more budget Canadian blend to try. But this is my favourite entry-level Canadian rye so far – easily exceeding all the entry versions of Alberta Premium, Canadian Club, Seagram’s and Wiser’s at this basement price point.

I even prefer the first batch of Hiram Walker over most of the second tier ~$30 CAD whiskies, like Crown Royal and Gibson’s 12. Indeed, I would almost place that batch on par with Canadian Club 100% Rye and Forty Creek’s Copper Pot – that is, among the best of the second tier whiskies.  The second batch is less interesting on the nose, but still matches anything else at the LCBO floor price.

For more reviews of this whisky, I recommend you check out Davin at the Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Chip the RumHowler.  The highest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Jim Murray (who seems to have a fondness for entry-level Canadian rye whiskies more generally). For less positive reviews, you can check out the guys at Quebec Whisky.  But for my money, Hiram Walker’s Special Old tops the list of entry-level budget Canadian whiskies.



  • Neil Mac Donald

    The best Canadian whisky I’ve had. I’m a Canadian living in Germany. I have found it in Poland and Germany in hotels but can’t buy it there for some reason. Can I buy it on the east coast Canada or buy it online?

    • Typically no. Canadian liquor distribution is a provincial authority, and they generally will not ship outside of province (due to a number of inter-provincial trade barriers). So that means direct to consumer shipping out of country is also not available. I have seen a few places in Western Canada that will ship across the country (e.g. zyn.ca), but I do not know if they ship internationally.

  • I have one of these bottles from 1989. Would you drink it?

    • Sure, and I’d be curious to try it next to a recent bottling to see how it has changed. But entry-level Canadian whisky is not something I’d suspect most be would be willing to go out of their way to try (i.e., an old bottle really doesn’t have any greater value beyond current bottles).

  • After tasting the various flavours of Forty Creek, Wiser’s, Gibson’s, Gretsky etc., I was very pleasantly taken with Special Old. As well, I grew up in Windsor and was doubly taken because the apparently entry-level look of the bottle contrasted so sharply with the quality of what was inside — just like the city of Windsor itself!

    One particular thing I noted about the whiskey is that it is not overly soporific. That is after an evening dram, my head is quite clear and alert. Have you noticed that some whiskeys are less soporific even though they have the same alcohol content as others. For example, I find Forty Creek Copper Pot a very sleepy cup.

  • I have enjoyed Special Old for over 40 years now. I have had the opportunity to sample many fine whiskeys, but I always return to the Special Old. The only whiskey that I find superior to Special Old is Gibson’s 18 year old, but it’s a premium priced whiskey. Love Special Old

  • I have enjoyed special old for 30 years, I have have lots of first tier and second tier whiskeys but I keep returning to my favorite “special old”

    Its unfortunate that its becoming harder and harder to find in Northern British Columbia.

  • Thanks for this reassuring review. I’d been drinking Alberta Premium as it was in my price range when I noticed Special Old next to it for the same price so gave it a whirl. I was pleasantly surprised by it’s richness and relative smoothness. I thought maybe my palate was being tricked by some high sugar content but after reading your review I’m more confident that this bottle is a real diamond in the rough! And I agree that it is very reminiscent of Forty Creek Copper Pot.

  • My go to entry level whiskys are Hiram Walker, Alberta Premium, Alberta Springs, and Forty Creek Double Barrell. Hardly anyone has ever heard of the first three where I live in Toronto, however many of my guests and friend over the years now prefer these 4 over many more expensive brands.

  • I have a bottle of 710 ML Special Old rye whiskey 1977. It is unpened..is it safe to drink and how much is it worth?


    • Old whisky is always safe to drink – it doesn’t go bad. It’s quality and flavours may have degraded if it was stored in direct sunlight or next to an intermittent heat source, but its perfectly safe. As for value, that is hard to say – likely not very much for an entry-level bottling of that age. The only legal way to sell alcohol in my jurisdiction is at auction (same is true in most places). You would need to check out whatever auction site is available to you and look through their past catalogs to see what comparable bottles have gone for (e.g. Waddington’s here in Ontario).

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