J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels
Here is something you don’t see every day: a limited small-batch release from a major Canadian producer, with a defined age statement, higher proof ABV, and a completely different production method than what is typically done in Canada. Thank you J.P. Wiser.
Last Barrels is the result of an experiment performed by former Wiser’s distiller Jim Stanski in early 2001 – and one that Wiser’s has now decided to bottle on its own as a limited run (instead of blending into a larger mainstream product).
The first novelty here is the use of a custom mashbill. Typically, most Canadian whisky is a blend where the individual grains are distilled separately and then later combined. Here, Wiser’s has used the traditional American method for bourbon production of blending the grains before mashing them. They are also using a very traditional bourbon-like mashbill of 80% corn, 11% rye and 9% barley (although this recipe supposedly relates to one J.P. Wiser experimented with himself).
The other innovation is the introduction of a sour mash process here. Sour mash is used in the production of nearly all bourbon, but is typically not used in Canada. Normally, it involves using left-over spent material from an older batch of mash to start controlled fermentation in the new batch (somewhat akin to what you do in making classic sourdough bread). Acids introduced by using the sour mash control the growth of bacteria, and create a proper pH balance for fermentation by the active live yeast.
Since Canada doesn’t use this method (and typically relies on a more sterilized process), Stanski’s innovated with a common sense solution – he let milk out in the lab to go sour, and then harvested the resulting Lactobacillus species. Although not usually done for whisky, it is common to use Lactobacillus as a “starter culture” for controlled fermentation in yogurt, cheese, beer, and sourdough bread, among other things.
The end result is a very boubon-like whisky (albeit one aged in ex-bourbon barrels, rather than new oak). Aged for 14 years and bottled at 45% ABV, this is certainly the most bourbon-like Canadian whisky I’ve tried so far.
Note that only 132 barrels were produced in the end, making this a very limited release. The LCBO bought out all 2000 cases, and has been releasing them across their network over the last couple of weeks. While initially focusing exclusively on the Greater Toronto Area, I’m starting to see some bottles showing up in inventory further afield (with a little under 800 bottles currently showing through their app).
I picked up a bottle for $65 CAD at a nearby LBCO. I expect these will go fast, so you will want to hunt one down soon if you are intent on trying it. Here is what I find in the glass:
Nose: Caramel upfront, with vanilla. Sweetened Granny Smith apple juice, with maybe a touch of cherry – there is definitely something tart in there. Oak char. Very slight solvent smell (rubbing alcohol?), but it doesn’t really have an alcohol burn. A bit light overall, but definitely bourbon-like (reminds me a bit of Basil Hayden’s, but with less rye).
Palate: Not as sweet as the nose, but you definitely have the vanilla and caramel notes coming through strongly. Fairly intense dry oakiness develops quickly, with significant woody bitterness. Sour patch candies. And tons of pepper – if you take too big of a sip, expect to experience that classic “pepper-up-the-nose” sensation. Feels a bit hot (likely due to the 45% ABV). But it is the peppery after-burn that really stands out for me. Unlike the soft nose, the palate reminds me of some of the classic mid-level bourbons with relatively flavourful bodies (e.g., Elijah Craig 12yo or Eagle Rare 10yo).
Finish: Lingers a fairly long while, with a mix of the slightly sweet fruit and bitter wood initially (more the latter). Fades while keeping some of the spicy pepper and vanilla right to the end. Thankfully, there are absolutely none of those artificially-sweet notes found on typical budget Canadian blends.
Wiser’s has definitely succeeded here in making a “Canadian bourbon”, if you ask me. In a blind tasting, I seriously doubt you would be able to identify this as a Canadian whisky – it tastes like a bourbon, with a fair amount of oaky flavours. It is lighter on the nose than most bourbons, though.
There are very few reviews online so far, but you can check out Davin at Canadian Whisky and Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Redditor Devoz. Here’s a preliminary Meta-Critic comparison to some other similarly-priced Canadian whiskies.
Collingwood 21yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.28 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.53 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.80 ± 0.39 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.92 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.05 ± 0.36 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.92 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)
Again, you can’t really say much from only 4 reviews. But it does seem like Last Barrels is trending around the level of the standard-bearer Lot 40. Here is how it compares to typical American bourbon whiskies in this price range.
Baker’s 7yo: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.40 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.92 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.41 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.56 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 19 reviews ($$)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel: 8.51 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.84 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Certainly a good performer for the price so far, consistent with other bourbons available at the LCBO.