Canadian Whisky Trends 2020
As a Canadian whisky enthusiast, I have been heartened by the strong trend toward new quality Canadian whiskies in recent years. There continues to be many quality bottlings coming out on a regular basis, from both the main producers, and from an increasing number of smaller “craft” distillers on the scene.
To be clear, the vast majority of mass-produced, bulk-released, low-cost Canadian whisky remains – to borrow a phrase from the wine world – plonk. This is especially true for what we export. I am constantly embarrassed when I browse whisky shops around the world and see Canadian whisky products (often with a prominent maple leaf) that wouldn’t even qualify as bottom-shelf whisky here (e.g. Ensign Red, Ellington, McAdams, etc.). If they do have established Canadian brands, it is often no more than Seagram’s VO, Canadian Club Premium and perhaps entry-level Crown Royal.
But as all local Canadian enthusiasts know, we are getting spoiled by an increasingly diverse range of specialty bottlings of Canadian whisky (e.g. J.P. Wiser’s Northern Border Collection, the Rare Cask series), and new producers trying innovative things, including often a focus on malt whiskies (e.g., Two Brewers, Shelter Point, Lohin McKinnon). Many of these of are still geographically limited in distribution, but a lot is available here in our most populous province of Ontario – and I personally get to travel around Canada a lot as well.
While my Meta-Critic Database provides a lot of great information in helping you choose a whisky, I thought I would spend some time in this article describing what I’m gleaned from the results of the annual Canadian Whisky Awards, organized by Davin De Kergommeaux.
Looking over the recent list of winners at the Canadian Whisky Awards for 2020, I couldn’t help but notice how many more whiskies are being reviewed each year. But a few interesting patterns reveal themselves, if you compare to past years. For a full list of past year results, please check out the News and Views page of Davin’s canadianwhisky.org.
First, a quick word about why these awards are interesting. In addition to being exclusively focused on Canadian whisky (and whisky-based spirits), Davin assembles a panel of very experienced Canadian whisky reviewers (a number of whom – like Davin – are tracked individually for scores in my Meta-Critic Database). But for the annual awards, all reviewers score the whiskies “blind” to the identity of the samples they receive. The independently tabulated scores are then used to assign medals each year.
This gives us the opportunity to see what happens when reviewers don’t know what they are drinking. I always find it interesting to see when new specialty bottles medal lower in blind tasting than they do by scoring in open reviews (and conversely, when standard entry-level bottlings medal higher than expect from the scores).
But it also gives us an opportunity to see how the performance of different standard bottlings have changed over time, as most of the main offerings of the major producers are re-entered into each competition each year. So, let’s how what trends we can identify through this helpful resource.
Comparing the Award Medals to the my Meta-Critic Database
I don’t know what cut-off scores Davin uses for the specialty awards or the Gold/Silver/Bronze medals, but there is generally a fairly equal distribution across the three medal classes each year. There is also enough data over the last decade to allow me to compare and correlate to the Meta-Critic. As of my current build (May 28, 2020), here are how the major medals for the last decade correspond to the individual average scores for those same whiskies in my database:
Bronze medals: 8.04 ± 0.32
Silver medals: 8.50 ± 0.28
Gold medals: 8.81 ± 0.25
Note that the overall average Canadian whisky in my database currently sits at 8.43 ± 0.46.
This gives you a pretty good idea that Silver medals are typically at or slightly above average for this class as a whole. The Gold medals are particular interesting, as they often represent the top Canadian whiskies in my database. Personally, I wouldn’t consider Bronze medal winners as anything I would want to seek out.
There are two classes of observations that I would like to share, as I think they are instructive: how do recent specialty bottlings compare to past ones, and how have standard bottlings changed over time? Let’s take these questions one at a time.
The Northern Border Collection by Corby has been the darling of the Canadian specialty release scene since the first batch came out in 2017. At that time, three of the four bottlings won Gold medals. In 2018, all four bottlings won Gold. But for 2019, only one bottling won Gold (and was also named Whisky of the Year – Pike’s Creek 21yo Oloroso-finished), with the other three only receiving Silver awards.
I’m a bit surprised that the J.P. Wiser’s 23yo Cask-Strength from last year didn’t score a Gold, given the extremely high Meta-Critic average for this whisky. It was also quite the darling of the collection in online discussion forums. In any case, the lower medal rankings this year are consistent with the lower sales of this collection in 2019, with many of the bottlings still available in a lot of markets. Of note, there will apparently not be a 2020 release, due to production delays as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The half-dozen or so Rare Cask Series releases by Corby (under the J.P. Wiser’s brand) have mainly received Gold medals, with just a couple of Silvers. The two Commemorative Series (i.e., Canada Day) releases have both received Gold medals. I don’t know if they plan a Canada Day release for this year (they didn’t in 2019), but the previous bottlings were a great deal at $40 CAD.
The one series from Corby that I would like to highlight is the J.P. Wiser’s Alumni series, with bottles named after famous former hockey players. The latest release from last Fall (the Captains series) received two Golds (Dave Keon and Yvan Cournoyer) and a Silver (Mark Messier). All three scored quite well in my database (~8.7-8.8), along with the Gold medal-winning Wendel Clark (~8.9) from the first release. These are all age-stated whiskies, with detailed information on the component whiskies going into each blend, and with many bottled above standard proof – yet all sold for $45 CAD. That makes many of them excellent value among the specialty releases.
The annual Canadian Club >40yo releases (now called Chronicles) have consistently won Gold medals for all three years in a row.
Alberta Premium’s Cask Strength release in 2019 won a Gold medal, but the 20yo edition won a Silver.
Taken together, these results suggest that you can largely rely on on specialty releases from the major producers to be good quality (although value will depend on the individual bottlings). The pause for the Northern Border Collection in 2020 may be a good thing, as it gives them a chance to refine the selection for 2021.
One of my favourite new producers is the Yukon-based Two Brewers. Up to 18 releases are now tracked in my database. Although initial bottlings received Bronze and Silver medals, the last half-dozen or so releases have consistently received Silver or Gold – and many are getting quite high scores in my Meta-Critic Database (e.g., ~8.6-9.0).
Shelter Point and Lohin McKinnon typically receive Bronze and Silver medals for their various releases.
Wayne Gretzky whiskies get fairly consistent Silver medals, except for the 99 Proof release, which has won Gold twice in a row.
But are these specialty bottlings or new producers’ products worth the price premium you will typically pay (with some exceptions)? It is worth taking a look to see what is going on with standard bottlings from the main producers over time.
Changes Over Time in Standard Bottlings
Overall, the news is fairly good here: most of the standard bottlings have remained stable over time, with many inexpensive bottlings getting high medals. But some trends are worth noting, as you go through the medals for the last decade. Some common whiskies are shown below, with approximate relative price in brackets.
Alberta Premium ($) – but received Silver for first time this year
Canadian Club Premium ($)
Gibson’s Finest Sterling ($)
Canadian Club Classic 12yo ($)
Crown Royal ($)
Forty Creek Barrel Select ($)
Forty Creek Copper Pot ($)
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 12yo ($) – but received Gold for first time this year
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo ($$$)
Royal Canadian Small Batch ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve ($$$)
Crown Royal Black ($$)
Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo ($$$$) – but received Bronze for the first time this year
Crown Royal Northern Harvest ($$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain ($$) – but received Silver for the first time this year
Lot 40 ($$) – but received Silver for the first time this year
Highly Variable Bronze/Silver/Gold:
Canadian Club 100% Rye ($)
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel ($$$$)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo ($$$$)
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished ($$) – but received Gold for the last two years in a row.
I wouldn’t read too much into one bad result last year – especially as the number of new specialty bottlings go up every year (i.e., only about a third of whiskies tested can earn Gold, it seems). However, I have heard complaints on the whisky forums about recent batches of Lot 40 and Masterson’s, which is consistent with their Silver downgrades this year. If that trend continues in future years, it would be worrisome for these two stalwart straight rye whiskies.
Some key general observations here:
- Price doesn’t necessarily correlate with consistent quality (e.g. Forty Creek Double Barrel and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo are expensive for the medals/Meta-Critic scores received)
- Some bottlings do remarkably well on blind tasting despite lower price and Meta-Critic scores (e.g. Crown Royal Black and Northern Harvest, Pike’s Creek 10yo)
- Some well-regarded bottlings have actually been quite variable for years (e.g. Caribou Crossing, Gibson’s 18yo)
- Some well-regarded bottlings may have dipped recently in quality (e.g. Lot 40, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Masterson’s Rye 10yo) – but we would need more data before drawing any conclusions
The consistently high performance of Crown Royal Black and Northern Harvest are worth noting. Crown Royal Black reminds me of Bushmills Black Bush – for a barely nominal extra cost, you get a much better whisky than the standard bearer (and in both cases, I believe this comes from additional sherry-cask finishing in the mix). Even better is Northern Harvest Rye – I’ve done taste tests with groups comparing Northern Harvest to standard Crown Royal, and there is simply no comparison: everyone is blown away by the quality of Northern Harvest (and for just a couple of bucks more). Pike’s Creek 10yo is also a real crowd pleaser.
The first point I would like to make is that you don’t have to spend a lot to get good quality, and consistent, Canadian whisky – as determined by the medals assigned through blind taste-testing, as well as through my Meta-Critic integrator. These are largely restricted to the domestic market, but some may make an appearance internationally on occasion.
At the bottom shelf (i.e., ~$30), Canadian Club 100% Rye is an outstanding value (if a bit variable, from batch to batch).
For a few dollars more (~$35-$40), Crown Royal Black, Crown Royal Northern Harvest, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, Lot 40 and Pike’s Creek 10yo are all great values. I also recommend you keep an eye out for the J.P. Wiser’s Commemorative Series at this price point, typically released around Canada Day in the past.
I would also like to shout out the J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series at $45, especially the most recent third series Captains release (each 11-14 years old). These all score quite well in my database, with two out of three getting Gold medals this year. Along with the earlier Wendel Clark release, these can be well worth picking up. I am still amazed these get so little attention by reviewers and enthusiasts, given all the details provided on each bottling – and all age-stated to boot.
If you are looking for something a bit more prestigious, many of the Northern Border Collection, Canadian Club Chronicles, and Alberta Premium releases can be good quality. Two Brewers is also a relatively new distiller to watch. The prices for many of these can be relatively high for what you are getting, compared to the quality standard bottlings. That said, they are still a bargain compared to specialty releases in most other whisky jurisdictions. Availability may be an issue, but note that many of the Corby releases are available in Ontario at the J.P. Wiser’s shop (local Ontario shipping only).
There are a few points of concern on the horizon, with potential drops in quality this year for some of the popular standard mid-range releases – but it is too early to say if these are significant or not. Overall, I’m heartened to see that the quality of entry-to-mid level whiskies remain consistently quite stable in Canada, or even increasing (like Gibson’s 12yo and Pike Creek’s 10yo this past year). When you factor in all the new specialty releases and new producers, there is a lot to sample and enjoy here at a reasonable price.
And finally, a shout-out to Davin and his team of reviewers – thanks for providing this valuable and uniquely Canadian source of information on whisky quality every year, through the Annual Canadian Whisky Awards.