Canadian Whisky Trends 2021

Following on my inaugural Whisky Trends post last year, I thought I’d provide an update for what has been a most unusual year.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot personal and economic disruptions this past year. Many producers had to alter their release plans, but there were still a significant number of new Canadian whiskies over the course of the year.

For example, while Corby cancelled the annual Northern Border Collection (NBC) release for 2020, they did continue to put out a number of specialty release whiskies (see below for a summary, and how they performed). The most significant (and which would likely have been the cornerstone of the NBC had it come out) were Lot 40 Dark Oak and J.P. Wiser’s Cask-Strength 22yo Port Finish (again, see below for a quality assessment). Both of these are now widely available. I know from Dr. Don Livermore’s twitter feed that they are working on a new crowd-sourced recipe for a Canadian whisky blend, so stay tuned for further developments on that front.

One high-profile event later in the year was Jim Murray’s naming of the first batch of Alberta Premium’s Cask Strength 100% Rye as his Whisky of the Year for 2021. This didn’t have quite the same impact as the first time he named a Canadian whisky (Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye in late 2015), as the limited release of the Alberta Premium Cask Strength a year previous meant that available bottles were almost completely gone. Further dampening the impact, Mr Murray had finally been publicly called out on his persistent sexism, leading many in the industry to sever ties with him. While this was past due in my view, the timing was unfortunate for Alberta Premium. Fortunately, a second batch of this cask-strength rye has recently been released, to generally positive reviews (I haven’t had the chance to try it yet). And if you are really desperate to try the first batch, I note there is a rare bottle currently on auction at Waddington’s in Ontario.

With the recent announcement of the Canadian Whisky Awards for 2021, I thought it was good time to re-review the current Canadian whisky scene – and what it bodes for your whisky purchases.

As a refresher, Davin de Kergommeaux assembles a panel of very experienced Canadian whisky reviewers for this competition each year (many of whom – like Davin – are tracked individually in my Meta-Critic Database). But what is significant is that all reviewers score the whiskies “blind”, with the results tabulated to assign medals each year into 3 tiers; Gold, Silver and Bronze. As an aside, I don’t recommend you pay too much attention to the special award categories (outside Whisky of the Year, which has the highest cumulative score). Given the expanding range of categories, it’s possible to find lowest tier Bronze whiskies among the special award recipients.

As background, 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

As a comparator, the overall average Canadian whisky in my database is currently 8.45. So on the basis of this, I recommend you stick with the Gold and Silver medal winners to try.

As with last year, I think it is worth considering here two classes of observations: 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.

Specialty Releases

The annual premium Canadian Club special release this year made a big splash – the Canadian Club 43yo The Speakeasy not only won Gold at CWA, but was the highest scoring whisky – giving it the Whisky of the Year title. Currently available in Ontario for $320 CAD. That makes four years in a row that the Canadian Club >40yo releases (collectively known as Chronicles) have consistently won Gold medals.

Alberta Premium’s Cask Strength again won a Gold medal this year (not sure if this was the 2020 second batch). Preliminary reviews for the second batch remain very high, so this bodes well.

Last year, I was surprised that the J.P. Wiser’s 23yo Cask-Strength only received a Silver medal (especially given the extremely high Meta-Critic average for this whisky). But they re-entered it into the competition again this year, where it now won a Gold medal. Same is true for the new J.P. Wiser’s 22yo Cask-Strength Port Finish – and in addition to Gold, it also seems to have been a runner-up for Whisky of the Year this year (winning “Best Blended Whisky Highly Commended”).

Lot 40 Dark Oak also received a Gold medal this year, which isn’t surprising given how enthusiasts tend to like heavier oaky elements (and the general popularity of Lot 40). The release of the third series of NHL Alumni whiskies – Captains Dave Keon 14yo, Mark Messier 11yo, and Yvan Cournoyer 12yo – won Gold for the Messier and Cournoyer whiskies, and Silver for Keon. I personally thought this was best release yet, so I am not surprised by the medals. I haven’t heard anything further for this series going forward, but I hope they continue it.

Also offered by Corby this year were limited regional releases of J.P. Wiser’s Seven Rebels (in BC), Wheatfield Gold (Manitoba), and Pike Creek 15yo Cabernet Sauvingon Finish (Ontario). While Seven Rebels has gotten good reviews, all three medaled in the Silver category.

So, taken together, this is another good year for the specialty releases from the major producers. Although value will depend on the individual bottlings, they are all getting above average scores – including some of the top-ranked awards.

What about the craft/new producers?  Consistent with recent competitions, the last five Two Brewers’ releases all received Gold/Silver medals (2 Golds, 3 Silvers). Last Mountain received a fairly even mix of Gold/Silver/Bronze medals, as did Last Straw distillery. Shelter Point is still getting mainly Bronze and Silver medals for their various releases, although they did take one Gold this year. Macaloney’s Caledonian similarly got a mix of Bronze/Silver medals. Wayne Gretzky whiskies continue to get fairly consistent Silver medals. Lohin McKinnon was a consistent Bronze performer this year, down from a mix of Silver/Bronze last year. All told, that’s a very good showing for the craft producers.

Changes Over Time in Standard Bottlings

This is the area that I am also most concerned about – it is not hard to produce excellent one-off special releases (often with a steep price tag to match). But how are the commonly-available standard bottlings doing? Some common whiskies are shown below, according to their typical performance – and with the specific indication to how they did this year (green is up, red is down from historical performance).

Consistent Bronze Medals:
Alberta Premium ($) – Bronze again for2021
Canadian Club Premium ($) – Bronze again for 2021
Gibson’s Finest Sterling ($) – Bronze again for 2021

Variable Bronze/Silver Medals:
Canadian Club Classic 12yo ($) – Silver for 2021
Crown Royal ($) – Bronze for 2021
Forty Creek Barrel Select ($) – Gold for 2021
Forty Creek Copper Pot ($) – Silver for 2021
Forty Creek Double Barrel Reserve ($$$) – Bronze for 2021
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo ($$$) – Silver for 2021
Royal Canadian Small Batch ($$) – Silver for 2021

Consistent Silver:
Crown Royal Reserve ($$$) – Silver again for 2021
Gibson’s Bold 8yo ($) – Gold for 2021

Variable Silver/Gold:
Crown Royal Black ($$) – Gold for 2021
Pike Creek 10yo Rum-finished ($$) – Silver for 2021

Highly Variable Bronze/Silver/Gold:
Canadian Club 100% Rye ($) – Silver for 2021
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel ($$$$) – Silver for 2021
Gibson’s Finest 12yo ($) – Silver for 2021
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo ($$$$) – Bronze for 2021
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye ($) – Silver for 2021

Consistent Gold:
Crown Royal Northern Harvest ($$) – Silver for 2021
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain ($$) – Bronze for 2021 (after a Silver in 2020)
Lot 40 ($$) – Silver for 2021 (and the second time in a row)

The news is somewhat mixed here.

On the plus side, some of the budget ($) offerings actually got higher scores than usual – with Forty Creek Barrel Select and Gibson’s Bold 8yo both getting Gold for the first time ever. And a good number of the relatively low priced, popular Silver/Gold winners like Canadian Club 100% Rye, Crown Royal Black, and Pike Creek have all kept up their standings. Crown Royal Black remains a real stand-out for me in its price class (and a good replacement for those who bemoan the loss of Alberta Premium Dark Horse). J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye remains a solid budget choice as well.

But now the bad news – three of the most popular perennial Gold medal winners have lost that standing.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye got Silver for the second time in three years, indicating it has come down off its consistent Gold highs.

But even more concerning: Lot 40 – the darling of Canadian enthusiasts – got Silver for the second year in a row (after 7 years of consistent Gold, including a couple of Whisky of the Year wins). This confirms what I’ve heard repeatedly from folks in the community the last couple of years – it is not as good as it used to be. It is not hard to imagine that the past several years of specialty Lot 40 releases have diminished the stocks for the standard bottling. This is disturbing, as I personally preferred the standard bottling over the last couple of specialty releases.

Interestingly, this is the first year I haven’t seen Masterson’s 10yo 100% Rye at the CWA – and it is another one that took a Silver downgrade last year. So I would want to keep eye on that one.

But the surprising one to me is the Gooderham & Worts taking Bronze this year (after a Silver last year). That is after a run of consistent Gold medals for the first four years of its life (plus a number of specialty CWA awards). Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of this four-grain whisky – but I know a couple of people who love it, so its sad to see a quality decline.

Again, I wouldn’t read too much into one bad result, 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).  But consistent reductions over time are worrisome.

Take-Away Lessons

As always, these results show that you don’t have to spend a lot to get good quality Canadian whisky – as determined by both 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 a great value.

For a few dollars more (~$35-$40), Crown Royal Black is a real stand out, and Pike’s Creek is a consistently good buy. Sadly, the previous stalwarts in this class – Crown Royal Northern Harvest, Gooderham & Worts Four Grain, and Lot 40 – don’t seem to be as consistently outstanding, but are still always good value.

I would also like to shout out again the J.P. Wiser’s Alumni Series, especially the most recent third series Captains release. These limited releases are always well worth picking up – I am still amazed they get so little attention by reviewers and enthusiasts. I don’t know if more releases are planned, but they are always well worth considering (especially given all the details provided on each bottling – and all age-stated to boot). And Two Brewers remains a distiller to watch – consistently high quality on recent batches.

Another feature of these comparisons is the observation that price doesn’t necessarily correlate with consistent quality (e.g. Forty Creek Double Barrel and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo are way too expensive for the medals/Meta-Critic scores received). And as usual, some well-regarded bottlings have actually been quite variable for years (e.g. Caribou Crossing, Gibson’s 18yo).

If you are looking for something a bit more prestigious, the higher-end releases from Corby (J.P. Wiser’s), Canadian Club Chronicles, and Alberta Premium Cask-Strength releases are all outstanding. The prices for many of these can be relatively high 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 eventually become available in Ontario at the J.P. Wiser’s shop (local Ontario shipping only).

Except for the quality concerns raised for the most popular low-mid range bottlings above, it doesn’t seem like quality is dropping overall as more specialty releases come out. On the contrary, some entry-level bottlings are actually seeing their ratings rise – despite the increasingly crowded field. This bodes well for the coming year – as before, there is a lot to sample and enjoy here at very reasonable prices.

Slainte for 2021!

One comment

  • I watched the livestream this year and Davin explained how there is year over year turnover of a certain number of judges to keep things fresh. This may explain some of the variation in judging results. All in all we’re in a golden age of high quality yet affordable Canadian whisky. I love it!

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