For the last few years, one of the most anticipated events in the Canadian whisky scene has been the annual Fall release of the special whisky set from Corby known as the Northern Border Collection. Consisting of unique bottlings from each of their major brands (Lot 40, J.P. Wiser’s, Gooderham & Worts, and Pike Creek), this specialty series typically generates a lot of buzz. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Corby announced earlier this year that they wouldn’t be doing a Northern Border Collection for 2020.
However, over the course of the year, they have starred releasing certain select specialty bottlings individually (often with very limited numbers). The first was the Pike Creek 15 Year Old Finished in Ontario Cabernet Sauvignon Barrels (limited release at the LCBO in August 2020). This was followed in early November with a limited online-only Ontario release of a few cases of their second aged cask-strength blend under the J.P. Wiser’s brand – a 22 year old bottling, finished in Port casks. I missed that one, but a wider release of it is planned “in the new year.”
Now comes the initial release of a special version of Lot 40 known as Dark Oak. Released in BC and online-only in Ontario in late November 2020, it sold out in under 3 minutes (!) at J.P. Wiser’s website (despite being limited to only 2 bottles an order, shipping in Ontario only). Again, a wider release is planned for February 2020. I was lucky enough to grab one of these first bottles (all personally signed by Dr Don Livermore, as shown below).
This is a no-age-statement (NAS) release, bottled at a slightly increased strength of 48% ABV compared to 43% for regular Lot 40 (but not cask-strength, like the recent Northern Border Collection Lot 40 releases). Like regular Lot 40, this is a 100% rye that is column and then pot distilled, and aged in virgin American oak casks (no. 2 char). This special release has then undergone additional finishing in heavily-charred oak casks (no. 4 char). This should impart greater oaky notes, includes caramel sweetness and wood spice (plus of course, darker colour).
Dr. Don has indicated that he hopes this will eventually become a core release, depending on how well it sells. Sold for $59.95 CAD in BC and Ontario, which is $20 more than standard Lot 40 (which is similarly NAS, but bottled at 43% ABV). However, that is still $30 less than last year’s third cask-strength release (also NAS, finished in French oak).
It is too early to find sufficient reviews of this one online, so here are how the other Lot 40 bottlings out there compare in my Meta-Critic Database.
Lot 40: 8.88 ± 0.36 on 26 reviews ($$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength (Single Cask): 9.16 ± 0.10 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12yo (2017): 9.04 ± 0.30 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 11yo (2018): 9.17 ± 0.20 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength Third Edition (2019): 8.80 ± 0.41 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Let’s see what I find in the glass for Dark Oak:
Colour: Medium tan. Definitely a darker hue than regular Lot 40, more on par with the aged cask-strength releases (or even darker).
Nose: The substrate is clearly classic Lot 40, with its fruity, floral, and baking spice notes (nutmeg and cinnamon in particular). But it is richer here, especially on the spicy side, with cardamom and some cloves. Caramel and creamy vanilla custard. Sour cherries add to the typical lighter fruits (apple and pear). Interestingly, I also get a lot of bubblegum (rare for Lot 40, but present on many other straight ryes). Some actual woody oak. Bit of nose prickle, likely coming from the higher alcohol strength. Still very clean overall, but there is a touch of organic solvent. Water brings up brown sugar (and dill), but deadens the other notes if you add more than a drop or two.
Palate: Heavier brown sugar and caramel than typical Lot 40. Cherries are also more prominent. But it is the heavier spice that really standards out, with dill and chilies added to the typical baking spices (plus cloves again). Strong peppermint note. Very oaky in the mouth as well. Noticeable alcohol zing from the higher strength, combined with the extra spice gives it a real kick. Drying on the swallow. Water lightens the mouthfeel quickly, and just delays the spice attack (i.e., it doesn’t reduce its impact).
Finish: Medium length. Hot chilies and sweet caramel initially, followed by the dill. A lot of woody notes. Bubblegum and cloves return at the end, and it is again drying on the final finish.
This is a different type of Lot 40 release. I found the various cask-strength specialty releases all quite drinkable neat, but this Dark Oak comes out of the gate with a lot more spice and kick. However, adding even a few drops of water sweetens the taste (and lightens the mouthfeel) without actually adding anything or dampening the spice. Indeed, it quickly drowns out the subtle flavours (and may accentuate the dill note), so I recommend drinking it neat, or with no more than a drop or two.
It is certainly an interesting concept, but it takes the already fairly spicy Lot 40 and amps it up to very heavy levels. I would only recommend this release if you like your rye whiskies very spicy. Personally, I prefer the regular lot 40 and the previous cask-strength releases (although it is close in quality to last year’s French-oak finished cask-strength release). To put that in context, and using my own scores (on the Meta-Critic scale), I would personally score and rank them all as follows:
11 Year Old cask strength 2018 (9.3) > 12 Year Old cask strength 2017 (9.2) > regular Lot 40 (9.1) > Third edition cask strength 2019 (8.9) > Lot 40 Dark Oak (8.8).
My ranking here is actually consistent with the overall Meta-Critic scores for these releases, but of course individual tastes vary (e.g., most reviewers who have tried both prefer the original 12yo release over the second 11yo batch). Regardless, I expect Dark Oak will settle in around the level of the third cask-strength release, once more scores come in. For one early review, check out Davin at canadianwhisky.org. I’m sure more will be coming as we get closer to wider release in February.