As always, the most highly-anticipated release of the Northern Border Collection 2019 is the cask-strength Lot no 40. The 2018 Lot 40 cask strength edition quickly sold out at the LCBO last year. Indeed, I had to pick up my bottle in Alberta a few weeks later, since I missed the two-hour window that it was available online that year (!).
Lacking an age statement this year, the Lot 40 Cask-Strength is referred to simply as “Third Edition.” This lack of a defined age has dampened enthusiasm for it among the local whisky community here, but it is still expected to be a star seller for the brand. Once again, I picked up my bottle in Alberta (where it was widely available) ahead of the Ontario LCBO release last week.
As background, Lot 40 is the classic flavouring whisky for Corby – 100% pot-distilled rye, aged in virgin American oak barrels. I’m guessing they ran low on older stocks this year, after the success of the previous two cask-strength releases. So they opted for a different approach, trying a finishing twist: 75% of the whisky was doubly-aged in brand new French oak barrels. This is bound to add vanilla sweetness, and a different oaky experience.
Based on the label, 5460 bottles were produced, which is a bit more than previous years. Bottled at 57.0% ABV this year. It retails for a bit less than last year’s expression, selling for $90 CAD at the LCBO (a bit more out West).
Here is how it compares to the other Lot 40 releases in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:
Lot 40: 8.86 ± 0.33 on 22 reviews ($$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength (Single Cask): 9.16 ± 0.10 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12yo (2017): 9.06 ± 0.25 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 11yo (2018): 9.15 ± 0.13 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength Third Edition (2019): 8.70 ± 0.51 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Note that there are few scores to date, so please check out the database directly for updated results. But as an aside, I personally agree with the relative quality ranking of the 2018 > 2017 > 2019 editions so far.
And now what I find in the glass:
Nose: Sweet, with tons of caramel and brown sugar. Vanilla and maple syrup. Heavily caramelized, but also rich and creamy – like whipped cream. On first nose, this is more like a Cognac or Armagnac than a whisky. Bananas and dark red fruits (cherries and red currants). Heavy rye spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg. Charred and toasted oak. Walnuts. The classic Lot 40 floral notes are there (e.g. lilac), but a bit lost under all that sweet oak and spice (although to be fair, a lot of the more delicate Lot 40 aspects are diminished in the cask strength releases, even without the extra finishing). This really does smell like cask-strength Lot 40 finished in French oak! No off notes. Touch of water brings up the fruit, but also a dry wood note and loads of pepper – doesn’t need much here.
Palate: Liquid caramel followed by hefty hit of rye spices, plus chilies and black pepper. More peppery than previous Lot 40 cask strength releases, must be due to the French oak. Also a slight bitterness on the swallow. Thick and viscous mouthfeel, you will definitely need some water. With water, the fruits finally show up, with blueberries and papaya adding to the banana and red fruits. Instant mouth feel change, so go easy on the water – it really just needs a few drops. Beyond that, it gets watery fast, with no additional flavours emerging.
Finish: Undiluted, it seems quicker than past years, with sweet oak dominating initially with a light dusting of rye spices and dry paper. No real fruits or floral, and that slight bitterness returns. With water, juicy fruit gum and dried banana show up. It also seems to linger longer with water, so I recommend adding some to help the experience.
This is a great whisky, and worth the price in my view. A few drops of water is a must for the best effect, but go easy on it – you definitely don’t want to drown this whisky.
That said, it is true that the French oak dominates over the classic Lot 40 notes. Interestingly, both the French oak-derived caramelized sweetness and the spicy pepper notes come through at multiple points. It is basically what I expected for the French oak experience – only more so!
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I am not always a fan of French oak finishing, as I find it can be too woody sometimes (including too bitter). That is not the case here, as the base Lot 40 seems to have been a good substrate for the French oak finishing – but at the cost of somewhat reduced rye character in the final product. Of course, given the lack of an age statement, it is probable that they used younger Lot 40 stocks as well (which also would have contributed to reduced character).
Personally, I would prefer that they return to the (later) age-stated cask strength Lot 40 style for future batches. But I actually like this whisky for what it is – a good example of French oak finishing. I would rate it lower than the last two editions, but not by much. I would definitely give it a point or two higher than the current Meta-Critic average score.
Among reviewers, the most positive review I’ve seen so far is from Davin of Whisky Advocate (which I concur with). Moderately positive is Jason of In Search of Elegance. More neutral is the Toronto Whisky Society. The lowest score I’ve seen is from Mark of Whisky Buzz (although Mark was more positive in his podcast interview with Dr Don Livermore). Definitely worth picking up if you think you would like this style.