Here’s something you don’t see very often – a cask-strength Canadian “blend.”
In Canadian whisky making, different grains are typically distilled and aged separately, only coming together at the very end to make the final whisky product. The “typical” J.P. Wiser’s blend is mainly high-proof double-distilled corn whisky, with some lower proof single column-distilled rye whisky for flavouring.
When Wiser’s opted to make a cask-strength version of their line for the Northern Border Collection this year (2019), they didn’t know what the final strength was going to be. Earlier draft versions, when they were trying to settle on the profile (which some reviewers got to sample) were at higher strength than this final release.
Bottled finally at 64.3% ABV, Wiser’s NBC release this year has a minimum age of 23 years old. While this is not as old as previous J.P. Wiser’s 35 year old bottlings released as part of the NBC in 2017 and 2018, the extra alcoholic strength is appreciated by whisky enthusiasts (previous 35 yo bottlings were 50% ABV). But there may be an advantage to the younger age – extensive aging can yield increased ethyl acetate production, due to ethanol esterification over time (common in higher-proof whiskies, as done in Canada). This sweet-smelling aromatic compound is commonly used in glues and nail polish remover (along with acetone), and can thus be detected as off-notes in aged whiskies in higher concentrations (i.e., I find it noticeable in the Wiser’s 35yo and Canadian Club 40yo). So the younger age here should help offset that effect.
I bought my bottle of the J.P. Wiser’s 23yo for $150 CAD at the LCBO.
Here is how it compares to other Wiser’s and Northern Border Collection whiskies in my Meta-Critic Whisky database:
Gooderham & Worts 17yo Little Trinity Three Grain (2017): 8.69 ± 0.31 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Eleven Souls Four Grain (2018): 8.84 ± 0.31 on 12 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts 19yo 49 Wellington (2019): 8.85 ± 0.32 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 15yo: 8.39 ± 0.20 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.54 ± 0.41 on 18 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 23yo Cask Strength Blend (2019): 9.07 ± 0.23 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo (2017): 9.01 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
J.P. Wiser’s 35yo (2018): 9.08 ± 0.18 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 11yo (2018): 9.17 ± 0.13 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12yo (2017): 9.06 ± 0.25 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength Third Edition (2019): 8.76 ± 0.47 on 5 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Double Barrel Speyside Cask Finish (2017): 8.64 ± 0.35 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Double Barrel European Oak Cask (2018): 8.52 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Pike Creek 21yo Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks (2019): 8.92 ± 0.29 on 3 reviews ($$$$)
And now for what I find in the glass:
Nose: A lot of oak is present, but a lot of floral and spicy notes come through immediately too. Caramel and vanilla underpin this whisky, with dry oak and barrel char. Full bodied and perfumy. Corn syrup. Not very fruity at cask strength, mainly grapefruit citrus, but some apple and some light berry notes too. Nutmeg and cinnamon. Hint of glue notes at the end, but definitely less than the previous 35yo bottlings. Water accentuates the rye spice and brings up pepper. It’s nice.
Palate: Thick and luscious mouthfeel at full proof. Cinnamon, brown sugar and caramel swirl together, like a Cinnabon bun (heck, even the icing sugar topping shows up!). Rye spices (cloves joining the cinnamon and nutmeg) arrive and linger on the swallow, with black pepper joining in. Tobacco and hint of mustard seed (i.e., something earthy). The mix seems just about right to me, with loads of spiciness and sweetness. Water does little to tame the burn initially (unless you go heavy on it), and brings up some extra fruitiness – blueberries and grapes. Some graininess also appears now.
Finish: Sweet and sticky toffee, lingering corn syrup and rye spices. A light oaky bitterness builds with time, but is very mild (seems worse with water, oddly). Orange citrus rind is cleansing throughout. This is a surprisingly clean finish for such a big, oaky whisky.
The nose is a classic Canadian whisky – heavy on corn, but with definite rye flavouring spices – and with some extra barrel char. Very well done, without any real off-notes. The oakiness (from its 23 years in cask) comes through – and there must be some re-char casks in there, to give it it this much clean flavour. In the mouth, this is a liquid Cinnabon bun! I don’t expect anyone to really drink this neat (although you actually could), and water enhances both the spices and the fruitiness. I recommend you go lightly on the water to keep the glorious mouthfeel, although it can handle a lot and still maintain its “traditionally Canadian” profile.
A very careful selection of casks must have gone into this selection this year. It does lack some of the complexity of the previous 35 yo releases – but it makes up for it with a stronger oaky body, and a more pleasant overall experience. Oddly enough, I find this 23 yo is more approachable overall, despite the higher proof. I would give it roughly the same score as the previous 35 year old editions, as all are excellent.
Among reviewers, both Jason of In Search of Elegance and Mark of Whisky.buzz give it top marks. The Toronto Whisky Society seemed to be equally superlative on this release. Davin of Whisky Advocate gives this whisky a more moderately positive score, not as high as previous 35 yo editions. I’m somewhat in-between these levels, with a well-above-average rating (consistent with the 35 yo), but not quite in my absolute top range. Certainly a great example of a quality Canadian whisky blend – and at cask-strength to boot.