Tag Archives: Canadian

J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels

Here is something you don’t see every day: a limited small-batch release from a major Canadian producer, with a defined age statement, higher proof ABV, and a completely different production method than what is typically done in Canada. Thank you J.P. Wiser.

Last Barrels is the result of an experiment performed by former Wiser’s distiller Jim Stanski in early 2001 – and one that Wiser’s has now decided to bottle on its own as a limited run (instead of blending into a larger mainstream product).

The first novelty here is the use of a custom mashbill. Typically, most Canadian whisky is a blend where the individual grains are distilled separately and then later combined. Here, Wiser’s has used the traditional American method for bourbon production of blending the grains before mashing them. They are also using a very traditional bourbon-like mashbill of 80% corn, 11% rye and 9% barley (although this recipe supposedly relates to one J.P. Wiser experimented with himself).

The other innovation is the introduction of a sour mash process here. Sour mash is used in the production of nearly all bourbon, but is typically not used in Canada. Normally, it involves using left-over spent material from an older batch of mash to start controlled fermentation in the new batch (somewhat akin to what you do in making classic sourdough bread). Acids introduced by using the sour mash control the growth of bacteria, and create a proper pH balance for fermentation by the active live yeast.

Since Canada doesn’t use this method (and typically relies on a more sterilized process), Stanski’s innovated with a common sense solution – he let milk out in the lab to go sour, and then harvested the resulting Lactobacillus species. Although not usually done for whisky, it is common to use Lactobacillus as a “starter culture” for controlled fermentation in yogurt, cheese, beer, and sourdough bread, among other things.

The end result is a very boubon-like whisky (albeit one aged in ex-bourbon barrels, rather than new oak). Aged for 14 years and bottled at 45% ABV, this is certainly the most bourbon-like Canadian whisky I’ve tried so far.

Note that only 132 barrels were produced in the end, making this a very limited release. The LCBO bought out all 2000 cases, and has been releasing them across their network over the last couple of weeks.  While initially focusing exclusively on the Greater Toronto Area, I’m starting to see some bottles showing up in inventory further afield (with a little under 800 bottles currently showing through their app).

I picked up a bottle for $65 CAD at a nearby LBCO. I expect these will go fast, so you will want to hunt one down soon if you are intent on trying it. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose: Caramel upfront, with vanilla. Sweetened Granny Smith apple juice, with maybe a touch of cherry – there is definitely something tart in there. Oak char. Very slight solvent smell (rubbing alcohol?), but it doesn’t really have an alcohol burn. A bit light overall, but definitely bourbon-like (reminds me a bit of Basil Hayden’s, but with less rye).

Palate: Not as sweet as the nose, but you definitely have the vanilla and caramel notes coming through strongly. Fairly intense dry oakiness develops quickly, with significant woody bitterness. Sour patch candies. And tons of pepper – if you take too big of a sip, expect to experience that classic “pepper-up-the-nose” sensation. Feels a bit hot (likely due to the 45% ABV). But it is the peppery after-burn that really stands out for me. Unlike the soft nose, the palate reminds me of some of the classic mid-level bourbons with relatively flavourful bodies (e.g., Elijah Craig 12yo or Eagle Rare 10yo).

Finish: Lingers a fairly long while, with a mix of the slightly sweet fruit and bitter wood initially (more the latter). Fades while keeping some of the spicy pepper and vanilla right to the end. Thankfully, there are absolutely none of those artificially-sweet notes found on typical budget Canadian blends.

Wiser’s has definitely succeeded here in making a “Canadian bourbon”, if you ask me. In a blind tasting, I seriously doubt you would be able to identify this as a Canadian whisky – it tastes like a bourbon, with a fair amount of oaky flavours. It is lighter on the nose than most bourbons, though.

There are very few reviews online so far, but you can check out Davin at Canadian Whisky and Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Redditor Devoz. Here’s a preliminary Meta-Critic comparison to some other similarly-priced Canadian whiskies.

Collingwood 21yo: 8.64 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.79 ± 0.28 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.53 ± 0.65 on 13 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.80 ± 0.39 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s 18yo: 9.07 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.92 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s 18yo: 8.68 ± 0.40 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.05 ± 0.36 on 15 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.92 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews ($$$$)

Wisers.Last.BarrelsAgain, you can’t really say much from only 4 reviews. But it does seem like Last Barrels is trending around the level of the standard-bearer Lot 40. Here is how it compares to typical American bourbon whiskies in this price range.

Baker’s 7yo: 8.79 ± 0.31 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Blanton’s Single Barrel: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 17 reviews ($$$)
Basil Hayden’s: 8.40 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Booker’s Small Batch: 8.92 ± 0.27 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Bulleit 10yo: 8.53 ± 0.41 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Eagle Rare Single Barrel 10yo: 8.56 ± 0.33 on 18 reviews ($$)
Elijah Craig 12yo: 8.73 ± 0.31 on 19 reviews ($$)
Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.42 on 12 reviews ($$)
Evan Williams Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.27 on 14 reviews ($$)
Four Roses Single Barrel: 8.72 ± 0.36 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel: 8.51 ± 0.31 on 14 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.87 ± 0.31 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Maker’s Mark 46: 8.84 ± 0.21 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Certainly a good performer for the price so far, consistent with other bourbons available at the LCBO.

Century Reserve 21 Year Old

Century Reserve is another Canadian whisky brand produced by Highwood Distillers in Alberta.

While the label calls this is a “Canadian Rye Whisky”, there is in fact no rye in here. Unusually for a Canadian whisky, this is actually a single grain whisky made from 100% corn. While it may shock some in other jurisdictions, the long use of high-proof rye for flavouring in Canadian whisky blends has allowed the term “rye whisky” to become synonymous with “Canadian whisky”. In essence, this is now a historic term to describe our whisky, and one protected in Canadian law for all whiskies that meet general Canadian whisky production standards (whether or not rye is present).

The source of this particular whisky is a bit mysterious. While Highwood distills their own whisky, they acknowledge that the corn whisky base of Century Reserve 21 yo is sourced from elsewhere (but don’t say from where). There is some speculation online that the distillate might be from Potters Distilleries in BC (who were acquired by Highwood in 2005), although this has been disputed. Whatever the source, I suppose it is possible that some of the Highwood-own make has now entered into the mix – but I don’t have any specific information one way or the other.

Whatever the source of the distillate, this whisky was barrelled, aged, and bottled by Highwood. They consider it to be an example of a premium, single grain, small batch whisky. This puts Century Reserve 21 yo in the same category as Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky from South Africa and Nikka Coffey Grain from Japan – although aged much longer here.

Century.Reserve.21.375No longer available in Ontario, I picked up a 375mL bottle of this 40% ABV whisky during recent travels in BC (for only ~$25 CAD, taxes-in). I was surprised to see a row of these half-sized bottles of Century Reserve 21 yo on the shelf at the BC Liquors store in Westbrook Village, as this item is not currently listed on their website (in any size). An image of the actual 375mL bottle is shown on the right (see the stock photo at the bottom of this page for what the 750mL bottle looks like).

The design of this half bottle is interesting. While the body of the bottle looks similar to full-size 750mL standard bottle, thee half-size bottles have a fancy decanter-style glass stopper with a thin ridge of cork around the internal rim. This makes it much more of a presentation item (i.e., looks like a fancy perfume bottle).

Century.Research.21.375.corkI was even more surprised when I turned the bottle over, looking for potential batch codes. I didn’t find any, but here is what is embossed onto the base of the glass bottle:

Century.Reserve.21.375.bottom

In case that isn’t coming through clearly, it says:

LIQUOR BOTTLE / JAPAN / THE NIKKA WHISKY / DIST. CO. LTD

I have never seen bottles of any Nikka product that look like this one (most are very plain, in comparison). And I can find no record online of a relationship between Nikka and Highwood. So I have no idea how Highwood managed to acquire Nikka bottles for this 375mL bottling of Century Reserve.  Frankly, this one is a mystery to me – if anyone knows more, please leave a comment below.

In terms of the what is actually inside the bottle, I will provide my tasting notes below. 😉 Note that I have previously reviewed two of their rye whisky blends, the Highwood Ninety 5 yo and 20 yo.

But first, here is what the Meta-Critic database reports for this whisky, relative to other aged Canadian whiskies, and some single-grain corn whiskies:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Canadian Rockies 21yo: 9.11 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.76 ± 0.21 on 10 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.36 ± 0.91 on 5 reviews ($)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.70 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky: 8.19 ± 0.53 on 7 reviews ($$)
Kilbeggan 8yo Single Grain: 8.13 ± 0.40 on 11 reviews ($$)
Nikka Coffey Grain: 8.65 ± 0.50 on 14 reviews ($$$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish): 8.53 ± 0.36 on 9 reviews ($$$)

And now, what I find in the glass:

Nose: Sweet light corn syrup, with a touch of maple. Notes of apple, cherries and citrus. a fair amount of vanilla, likely from the oak aging. As expected, no rye notes. Detectable solvent smell (mainly glue), with some dry rubbing alcohol thrown in. Not as bad as it sounds, and much better than typical entry level Canadian whiskies. Gives the overall impression of being rich while still being light (i.e., maybe more buttery than creamy).

Palate: Rich sweetness. Somewhat cereal as well – makes me think of creamed wheat. I can detect something similar in the best Canadian blends, like Crown Royal Monarch and Gibson’s 18 yo – I guess that was coming from the corn. In fact, buttered corn also comes to mind here. Otherwise, I get mixed berries, some citrus, and more definite vanilla now.  Silky mouthfeel, very rich and satisfying. I also get what tastes like mild rye spices (e.g., cinnamon and nutmeg), which must be coming from the oak aging. This is followed by a slight woody bitterness. Not as complex as most Canadian whiskies of this age, but with some interesting subtle notes.

Finish: The simple sweetness lingers the longest – and for medium length. Not particularly flavourful on the way out, but certainly not offensive. Slight traces of some rye-like spice, but faint and hard to pin down. All in all, it just sort of slowly fades away.

Century.Reserve.21The official tasting notes mention honey a lot, but I really don’t find that here – it’s a much lighter sweetness, combined with buttery and creamy overtones. Comparing it to the Highwood Ninety 20 yo, the Century Reserve 21 yo is less complex on the palate – but it also less objectionable on the nose.

The Century Reserve 21 reminds me of some other single grain corn whiskies, but with more rich and creamy flavours.  Like the consolidated Meta-Critic scores, I too would rate it as far superior to Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, and a slight notch up from Nikka Coffey Grain (which is more delicate and less creamy).

Two of the most positive reviews of this whisky come from Jason of In Search of Elegance and Chip the RumHowler. Davin of Whisky Advocate/Canadian Whisky is also quite positive, as are the guys from Quebec Whisky.

Hiram Walker Special Old Rye

Hiram Walker & Sons is the largest distillery operating in Canada today, as well as the longest continuously operating distillery in North America. Indeed, according to one source, it may now actually be the largest single distiller in North America.

Located in Windsor, Ontario, Hiram Walker & Sons is currently owned by Pernod, and operated by Corby. This massive distillery produces many of the well-known Corby brands, such as Canadian Club, Gibson’s, Lot 40, and Wiser’s. According to Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky Portable Expert, a significant proportion of their operation is sold as bulk whisky to US producers.

There is very little information about their namesake Special Old whisky available online. The only real info on the Corby website is a repeat of what is already shown on the bottle label – namely, that this is a Canadian rye whisky, and that Hiram Walker & Sons was established in 1858. Not exactly a lot to go on. According to Davin’s review at the Whisky Advocate, this whisky is only available in Canada.

Hiram Walker’s Special Old is an example of an ultra-low cost, entry-level Canadian whisky. You will consistently find this whisky sold at the lowest spirit “floor” price at the various Provincial liquor outlets. At the LCBO, that means you can pick up a standard 750mL bottle for ~$25 CAD. And like many of these entry-level whiskies, it is also available in a number of sizes (i.e., 200mL, 375mL, 750mL, 1140mL, 1750mL).  As you can tell from the image, packaging is very plain (and reminiscent of Alberta Premium, another entry-level whisky).

Here is how it compares to the other ultra-cheap, entry-level Canadian whiskies in my database:

Alberta Premium: 8.24 ± 0.60 on 10 reviews ($)
Alberta Springs 10yo: 8.33 ± 0.50 on 8 reviews ($)
Canadian Club: 7.28 ± 0.87 on 13 reviews ($)
Canadian Mist: 7.61 ± 0.69 on 11 reviews ($)
Hiram Walker Special Old: 8.23 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s VO: 7.73 ± 0.79 on 9 reviews ($)
Seagram’s Canadian 83: 7.28 ± 0.90 on 7 reviews ($)
Schenley Golden Wedding: 8.02 ± 0.58 on 8 reviews ($)
Wiser’s DeLuxe: 8.14 ± 0.49 on 8 reviews ($)

As you can see, the average Meta-Critic score puts it at the top of the pack, along with Alberta Premium and Alberta Springs.

Note that it is bottled at the standard 40% ABV. My review sample came from a 200mL bottle. Here is what I find in the glass:

Nose:  Rye spices are the first thing you notice, especially cinnamon and cloves. It has a pleasant fruitiness, with red apples, currants, and a bit of citrus. Some oaky vanilla, with a little caramel. Actually reminds me a bit of flat cola – but it’s not as sweet overall. There is a slight peppery spiciness, tingling the nose. Impressively, there are no obvious solvent notes – a rare find in a budget Canadian whisky. A pleasant surprise so far.

Palate: Very rye forward initially (led by cinnamon), but the kick fades quickly, leaving soft, lingering flavours. There is an almost immediate sweet creaminess that coats the tongue with vanilla/toffee, and some light fruitiness in the background. Overall rich, it leaves a nice buttery sensation on the lips and gums (though still a bit watery). It is not uniformly sweet though, as citrus and sour apple eventually take more prominence.  I would consider this fairly well balanced – it maintains distinctive individual flavours, and doesn’t blend them all together.

Finish:  Medium length for a Canadian rye, with some bitterness creeping in – but more like bitter chocolate than the typical bitter grapefruit of some Canadian blends.  I get the flat cola note again, with just a hint of the softer rye spices (maybe nutmeg) persisting to the end. Somewhat tannic, leading to a drying effect over time. Leads to a very cleansing finish, which gently encourages you to take another sip.

Hiram.Walker.Special.OldUPDATE JANUARY 2016: Like many bargain Canadian ryes, lot variation can be considerable on these.  I recently picked up a second bottle, and find the nose is muted in comparison, especially for the rye spices – and there is a distinct glue-like solvent smell now. The palate is generally similar, but feels “hotter” (i.e., more raw ethanol taste). Finish is comparable, although perhaps a touch less bitter (which would actually be an improvement).

I didn’t have high hopes for this whisky – I initially bought it as an impulse buy in the LCBO checkout line, as one more budget Canadian blend to try. But this is my favourite entry-level Canadian rye so far – easily exceeding all the entry versions of Alberta Premium, Canadian Club, Seagram’s and Wiser’s at this basement price point.

I even prefer the first batch of Hiram Walker over most of the second tier ~$30 CAD whiskies, like Crown Royal and Gibson’s 12. Indeed, I would almost place that batch on par with Canadian Club 100% Rye and Forty Creek’s Copper Pot – that is, among the best of the second tier whiskies.  The second batch is less interesting on the nose, but still matches anything else at the LCBO floor price.

For more reviews of this whisky, I recommend you check out Davin at the Whisky Advocate, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and Chip the RumHowler.  The highest score I’ve seen for this whisky comes from Jim Murray (who seems to have a fondness for entry-level Canadian rye whiskies more generally). For less positive reviews, you can check out the guys at Quebec Whisky.  But for my money, Hiram Walker’s Special Old tops the list of entry-level budget Canadian whiskies.

 

Collingwood 21 Year Old Rye

It is a little odd to be reviewing a limited-run whisky that came out over 2 years ago, as you are unlikely to be able to find this whisky anymore.  But I recently had the opportunity to taste and review this whisky blind, which led to some interesting observations (to me, at any rate).

It seems that few reviewers want to publicly reveal the results of blind taste testing (possibly because the results are likely not to put them in a good light). 😉  The experience of the Scotch Noob on this front is revealing. I personally have a lot respect for reviewers who are willing to put themselves out there with blind tasting notes.

The Collingwood 21yo was a bit of an unusual experiment for this Canadian distiller. Some 50 oak barrels of malted rye were set aside to age at the distillery. In 2013, these were married in a vat with toasted maplewood (just like regular Collingwood whisky), and released in time for Christmas 2013 (where it was ~$60 at the LCBO, I believe).

I received a blind sample of this whisky from Redditor Devoz. All I knew was that it was a Canadian whisky, bottled at 40% ABV. Here is what I found in the glass, as posted in my blind review on Reddit:

Blind Tasting Notes:

Nose:  Very sweet, with some corn syrup-like characteristics. Lighter fruits, like pear and green apple, and darker fruits like red plums and raisins.  There is a rich creaminess as well, with a slight chocolate note. Not getting much in terms of classic rye notes. No apparent solvent smells, which is a definite bonus. A nice nose, distinctive for a Canadian rye.

Palate:  Brown sugar sweetness up front, with the traditional rye baking spices following immediately after (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular). Not too spicy, but more than I expected from the nose. Very sweet and creamy – I can imagine people calling this “smooth”. Darker fruits show up more now (especially figs and raisins).  Slightly oaky. Sweet syrup returns at the end.

Finish:  Medium length. No bitterness, but not much going on here. Basically, somewhat bland and gentle, but in a good way (if that is possible).  Light sweetness and a touch of cinnamon persist to the end.

Interestingly, I mistakenly believed that this blind sample was a traditional Canadian rye blend, given that the rye spices weren’t very strong (i.e., I felt it didn’t have enough kick to be a straight rye). There was also a definite sweetness here that I found reminiscent of corn whisky, reinforcing the idea that this was a blended Canadian whisky. Quality-wise, I gave it a slightly below average score, as I didn’t find it particularly complex or interesting for its flavour characteristics.

Given the reveal, I suspect the extended barrel aging (and marrying in toasted Maplewood) introduced greater barrel sweetness, and softened the rye expression. This would be consistent with my “smooth” observation above, as well as the lack of any off notes (which can commonly occur on younger Canadian whiskies). I note that Davin of Canadian Whisky particularly emphasized the “smoothness” of this whisky in his review.

Here is how the Collingwood 21yo compares to other aged Canadian whiskies in the Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Rockies 21yo: 8.97 ± 0.24 on 4 reviews ($$)
Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.66 ± 0.45 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Gibson’s Finest Rare 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.38 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.22 on 9 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)

The Collingwood 21yo is clearly at the lower end of the score range for aged Canadian whiskies.

Having re-sampled it after the reveal, I’m not inclined to change my score or overall flavour assessment. I believe this particular expression may be a bit over-aged, as it is soft in flavour overall, and rather gentle on the way out. The relatively low 40% ABV doesn’t help either – this is one Canadian whisky that likely would have benefited from being bottled at higher strength. All that said, it does have a very nice nose.

Personally, I still think its flavour characteristics and overall quality place it more in-line with the following budget-minded ($) whiskies:

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews ($)
Forty Creek Barrel Select: 8.59 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($)
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye: 8.23 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews ($)
Wiser’s Small Batch: 8.57 ± 0.27 on 11 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.54 ± 0.42 on 9 reviews ($)

Collingwood.21For additional reviews of this whisky, you could check out Jason of In Search of Elegance, and André and Patrick of Quebec Whisky. I certainly concur with them on how soft this rye is – although I don’t personally find it as strongly floral.  I am surprised to note that some reviewers find a lot of rye here, like Davin of Canadian Whisky and Michael of Diving for Pearls. But Beppi of the Globe and Mail experiences it as more Cognac-like, which I think is a better relative fit for this whisky.

While it was certainly an interesting experience to taste and review blind, I don’t think this whisky is necessarily worth seeking out, except for its uniqueness. There are higher quality aged expressions currently available at comparable or lower prices.

 

Highwood Ninety 20 Year Old

The Highwood Ninety 20yo is one of the higher-end expressions from the Alberta distiller Highwood – better known for the Centennial and Century Reserve lines of Canadian whiskies. And note that while this is marketed as a “rye whisky” (like all Canadian whisky), I believe the Ninety 20yo is actually a pure corn whisky.

I previously reviewed the more entry-level 5yo expression of the “Ninety” series (so named for the proof – both whiskies are bottled at 45% ABV). As you saw in that earlier review, while the 5yo had potential, I felt it really needed extra aging to tame its youthful characteristics.  Let’s see if the 20yo lives up to the promise.

Here is how the Highwood Ninety whiskies compare to other higher-end and/or aged Canadian whiskies in my Meta-Critic database:

Canadian Club 20yo: 8.69 ± 0.33 on 9 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21yo: 8.68 ± 0.51 on 11 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak: 8.98 ± 0.33 on 16 reviews ($$$)
Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews ($$$$)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.94 ± 0.23 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.39 ± 0.56 on 5 reviews ($)
Lot 40: 8.90 ± 0.42 on 16 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s 18yo: 8.71 ± 0.42 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.24 on 13 reviews ($$)
Wiser’s Red Letter: 8.95 ± 0.4 on 10 reviews ($$$$)

As you can see, for the price (~$50 CAD at the LCBO), the Highwood Ninety 20yo scores very well for a Canadian whisky.  I received two samples of this whisky from  Canadian Reddit users Devoz and wuhantang.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Slightly sweet, but my main impression is that of a dry dustiness. There is grassiness and definite floral suggestion – very “earthy” overall.  Little fruit to speak of.  Unapologetic organic solvent smell, mainly acetone (with a touch of glue). You can sense the higher ABV. A classic grain-forward Alberta nose.

Palate:  Definite sweetness up front, with a strong toffee/butterscotch flavour. Gives me a creamy Caramilk bar sensation.  Dusty rye-like spices pop up quickly (cloves and nutmeg), and there is a spicy, peppery kick to it – with distinctive peppermint. The earthy notes from the nose continue (leather? tobacco?).  Maybe even a touch of anise now. This is a complex body, and the flavours come in waves. Definitely one you want to keep exploring. Very nice.

Finish:  Fairly long finish, well balanced overall (although the solvent aroma may linger). The light sweetness persists, along with a somewhat earthy/grassy feel.  Makes you want to go back and explore the palate further, though. A bit of dry heat builds up over repeated sips, due the higher ABV.

Highwood.Ninety.20I would think this one is fine as is (i.e., neat). A splash of water helps dampen the acetone on the nose slightly, and further accentuates the creamy butterscotch/caramel in the mouth. Also seems to soften the “earthiness” in the finish, without affecting the grassiness.

Looking over my tasting notes, I can see how this 20yo expression fits in well with the Ninety line. The evolution of the flavours from the 5yo makes sense, with the extended barrel aging. I particularly like the rich caramel/toffee notes now.

I’m not a fan of solventy smells myself, so I would rate this whisky just a touch lower than the Meta-Critic average.  I’m actually a bit surprised that the extended aging hasn’t attenuated this characteristic further. It was of course more pronounced on the Highwood Ninety 5yo.

For additional reviews, David de Kergommeaux of Canadian Whisky and Jason Hambrey of In Search of Elegance provide comparable ratings of this 20yo expression. The four lead reviewers at Quebec Whisky provide a nicely balanced set of views and commentaries.

Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Crown Royal is one of the most popular budget whiskies in Canada. I have recently posted reviews of a couple of the more highly-ranked expressions (Monarch and Northern Harvest Rye). Thanks to a swap with the user Devoz on Reddit, I have been able to sample a bottle of Hand Selected Barrel – a cask-specific release, currently only available in the United States.

That may sound odd, but Crown Royal is also very popular in parts of the U.S. – particularly Texas. As a result, Hand Selected Barrel and Northern Harvest Rye were originally launched as limited releases there in late 2014. They only gradually expanded across the U.S., with NHR showing up in Canada late last Fall. We are still waiting to see if Hand Selected Barrel will make its way up here. 😉

The initial Texas-only release of these whiskies makes sense, when you consider their composition. Northern Harvest Rye is close to being a straight rye (actually 90% rye in this case), and rye is enjoying a surging popularity in the U.S. Hand Selected Barrel is made with a very boubon-like high-rye mashbill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley – and aged exclusively in new oak barrels (i.e., just like bourbon). It is bottled at a common “cask strength” of 51.5%, which will definitely appeal to bourbon enthusiasts.

Both Northern Harvest Rye and Hand Selected Barrel are examples of what are known in Canada as “flavouring whiskies.” Hand Selected Barrel in particular is drawn exclusively from whisky produced on Crown Royal’s massive “Coffee Rye” still – distilled to low ABV, and aged in virgin oak barrels (for seven years in this case). In Canada, this sort of low ABV high-rye whisky is often used to “flavour” blended whiskies that are composed predominantly of high ABV corn whisky.

In essence, Crown Royal really is hand-selecting individual barrels of this potent flavouring whisky for direct bottling. I understand that it is only available at U.S. stores that agree to purchase a whole barrel (i.e., each bottle is thus unique to that particular store and cask). As a result, you can expect a considerable amount of variability from one store to the next – but all are likely to give a fairly intense flavour profile. My sample came from a bottle purchased at a retail Texas store.

Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average Meta-Critic score (highest first):

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.72 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.75 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 15 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.60 ± 0.52 on 13 reviews ($)

And now, my detailed tasting notes on this sample of Hand Selected Barrel:

Nose: Very reminiscent of Northern Harvest Rye. I get a very sweet candied nose, with overwhelming apple and vanilla initially – and the same solvent undercurrent as the NHR (more, if anything). On repeated nosing, novel aromas open up like banana and strawberry, leading to a bubble-gum sensation. It also singes my nose hairs if I inhale too deeply or too long – which is a sign of that higher ABV. Pretty comparable overall to NHR, but with a bit more character and “oomph.”

Palate: Big, bold bourbon-es character, with tons of vanilla and butterscotch mixed with various fruits – mainly apple (again), strawberry and cherries. Definite citrus, but more candied orange than the typical Crown Royal grapefruit. The woody character comes through – certainly oak, but also a sweet, resinous conifer sap (Spruce?) that quickly turns to eucalyptus in my mouth. Has a thick and syrupy mouth feel overall, which is another sign of the high ABV – but still with a slightly tannic dryness that I like. I don’t get the classic Crown Royal bitterness here, which is a bonus in my view (although some may find this too sweet). The rye spices come up only toward the end, with a mild dry dusty bread taste. Certainly less overt rye than the NHR – more like a full-flavoured high-rye bourbon (which is basically what this is).

Finish: Oddly not very flavourful or long-lasting. This is where it falls a little flat for me – quite literally in fact, as it reminds me of slightly flat Tab (i.e., saccharin-sweetened diet cola). Some of the classic Crown Royal bitterness seems to be trying to poke through now, but is being suppressed by this artificial sweetness. Definitely much better than regular Crown Royal, but some may prefer the sharper bitterness of the NHR. Certainly doesn’t match the consistently smooth finish of the Monarch 75th Anniversary blend. By the end of the tasting, I could detect the dry heat of alcohol fumes rising from the back of my throat (i.e., another sign of the higher ABV ).

Crown.Royal.Hand.BarrelOverall, I would rate this sample of the Hand Selected Barrel as very close to the Northern Harvest Rye in overall quality. There are certainly differences though – NHR is more of a traditional Canadian Rye, without the thick and rich woodiness of the bourbon-like Hand Selected Barrel. This HSB has a more robust palate, but the NHR has a sharper and cleaner nose and finish. And I still consider my batch of Monarch to be a whole other league – an example of how Crown Royal can make a high quality and elegant blended whisky.

At the end of the day, if you can’t get your hands on a Hand Selected Barrel, the Northern Harvest Rye is probably the closest substitute in the Crown Royal family.

Keeping in mind the standard caveat that each bottle is going to be different, you can find some very positive reviews of this whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky, Jason at Whisky Won, Josh of the The Whiskey Jug, and Chip the Rum Howler.

 

Highwood Ninety 5 Year Old

It can be quite challenging to find good quality whisky reviews of entry-level expressions – given the natural tendency of expert reviewers to focus on premium and mid-range products. In my own case, my familiarity with assembling the meta-critic scores can dissuade me from picking up or trying perceived lower quality expressions.

Which brings me around to the Highwood Ninety 5 yo. 😉 This is a relatively entry-level expression from the Alberta distiller Highwood (better known for their Centennial and Century Reserve lines). This is one of two whiskies released under their own name in the “Ninety” series (for 90 proof), along with a 20 yo expression.

Here are how some of the Highwood whiskies perform in the meta-critic database, alongside a couple of other entry-level rye whiskies from Alberta:

Alberta Premium: 8.32 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.54 ± 0.44 on 9 reviews ($)
Highwood Centennial 10yo: 8.42 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($)
Highwood Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.21 on 9 reviews ($$)
Highwood Century Reserve Lot 15/25: 8.37 ± 0.89 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 5yo: 8.40 ± 0.55 on 5 reviews ($)
Highwood Ninety 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews ($$)

As you can see, the Ninety 5yo falls in well with the pack of entry-level ($) Canadian whiskies.  Not available outside of Western Canada, I had the opportunity to pick up the Ninety 5yo last summer on a trip to BC, when it was on sale for ~$24 CAD, taxes in.  Given the price, I thought it was worthwhile picking up a bottle to try.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet and creamy, but with a strong solvent smell (both acetone and turpentine). The solvent note dissipates a bit with some time in the glass, but never goes away completely. Fruity notes are mainly tropical, with banana and pear, and some mixed berries. Vanilla enters the mix as well. Somewhat grassy, with dry baking spices (i.e., dusty rye). If it weren’t for the solvent aromas, this would be pretty decent.

Palate: Sweet and fruit forward, with the same elements as the nose. Also picking up definite citrus now, especially orange. Some vanilla and butterscotch, and a strong spicy mint (like peppermint) that is very distinctive. The solvent notes from the nose morph into a varnish sensation in the mouth, with some bitterness (ginger?). There is a light dusting of the classic rye baking spices toward the end (more prominent than on the nose, though less than most Canadian ryes). A bit watery in composition, despite the creamy nose.

Finish: Bitterness is probably the longest-lasting characteristic, which seems to co-exist with the creamy sweetness initially. Definitely getting more of the baking spices lingering as well (especially spicy cinnamon), which helps on the way out.

This has all the makings of a good Canadian rye – if only the solvent/varnish notes weren’t so prominent. In some ways, the rye component reminds me of the classic Alberta Premium, but with some interesting new elements – like the candied mint. There is actually a lot going on here, for such a young whisky.

That said, my initial assessment of this whisky was rather poor, due to the strong solvent smell (which I presume is coming from young grain whisky in the mix). Coming back to the bottle a few weeks later didn’t result in an improvement.  But now that it has been sitting on my shelf for last six months, I find the worse of the solvent smell has dissipated slightly.

Highwood.Ninety.5As such, and in keeping with the meta-critic ranking, I would probably give it a slight edge over standard Alberta Premium. But I would still score both whiskies lower in absolute terms than the average meta-critic scores above – i.e., in the high 70s, not the low/mid-80s. And I personally like the Canadian Club 100% Rye, which I would score closer to the premium Canadian whiskies above.

In my view, the Ninety 5yo definitely needs some additional aging to tame the solvent/varnish components. But the overall complexity makes me very curious to try the Ninety 20yo.

UPDATE April 4, 2016: my review of the 20yo is now available.

For some additional reviews of the Ninety 5yo, Davin de Kergommeaux and Chip the RumHowler both give it mid-range marks. But also check out the more variable scoring of André and Patrick at Quebec Whisky.

 

 

 

Whisky Prices World-Wide

A recent excellent series of price analyses by Michael of the Diving for Pearls whisky blog – entitled “Scotch Ain’t Dead Yet” – got me thinking about common perceptions of whisky pricing world-wide.  In particular, his second post about changes in US prices over time.

Like Michael, I too use wine-searcher.com to track typical current whisky prices (this is in fact the main resource for generating the “$” estimates in my whisky database). But this is supplemented by various Provincial liquor agency websites in Canada, as well as my own records during international travels (e.g., see my recent Whisky in Korea and Whisky in Japan articles). I have provided some very limited analyses of Canadian whisky volume and recent LCBO pricing here in Ontario – although if you really want to track LCBO prices over time, I suggest you try out the excellent LiQuery website.

My concern here is a bit different. One of the challenges to integrating reviewer scores is how each reviewer feels about prices, and whether or not they explicitly take prices into account with their scoring. As previously observed here, there is a weak correlation between scores and price (i.e., it isn’t as strong as you might expect). Cearly, we can all be influenced by price – after all, it is natural to associate more expensive with higher quality.

But another confound to this analysis is whether or not reviewers actually discount their scores on the basis of price (i.e., giving more expensive whiskies a lower rating due to a lower perceived value for money). I adjust for this in the analysis for the limited cases where it is explicitly made clear as part of the reviewer’s scoring method – but it’s hard to know how price affects everyone’s relative quality perceptions overall.

The other challenge is whether reviewers are using a very regional filter for price (i.e., their personal experience, locally). One thing I come across a lot in review commentaries are statements as to how relatively expensive certain classes of whisky are in the reviewer’s home country.  For example, it is a common complaint to note how much Japanese whisky has increased in price over the last couple of years (and how availability has dropped), due to excessive demand. It is also natural to assume that the whisky produced in one own’s country is relatively cheaper than imported whisky.

But are these assumptions valid, world-wide? It seems as if most reviewers imagine their target audience are those who experience similar pricing constraints as their own – which may not be the case, given the reach of the globalized internet. I’ll come back to this point again at the end.

It is of course difficult to accurately compare whisky prices world-wide, due to limited regional availability of certain classes and styles (and limited internet sales in some countries – especially Asia).  Currency fluctuations also wreak havoc in making general observations.  But I have followed a small basket of commonly available international whiskies world-wide in my travels (and online researches), and have found a few peculiarities over time.

First let’s start with the big picture: how much does a basket of widely available (i.e., largely entry-and mid-level) international whiskies cost from one country to the next? Ranked from lowest to highest price:

Japan << Canada = USA < UK < Taiwan << Korea

Note that ALL whisky in Japan right now is remarkably cheap, when currency-adjusted, due to the relative low value of the Yen (January 2016). Typically, Japanese, Canadian, American and UK whiskies currently sell in Japan for about half what they cost in the rest of the world (!).  For example, right now in Tokyo, I could pick up Jim Beam White for $12 CAD, JW Red or Crown Royal for $16 CAD, Glenfiddich 12yo for $29 CAD, and Hibiki Harmony for $48 CAD. Mind you, it wasn’t always like this – two years ago, most everything sold for only a slight discount compared to Canadian prices. And it may easily revert in a short while – again, that’s currency fluctuations for you.

But a key thing to note above is that Japanese whisky is actually as expensive to purchase in Japan as it is in other countries, in relative terms. Note that I am specifically referring to the commonly exported whiskies that I track world-wide. There are certainly cheaper domestic budget blends that are still affordable in Japan. But proportionately-speaking, quality Japanese whiskies available for export remain equally as expensive on their home territory as they do in Canada, the USA or the UK.

In contrast, Korea is one of the most expensive places I’ve found to buy whiskies – likely due to unusually high government taxes.

In any case, that’s the current big picture assessment.  But it gets even more interesting when you break it down by whisky type.

For this analysis, I will include a focus on the most populous Provinces in Canada (BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). I will leave out Taiwan and Korea, since I have less data (and the pattern doesn’t change much from above anaway). I will bold the host country in the listings below, for clarity. And as before, I am ranking countries/provinces from lowest price to highest price (from left to right).

UK whiskies:

Entry-level UK blends (e.g., JW Red, Ballantines Finest, etc):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level UK blends (e.g., JW Black, Chivas 12, etc):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = USA < BC = UK

Entry-level UK malts (e.g., Glenlivet/Glenfiddich 12, Balvenie 12 DW, Laphroaig 10, etc):
Japan < UK < AB = USA < ON = QC < BC

Now that’s a surprise: on a currency-adjusted basis, the cheapest UK blended whiskies are actually relatively cheaper in Canada – compared to either the USA or UK.  But as you start to go up in quality (and price), the trend quickly reverses. By the time you get to entry-level malts, they are definitely cheaper in the UK, with Canada being noticeably more expensive. The exception is Alberta, which is typically the best place to pick up Scottish single malts in Canada (i.e., you can find typical USA prices).

I haven’t tracked medium and higher priced single malts in this basket, but my quick checks tell me this latter pattern persists (i.e., UK is cheaper, followed by USA, then Canada). So the presumption of UK reviewers that single malts are cheaper in their country seems to be true (except, of course, for Japan at the moment).

American whiskies:

Entry-level whiskies (e.g., Jim Beam White, Jack Daniels Black, Four Roses Yellow, WT, etc.):
Japan < BC = AB = ON = QC < USA < UK

Mid-level bourbons (e.g., Maker’s Mark, Elijah Craig 12, Woodford Reserve, etc.)
Japan < USA = ON = QC <  AB = BC < UK

Again, Canada does surprisingly well price-wise for US bourbon, being equivalent (or cheaper!) on a currency-adjusted basis.  Unfortunately though, we don’t really get much of the top-shelf stuff here.  The few we do get are still quite attractive, especially in Ontario and Quebec (e.g., Bulleit 10yo is $50 CAD in Ontario, compared to an average USA price of ~$72 CAD). If the Canadian dollar continues on its current downward course, we soon may have American tourists visiting Canadian border towns for better deals!

Japanese whiskies:

Note that true entry-level Japanese whiskies don’t typically get exported – we are looking at a better class of whiskies here.

Mid-level whiskies (e.g., Nikka Coffey Malt/Grain, Taketsuru NAS/12, From the Barrel; Hibiki Harmony, etc.):
Japan < AB < ON = QC = UK <= USA = BC < Taiwan << Korea

Again, Alberta is the place to be in Canada to find reasonably-priced Japanese whisky. In some cases, the USA does as well as the rest of Canada or the UK, but it is somewhat variable.

I’ve added Taiwan and Korea back in the list above, as Japanese whisky is relatively easy to find in both places. You really pay a lot for it in Korea, though (I believe there is an additional surtax for Japanese goods).

Canadian Whiskies:

Entry-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal, Canadian Club, etc.):
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB = USA < UK

Mid-level ryes (e.g. Crown Royal Black, CC Classic 12, etc.)
Japan << BC = ON = QC < AB < USA << UK

Basically a similar pattern. Although there are some states in the USA where entry-level Canadian whisky is cheaper or comparable to here, for the most part the best deals on Canadian whisky are in Canada. Note that we actually export a lot of really cheap stuff to the USA that is not even sold in Canada. And we really don’t export much of the higher-shelf whiskies.

As you go up in quality (and price), Canadian whisky gets harder to find in the world – and proportionately more expensive when you can.  It’s an interesting finding that Alberta has worse prices on Canadian whisky, compared to the others (but the difference isn’t huge).

Korean whiskies:

No such thing, really.  Although there are a couple of domestic Korean brands (with a good number of expressions each), these are actually all sourced from imported Scottish whisky blends. The prices tend to be comparable to standard Scottish whiskies, and these domestic “brands” are not sold outside of Korea.

Given how popular whisky is in Korea, it’s actually a bit surprising to me how much it costs across the board there.

Taiwanese Whiskies:

Taiwan = Japan < AB < ON = UK < USA << Korea

I wasn’t able to find a lot of full bottles of Taiwanese whisky in Japan, so I’m really going more by miniatures above. You also don’t find a lot of Taiwanese whisky available in Canada. But the general trend is certainly that Taiwan is the best place to buy Taiwanese whisky (along with Japan). It was hard to find in Korea, and fairly expensive when I did.

Wrapping Up!

Ok, so what is the general take-home message from the above?

The general presumption that domestically-produced whisky is sold at lower prices than imports to that country is generally true – but only for the decent mid-level (and higher) expressions. At the entry-level, it can be surprising just how cheap foreign whisky can be – and domestic whisky can often be sold more cheaply in other countries.

Shop_LocalI know that’s not what advocates of “buy local” initiatives want to hear – but it can actually be cheaper for consumers to pick up higher quality products shipped from further away, compared to what is produced domestically. I’m personally struck by that every time I see the Ontario wines at the front LCBO – I can typically head to the Vintages section in the back of the store and get much better gold-medal winning French reds for the same price. Don’t get me wrong – we make a lot of decent wine here in Ontario – it is just typically  too expensive relative to the quality of imports that I can buy for the same price.

Getting back to whiskies, I suspect part of the reason is the differing tax regimes in different countries on different classes of goods. In all countries, the predominant determinant of final whisky price is government tax. So if governments decide to charge less tax for domestic products, the local consumer (and/or local industry) is better off. But surprisingly, this isn’t a given. Here’s a recent price mark-up sheet from the LCBO: note that the relative discount for Canadian whisky production is actually quite low (i.e., not that much better off than foreign imports).

Beyond taxes, there are other peculiarities at play. just look at how Alberta fares for Canadian whisky compared to Scottish single malts, or Ontario for American whiskies.  I am not sure what the reasons are for these apparent discrepancies – but it means that the savvy shopper can look out for what is the best deal where they live.

I also think it’s a good idea for whisky reviewers who factor price into their assessments to consider the relative price of whiskies world-wide. It’s certainly a fair approach to discount the rating of a given whisky based on its relative price – but that needs to be explicitly stated, and the price really should be considerate of the wider international reading audience, not just domestic. Of course, this is more work for all involved. Personally, I find it easier to ignore relative price (as best I can), and just focus on the taste and character when reviewing or ranking a whisky.

One final point to re-iterate, since it comes up a lot: surprisingly, decent Japanese whisky is expensive everywhere – both in its domestic market and abroad.  And it’s actually harder to find the higher-end stuff in Japan than it is elsewhere right now, as they seem to be bleeding their domestic market to meet international contracts. It will be interesting to see if this trend persists in the coming years. As I point out in my November 2015 Whisky in Japan article, a lot has changed there in less than two years!

Gooderham & Worts Four Grain Whisky

For those from the Toronto area, the name Gooderham & Worts name should sound familiar – it is still prominently displayed in the city’s trendy and historic distillery district.  Of course, the distillery itself – once the larger distiller of alcoholic spirits in Canada – has long since closed.

Canadian whisky connoisseurs will know of Gooderham & Worts from Corby’s limited release “Canadian Whisky Guild” series of the late 1990s. These were meant to showcase earlier styles of whisky making, apparently using older recipes and approaches. While short-lived at the time, two of the other members of this series – Lot 40 and Pike Creek – have both returned in recent years, apparently as modern staples of Corby’s craft whisky line.

Completing the triumvirate is the return of Gooderham & Worts – a “four grain” whisky blend of corn, rye, wheat and barley, now bottled at 44.4% ABV.

Let’s see how it does in my Whisky Database:

Gooderham & Worts: 8.61 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews

That is an above-average score for my database, with below-average variance – despite the limited number of reviews. Currently, my database Meta-critic average is ~8.55 ± 0.56, for all whiskies, world-wide.

To put that in perspective, let’s see how some of the other popular blended Canadian whiskies in the same ~$40-50 CAD price range compare. The Gooderham and Worts is currently $45 at the LCBO.

Century Reserve 21yo: 8.78 ± 0.20 on 9 reviews
Highwood Ninety Rye 20yo: 8.96 ± 0.25 on 7 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Pike Creek 10yo: 8.32 ± 0.43 on 9 reviews
Stalk & Barrel 11+1: 8.28 ± 0.41 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.06 ± 0.25 on 12 reviews

The Gooderham & Worts seems well within the typical score range for Canadian whisky at this price point.

Here’s what I find in the glass:

Nose: Very sweet up front, somewhat floral, and surprisingly fruity for the relatively high ABV.  Notes of pear, cherries, oranges, peaches and apricots. Bubble-gum too. There’s a sweet creamy texture to the aromas, like condensed milk or creamed wheat, which is quite distinctive. There is a noticeable solvent smell initially, with acetone particularly prominent (i.e., nail polish remover). Fortunately, this fades once you let it sit in the glass for awhile – so I recommend you pour yourself a dram, and leave it alone for at least 5 mins before sampling.

Palate:  A real Canadian rye blend, through and through. The sweet floral and fruity notes show up first (and that bubble-gum again), then waves of the classic rye “baking spices” of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and all-spice. These notes really dominate and persist for a good while, drowning out almost everything else in the blend. A bit of the wheat persists throughout, but it’s subtle below the rye (and the corn is nowhere to be found). Odd that I wasn’t really getting all that much rye on the nose – too much else going on, I guess. You get some of the classic vanilla and caramel flavours as well – along with a slightly woody character.

Gooderham.WortsFinish: Medium long, with cinnamon hearts and cloves all the way to the end – a very nice spicy finish. Somewhat drying on the tongue, there is a bit of the wheat sweetness persisting for a good while as well. This makes a nice change from the bitter finishes of some of the cheaper Canadian blends (with their up-front corn sweetness).

As you can tell from the above, I quite liked this whisky. I do think the overall meta-critic score is fair, given the unfortunate initial solvent note (that mercifully dissipates over time). This is a likely a sign the young age of the grain whiskies in the blend. I would also have expected a bit more of the wheat and barley to shine through – although this does make a very decent Canadian rye blend as is.

Although Lot 40 has been a success for Corby, I don’t know if the resurrected Gooderham & Worts will catch on and persist as long. So if you are curious to try G&W, you may not want to wait too long.

For some additional reviews of this expression, I recommend you check out the reviews by Jason at Whisky Won, Ryan at ScotchBlog.ca, Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail, and Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky.

Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary)

Crown Royal is a well established Canadian blended whisky maker, with a fairly wide range of products available. I have been exploring some of the higher-end offerings lately, and thoughtfully received a bottle of Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary Blend) this year for Christmas.

Apparently, Crown Royal had some trouble with using the “Monarch” label, so they had to switch to calling this the “75th Anniversary” blend. It is designed to simulate the original style of Crown Royal produced in honour of the Royal Family visit in 1939. As such, it apparently contains a high proportion of coffey-still rye, including some old stock made at the original Waterloo, Ontario plant.

Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average meta-critic score (highest first):

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.94 ± 0.55 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.25 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.27 ± 0.53 on 13 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.75 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)

There are certainly more expressions available out there, but these get among the greatest attention. See my Whisky Database for more examples.

This bottle was picked up at the LCBO for $60 CAD, although availability is currently limited.

Here are my detailed tasting notes on Monarch 75th Anniversary (batch 6):

Nose: Rye spices are present (cinnamon and cloves in particular), along with the classic oaky aromas. The main “sweet and fruity” aroma that I get is pleasant, but somewhat candied. Frankly, it reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum (although slightly flat Coke also comes to mind).  I get a bit of green apple (which is common to Crown Royal) – but nothing like the overwhelming apple I detected on the Northern Harvest Rye. Maybe a bit of banana – but not in an offensive way (and I am personally sensitive to rotting banana aromas). A well done nose, with no false notes. It especially lacks that solvent smell which is common to cheaper Canadian blends.

Palate: A relatively sweet entry for a rye whisky – but not cloying in the way that most Crown Royals are (IMO). There is a good integration of the rye spices with classic grain whisky “smoothness” throughout the palate. I get a lot of the well-aged charred oak barrel vanillins (caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, etc). I also get the some of the concentrated darker fruits that I like in a whisky (i.e., figs, raisins, etc). Personally, I find no trace of the typical grapefruity bitterness that quickly creeps in on most Crown Royals. Well done!

Finish: Pleasantly long, creamy, and with no unexpected after-tastes. The same notes as the palate just gently mellow away over time.

Although the term is overused, this is a “smooth” and easily drinkable whisky. The Northern Harvest Rye is interesting, and a great way to experience a lot of rye “kick” within the confines of the classic Crown Royal characteristics (i.e., cloyingly sweet on the entry, very bitter on the exit). But the best thing I can say for Monarch is that it doesn’t taste like a typical Crown Royal. 😉

Crown.Royal.MonarchI think Monarch makes for a great sipper, and is likely to be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced whisky drinkers alike. Basically, it reminds me of a lighter (and younger) version of Gibson’s 18yo. Alternatively, you could think of it as akin to a longer-aged Hibiki Harmony. Either way, an easy-drinking dram.

For more opinions on this whisky, I note that Davin de Kergommeaux at Whisky Advocate named this whisky  Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2015.  Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail is also a big fan, giving this the highest whisky score I’ve seen from him to date. For a dissenting voice, check out André at Quebec Whisky. Jason at Whisky Won also has a more balanced overall score.

Update (January 19, 2016): Judging from the comments on my corresponding review of this whisky on Reddit, it seems like there may be significant batch variability (with most recent batches being less impressive). Also, note that the LCBO has removed this whisky from their online website, although some stores may still have inventory. Here is the last recorded inventory list for this whisky on Liquery.com.

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