The late Fall 2018 release of the Northern Border Collection from Corby (also known as the Northern Borders Rare Collection this year) featured some returning expressions, and a few new players. I’ll be comparing the whole series in upcoming reviews, but thought I’d start with the perennial fan favourite, the Lot 40 Cask Strength release.
Lot 40 has long been the darling of the Canadian rye whisky scene. A 100% straight rye whisky, it is often the first choice recommended by Canadian rye whisky enthusiasts. In 2017, the first commercial release of a cask-strength version garnered a lot of interest.
The 2018 release carries an 11 year old age statement (it was 12yo last year). This 2018 version is bottled at 58.4% ABV, which is a little higher than last year’s release (at 55%). According to Dr Don Livermore, the Master Blender of Corby, this year’s release comes from a different bond, so has slightly different characteristics.
There is inconsistent information online about the composition of the various Lot 40 releases. But as Dr Don mentioned in his recent whisky.buzz podcast, regular lot 40 is made from column-distilled 100% rye whisky, that is then run through a pot still to remove the undesirable characteristics (i.e., the heads and tails are discarded). At least some proportion is aged in brand new virgin oak barrels. The cask-strength version is amped up in flavour compared to the regular 43% ABV release. According to Dr Don, the slightly higher strength this year release leads to a greater perception of “woodier” notes.
This is always an incredibly difficult release to find in Ontario, where it sells out within a couple of hours once it shows up online. In stores, it typically disappears off the shelves before you can find it. I had to pick up my couple of bottles from Alberta and Quebec this year (where it typically hangs around in stores or online longer). It sells for ~$100 CAD, if you can find it (which is a significant increase from last year’s ~$70 CAD).
Let’s see how it compares to other Lot 40 variants in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database:
Lot 40 Cask Strength 11 Year Old (2018): 9.18 ± 0.16 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Year Old (2017): 9.08 ± 0.26 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40 Cask Strength (Single Cask): 9.17 ± 0.10 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
Lot 40: 8.86 ± 0.33 on 22 reviews ($$)
Those are outstanding scores across the board. I’ll come back to the differences in the relative scores of the cask-strength releases at the end of the review. For now, let’s see what I find in the glass:
Nose: A noticeably different profile now – not quite as spicy as the 2017 12yo version, but a lot more fruity and floral in my view. A veritable fresh fruit cocktail, with cherries, strawberries, pears, peaches, and plums. Like before, still get plenty of caramel, anise, dill and the baking spaces – very cloves heavy (although I would say a few less cloves than last year). It is the candied sweetness that really stands out this year, with cola and bubble gum notes (what some might call cotton candy). Also more perfumy than the 2017 version – a nice bouquet of fresh flowers here, including lilacs. There was a sharpness to the original cask-strength version that I attributed to the higher proof – but it seems subdued here, despite the even higher proof of this release. A faint hint of acetone. Water helps open it up – I suggest you add a few drops. A very good start, I’m preferring it over the previous year so far.
Palate: Thick and syrupy, as before – but more like raspberry jam syrupiness now. Also more caramel on the initial arrival, with caramelized nuts. Dill is heavier too, compared to the previous version. Oaky, with the classic baking spices – but not as oaky as last year (although it seems a bit spicier in the mouth than the nose suggested). I had gotten some dry, bitter, dustiness on the swallow of the 2017 version – but that doesn’t seem to be present on this one. Definitely sweeter all across the board. Water lightens the mouthfeel, and increases the sweetness, so go easy on it – it really doesn’t need more than a few drops. Surprisingly drinkable at this very high ABV.
Finish: A good length, like the previous version (certainly longer than regular Lot 40). Baking spices reappear (focused more on the softer cinnamon and nutmeg, with less of the heavy cloves of the previous version). The candied sweetness lingers, but it is also somewhat drying on the finish. Very nice.
While I miss the extra spiciness on the nose of the 2017 edition, this one seems more balanced and well integrated. It is also sweeter, with fruitier and floral elements enhanced. Personally, I found last year’s version had a stronger oaky character, and was more tannic. I expect this year’s version would find greater favour with most rye drinkers – although last year’s version would likely appeal more to reviewers, for the extra woodiness and complexity.
In terms of the overall experience, I would personally score this version slightly higher than last year’s release. Indeed, I was one of the rare reviewers that didn’t greatly prefer the first cask-strength release to regular Lot 40, giving the 2017 release only a single point higher score (i.e. 9.2, compared to 9.1 for regular Lot 40). I found that cask-strength was very good, but different – gaining in some regards, but also losing some of the more delicate aspects of regular Lot 40. This edition strikes me as closer to what I initially expected a cask-strength Lot 40 to be like, accentuating the core characteristics. So I would give it an additional point over last year’s release – a 9.3 score for the 2018 edition.
Among reviewers, it is a bit of a mixed bag how the two releases compare. Like me, Andre and Patrick of Quebec Whisky both prefer the new edition. But Jason of In Search of Elegance, Mark of Whisky Buzz and most of the Reddit reviewers prefer the 2017 release (i.e., Devoz, TOModera and xile_, and others). But the average score for the 2018 release is running higher in the database right now, given the limited number of reviews so far. As more reviews come in, I expect the overall average will drop somewhat (as that is the usual pattern for the database, as more reviews come in). In the end, I expect both versions will settle down to about the same average score. Either one is a great buy, if you can find them – but the regular Lot 40 is still an outstanding value.