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.
I 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.