Tag Archives: NAS

Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Alberta Premium Dark Horse is a very distinctive offering in the Canadian landscape.

Known for their expertise in producing 100% rye whiskies, Alberta Distillers has produced an unusual beast with their Dark Horse (also known as Alberta Rye Dark Batch in the US, due to copyright issues with the dark horse name).

Alberta Distillers has been up-front about what is in here. Most of the bottle (~90%) is a mix of two types of Canadian rye whisky: High ABV rye aged for 12 years in used barrels, and low ABV pot still rye aged for 6 years in new barrels. Rounding out all that rye whisky is ~8% of US-made bourbon (believed to be Old Grand-Dad – we’ll get back to this in a moment). But the really distinctive element is ~0.5-1% sherry added directly to the mix. The final whisky is then aged in heavily-charred American oak barrels, bottled at 45% ABV, and sold at a very competitive price.

While the addition of actual sherry into the mix may seem like a cheat to single malt fans, it is the net effect of traditional aging of whiskies in ex-sherry casks. I’ve seen estimates online that 500L first-fill casks can contain up to 7L of the previous product (stored in the wood staves). Over time, this migrates and mixes with the new make product, producing a distinctive end result (i.e., a sherry bomb whisky). Rather than aging Dark Horse in (expensive) first-fill sherry barrels, they went right to the horse’s mouth (sorry!) and simply added in an equivalent amount of actual sherry before aging in traditional barrels. This makes Dark Horse a sherry-bomb version of a Canadian rye whisky.

But what about the main elements of the mix, specifically that corn whisky? Note that despite the “rye whisky” moniker, most Canadian whisky is actually a blend of a relatively small amount of low-proof rye “flavouring” whisky added to high-proof grain whisky. Sometimes that includes Canadian-made corn whisky in the mix.

While this composition may seem odd, it makes perfect sense once you know about the 9.09% rule. A long time ago, it was decided that you could add 1/10 volume of non-Canadian whisky to a Canadian whisky and still allow it to be sold as such. Legend has it that this was to allow Canadian whisky to be sold in the US under generous tax break exemptions given to US products. Basically, Canadian distillers would import cheap US-made Bourbon, add it to Canadian whisky (up to 9.09% final volume, which is an additional 1/10) and then sell the concomitant blend back in the US as “Canadian whisky” and reap a tax break.

Here in Canada, there was no need to actually use US bourbon. Apparently, distillers just kept the original Canadian formulations intact for the products intended for domestic consumption. This was possible since the US versions were adjusted to match the standard Canadian flavour profile. But this practice seems to only have been applied to value blends destined for mixing – premium products are a different story.  While it was initially reported that Dark Horse would be using Canadian corn whisky (done bourbon-style), this was quickly corrected by Beam-Suntory, who were open about the use of US bourbon from the beginning.  At some point, they also confirmed that it was Old Grand-Dad bourbon specifically (although I can’t find an official published source for that).

FYI, there’s a good public article about the 9.09% rule – as it applies to the US-release of this whisky – by Davin de Kergommeaux on Whisky Advocate.

Personally, I find the Dark Horse to be an exceptionally good value in the Canadian whisky landscape. The Meta-Critic database seems a bit mixed on this one though, giving it an 8.67 ± 0.36 on 11 reviews. While that is above average for a Canadian whisky, it is still toward the mid-range of scores in this category. But you can’t beat the price – along with CC 100% Rye, this is a quality product masquerading at an entry-level budget price. It is different though, so I would recommend it to fans of Canadian rye who are looking to expand into new flavour profiles.

Probably the most positive review I’ve seen of the Alberta Premium Dark Horse is by Davin de Kergommeaux. Jason Hambrey gives a more typical rating on his Whisky Won site.Albera Premium Dark Horse bottle

Something else that stirs up mixed feelings about this whisky – its suitability for mixed drinks (sorry for the pun). 😉 Because of the strong sherry influence, I would have thought that this whisky is best served as a gentle sipper (preferably neat). Dave Broom seems to agree – in his mixed-drink book The Whisky Manual, he gave this whisky relatively low scores when mixed with five classic mixes (i.e., Soda, cola, ginger ale, coconut water and green tee). But he does point out that it could work well in a sazerac style cocktail. According to David de Kergommeaux in the earlier link above, Dark Horse has apparently become a popular mixing rye in bars, as well as a bartender’s favourite for their own concoctions. Hopefully you will enjoy experimenting with this versatile and distinctive Canadian whisky.

Mortlach Rare Old

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottle

This recent No Age Statement (NAS) bottling by Mortlach (pronounced MORT-lek or MORT-lack) generates a lot of strong feelings out there in the blogosphere.

Mortlach is one the classic malt distilleries owned by Diageo. Independent bottlings of Mortlach have long been highly prized by whisky enthusiasts, due in part to the perceived quality and distinctive flavour profile of this distillery’s offerings (often described as “meatiness”). And also for their rarity – the vast majority of Mortlach’s output is poured (pun intended) right into the Diageo’s ever-hungry blended whisky juggernaut.

There was much enthusiasm therefore when Diageo announced in early 2014 that they were to release several new expressions under Mortlach’s own name. That enthusiasm quickly soured when enthusiasts saw the price lists and the lack of age statements. Fancy-looking bottles and names like “rare old” for the entry-level expression also work against you with the cognoscenti. 😉

The Mortlach Rare Old gets a very middling Meta-Critic score in my Whisky Database, at 8.54 ± 0.41 on 9 reviews. There is some range in opinions on this dram – which is something I like to explore further in these dedicated commentaries.

Having sampled the Rare Old (and enjoyed it), I picked up a bottle. My experience in sharing this one with guests during tasting sessions has been instructive – as it closely matches what I’ve seen in online commentaries.

Simpy put, while some people like it, others are repulsed by what they described as an extremely bitter afternote in the finish. Repulsed is putting it mildly – one person described it as “vomit” in her mouth, and looked like she was about to contribute just such a sample to the table. Others were left scratching their heads, not detecting any sort of issue with the finish, or just finding a mild bitterness to it (as I do).

What I think is going on here gets back to the source of that signature “meatiness” of Mortlach’s flavour. Meatiness is sometimes also described as the sensation of a struck match at the back of one’s throat. That is a clear tip-off is to what is going on here – sulfur compounds.

Sulphur is very potent biological trigger signal – typically indicating something very, very bad. But our ability to detect it is highly variable, and dependent on our genetic make-up. There is a very large body of evidence on the link between the ability to taste sulphur (especially in thiourea compounds) and people’s dietary choices. The sulfur-detecting effect can be so pronounced that it is also commonly used in schools to demonstrate the principles of Mendelian polymorphisms (e.g., do you remember getting to taste a piece of paper soaked in PTC? How did you find it?)

Mortlach Rare Old whisy bottleHere is a good scholarly article that discusses in some detail why some people can detect these sorts of things in their food and drink and others can’t: Genetics of Taste and Smell: Poisons and Pleasures (Reed & Knaapila, Prog Mol Biol Transl Sci. 2010; 94: 213–240).

I guess I’m “lucky” in this regard (or not, since it is generally good to avoid sulphur compounds). Personally, I find the Mortlach Rare Old to be reminiscent of some of the better Canadian rye whisky blends out there. I can definitely detect those classic rye flavours (e.g., baking spices, especially cinnamon and nutmeg) and characteristic rye sweetness (which I would describe as marshmallow-like, but that’s just me). And while I am not a fan of the bitterness in the finish, I don’t find it to be anything too aversive.

For a balanced perspective on this whisky, you can check out Andre and Patrick’s reviews at QuebecWhisky.com, or check out the main list of reviewers used in this meta-analysis for other ideas.

If you’ve tried this expression, I’m curious to hear what you think of it. Feel free to leave a comment below!

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