Tag Archives: Rye

Pike Creek 10 Year Old Port Finish

Like Lot 40 and Gooderham & Worts, Pike Creek was part of the original short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series of the late 1990s. Hearkening back to an earlier era of whisky production, these were created at Corby’s Hiram Walker facility to simulate previous production styles.

While the market wasn’t sufficiently receptive at the time, these higher-end offerings have made a strong resurgence in recent years.  This started with Lot 40, which was re-released in 2012 and remains the darling of Canadian straight rye whisky. More recently was the late 2015’s re-release of the multi-grain Gooderham & Worts.

Often overlooked in this series is Pike Creek, similarly re-launched in late 2012. Pike Creek is double-distilled in small copper column stills to a low ABV. The spirit is initially matured in first-fill bourbon barrels and then finished in vintage port pipes. A 10 year age statement is included on the domestic version (which is bottled at the industry standard 40% ABV).

Pike Creek is clearly formulated to appeal to those who like their fortified wine-finished Scotch whiskies.  Indeed, you could argue Pike Creek was a forerunner to the highly popular Alberta Premium Dark Horse – where a small amount of sherry is directly added to rye whisky. 66 Gilead Crimson Rye and the recently released Gretzky Red Cask are further examples of this wine barrel-finished style.

For reasons not clear to me, Pike Creek seems to be relegated to second-tier status among these recent offerings, with relatively little buzz and promotion.  Let’s see how it compares in my Meta-Critic Whisky Database to other modern Canadian whiskies:

66 Gilead Crimson Rye: 8.30 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$)
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.63 ± 0.34 on 15 reviews ($)
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.38 ± 0.41 on 13 reviews ($)
Collingwood 21yo: 8.60 ± 0.42 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Evolution: 8.85 ± 0.64 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.28 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
Forty Creek Three Grain Harmony: 8.25 ± 0.59 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.68 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Double Still Rye: 8.34 ± 0.40 on 6 reviews ($)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.76 ± 0.39 on 7 reviews ($$$)
J.P. Wiser’s Legacy: 9.02 ± 0.35 on 15 reviews ($$)
Lot 40: 8.91 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10yo Port-finished: 8.27 ± 0.51 on 12 reviews ($$)
Stalk & Barrel 100% Rye: 8.66 ± 0.22 on 5 reviews ($$$)

Pike Creek is definitely at the low end of overall scores, although the variance is high here (indicating that some reviewers seem to really like it, some really don’t). Note that the overall average for Canadian whiskies in my database is currently ~8.35.

Let’s see what I find in the glass. 🙂  My bottle is a late model batch, recently bought at the LCBO ($39.95 CAD).

Colour:  Medium orange-brown. Pretty confident this has been artificially colored with caramel, for a consistent look.

Nose: Definitely getting the rye, softened with sweet fruit – most especially currants, red grapes, prunes and raisins. I also get strawberries and blueberries. A bit of red wine, followed by vanilla and a dry oakiness. Classic light rye spices, quite a nice mix overall. No real solvent smell – except perhaps for a faint hint of glue (and I can almost imagine smoke). There is a fair amount of alcohol singe for 40% ABV. It’s a nice nose, and a good start to the tasting.

Palate: The rye notes dominate, but with a surprising amount of caramel and brown sugar throughout.  Lighter than I was expecting, and not as fruity as the nose suggests (mainly berries left, but a bit of citrus shows up now). Pepper and some ginger add to the spice. A bit nutty. Watery mouthfeel overall, consistent with the low ABV – I suspect it could be quite stunning if it were bottled at higher proof. Decent, but I was personally hoping for more rye kick.

Finish: Surprisingly short. The rye and fruit seem to exit first, with a slow lingering brown sugar finish. A slight sourness, but well balanced to the sweetness (reminds me of cherry blasters candy). Nothing wrong with this finish per se, but it sure would be nice if it lasted longer.

pike-creek-portThis is definitely one for folks who like their ryes light and sweet. Personally, I was hoping for more overt port flavours and a stronger rye presence (given the reported distillation method). But it doesn’t have the flaws of most light (and young) Canadian rye whiskies. I could see this one serving as a nice daily sipper.

As such, I don’t get the low scores overall.  While not as complex as Lot 40 or Gooderham & Worts, I would still have expected this to do above-average for a Canadian whisky. Based on the other Canadian whisky examples listed above, I would personally give Pike Creek something like a ~8.6.

For positive reviews of this whisky, check out Davin of Canadian Whisky, Jason of In Search of Elegance, and headlessparrot and TOModera on reddit. The most negative reviews I’ve seen come from Lasidar on reddit and André and Martin of Quebec Whisky (although Patrick there gives it an about average score).

If you are curious to try it, you might want to hurry to pick this one up: Corby has just replaced it with a rum barrel-finished version (as of October 2016). Stocks of the original port-finished Pike Creek are dwindling fast.

 

66 Gilead – Crimson Rye and Wild Oak

I’m a late entry on the Canadian whisky scene for these whiskies.  Like my review of the Collingwood 21 yo, these two reviews come about as a result of recent “mystery swaps” that I have done with other whisky enthusiasts on the whisky network of Reddit.

This is a fun challenge whereby you hone your whisky sensory analysis skills by tasting (and reviewing) whiskies “blind”. In this case, I had two mystery samples from redditor 89Justin, with no indication as to what was in the bottles (no info on country, style, ABV, etc.).  See my full reviews there to see how well I did in my guesses for these two whiskies.

Unlike the Collingwood experience, you can actually still buy these two 66 Gilead whiskies – but probably not for much longer.  They were recently marked down to $40 CAD for clearance at the LCBO, so you may need to hunt around to find a local store that still carries them.

Based in the Prince Edward County region of Ontario, 66 Gilead could best be described as a craft distiller.  With their close association to wine makers in the area, they have had the ability to experiment with some interesting barrel finishes.  Their two signature whiskies are the Crimson Oak (finished in red wine casks, mainly pinot noir, and made up of 100% unmalted rye) and Wild Oak (done “bourbon-style”, matured in new charred oak casks with a custom mashbill of 51% corn, followed by rye, wheat and peated barley, in that order). I don’t know the exact age of the whiskies, but they are both believed to be young (i.e., I’ve seen 3.5 to 4.5 year old estimates online). Both are bottled at an impressive 47% ABV.

They don’t score particularly highly for Canadian whiskies – here is how they compare to other Canadian “craft-like” whiskies in my Meta-Critic Database:

66 Gilead Crimson Rye: 8.30 ± 0.47 on 6 reviews ($$)
66 Gilead The Wild Oak: 7.99 ± 0.58 on 5 reviews ($$)
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.63 ± 0.33 on 15 reviews ($)
Canadian Rockies 21 yo: 9.04 ± 0.29 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Danfield’s 21 yo: 8.61 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews ($$)
Forty Creek Evolution: 8.85 ± 0.65 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Confederation Oak (All Batches): 8.80 ± 0.39 on 18 reviews ($$$)
Forty Creek Three Grain Harmony: 8.26 ± 0.59 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Glen Breton Ice 10yo: 8.24 ± 0.63 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Glen Breton Rare 10yo: 8.06 ± 0.42 on 13 reviews ($$$$)
Gooderham & Worts Four Grain: 8.64 ± 0.34 on 8 reviews ($$)
J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels: 8.89 ± 0.29 on 4 reviews ($$$)
Lot 40: 8.91 ± 0.40 on 18 reviews ($$)
Pike Creek 10 yo: 8.22 ± 0.53 on 11 reviews ($$)

Below are my tasting notes.


66.Gilead.Crimson66 Gilead Crimson Oak

Colour: Slightly rose-tinted, dark orange/red-brown

Nose: Very fruit sweet with rich grape, raisins, plums, prunes, pears and apricot notes. I initially guessed port-finished, as this is fruitier than a typical sherry-finish. Dry, dusty rye baking spices, with lots of cinnamon and nutmeg. Gingerbread baking in the oven. Not really malty, but some cereal (grape nuts comes to mind). No off notes, but hard to tell under all that fruity sweetness.

Palate: Heavy spicy kick, with lots of rye spice and pepper. Same fruitiness as the nose, with maybe a bit of citrus (judging from the mouth pucker). Raw and extreme on first sip, seems youthful. Definitely very hot. Recommend small sips, letting it mix with saliva. A bit of bitterness on the finish.

Finish: Fairly long lasting, due to the spicy kick and heat. A bit oaky. Some artificial sweetness creeps in over time, unfortunately.  Cinnamon lasts until the end (cinnamon red hots in particular).

A bit two-dimensional, with searing hot spice/pepper and heavy grape-like sweetness. Those two dimensions really dominate.  While simple, I kind of like it – it is certainly bold (and thus likely too hot for most people).  A bit like an amped-up version of Alberta Premium Dark Horse, but with even more sweet fruit and spicy rye kick.

Not sure if I could recommend it to most, but I personally would rank it a bit higher than the consensus Meta-Critic score for my personal palate.


66.Gilead.Oak66 Gilead Wild Oak

Colour: Typical light gold

Nose: Sweet, with light fruits, like pear and apple – also citrus (grapefruit). Some rye spices. Very woody. A bit of solvent smell, mixed with old sweat socks.  Not as bad as it sounds, but not very distinctive either.

Palate:  Not really detecting a lot of fruit. Rye spices are most prominent, mainly cinnamon and cloves. Tons of vanilla, and bit of caramel as well. Definitely oaky. Slight bitterness hiding under the sweetness (which quickly veers into the artificial sweetener realm, unfortunately). Good spicy kick to it. Somewhat watery mouthfeel for 47% ABV.

Finish:  Medium short.  Not really that much of interest going on.  Seemed to me originally like a light, young, entry-level Canadian whisky, but with some added spice and heavy oak presence. Unfortunately, the oaky bitterness lingers the longest.

There is a lot heat on this one too – both alcohol burn and rye spice (although it is not as searingly spicy hot as the Crimson Rye). Unfortunately, I don’t find much else going on here. Ironically, it seems both under-aged (i.e., young, with raw distillate notes) and over-oaked (from the bitterness and woody flavours). Maybe a cask preparation issue?

Not quite sure what would need to be done to improve this, but I really can’t recommend it in its current form.  I find the Meta-critic score to be reasonable.


Definitely an interesting experience to try these two whiskies blind as to the contents. I’m intrigued enough by the Crimson Rye to consider picking up a bottle at the LCBO. But be forewarned if you considering buying it un-tasted – you better really like wine-based fruit flavours and cinnamon red hots!

Generally positive reviews for these two whiskies come from Davin of Whisky Advocate. Jason of Whisky Won is also generally supportive of the Crimson Rye, less so for the Wild Oak. The guys at Quebec Whisky were not enthused about either (although again gave Crimson Oak a better score). The redditor muaddib99 has the most positive reviews I’ve seen online for both the Crimson Rye and Wild Oak.

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 sesms 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.

 

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.

 

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.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

It is very rare to have a relatively entry-level rye whisky fly off the shelves – but that is what you get for being named “world whisky of the year” by Jim Murray. 🙂

A new product from Crown Royal, Northern Harvest Rye is a blended Canadian whisky composed of 90% rye. Priced attractively at ~$30 CAD, it is now virtually impossible to find it here in Ontario. Indeed, despite having secured the largest allocation of this product in Canada, the LCBO has just taken the extraordinary step of removing the direct inventory link for this item from its website.

Having personally tracked inventory patterns for several weeks now, it appears the LCBO is consolidating shipments. That is, only a single store in any given geographical region gets a delivery – but with a sizable allotment of bottles when it comes. These focused deliveries have been revolving through the local stores in my area, with no advance warning (according to those outlets). Yet despite this, any store that receives a shipment sells out within hours – due to word quickly spreading by social media (which is how I finally managed to find a bottle).

So, does the whisky live up its hype? Given the interest, I thought I’d do a full review with detailed tastings notes before exploring the whisky database results in more detail. On that front, I will also present a statistical analysis and discussion of Mr Murray’s scoring patterns later in this review. 😉

Nose: This is a fragrant whisky  – I could smell it while pouring the glass, at counter height. The overwhelming aroma is one of sweet apple – red apples, green apples, pear apples, etc. There is a creamy sweetness overall, with some notes of caramel and vanilla. You also get some of the classic rye “baking spices”, especially nutmeg, but these aren’t overly strong. Taken together, this is a veritable baked apple pie in a glass! There are additional fruit notes present (e.g., berries, cherries, etc.), but I find they take a back seat. If you search for it, you might be able to detect a slight acetone smell – but its well buried below the fruit.  Initial impression is quite favourable, but the candied sweetness may be off-putting for some (i.e. it smells like it is part apple liqueur).

Palate: Bold and fruit-forward, with all the initial hallmarks of a good Canadian rye whisky. I find the apple (while still present) is mercifully subdued now, and the other fruits quickly come to the surface (especially red fruits and berries). Butterscotch/caramel and vanilla are also more prominent, and the rest of the classic rye baking spices show up – including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all-spice. Maybe even cardamon – there’s something that reminds me of chai masala here (i.e., black tea with Indian spices and milk). There is also definite oak now, which I found was missing on the nose. The only problem for me is the bitterness which comes in at the end (think strong grapefruit) – it’s quite prominent, and ruins what would otherwise be a consistently top-tasting Canadian rye blend.

Finish: Unfortunately, the bitterness that develops at the end of the palate is slow to clear – and when it does, so has everything else!  I suppose this encourages you to take another sip, but then you just start the whole cycle over again. Putting this lingering bitterness aside, there is not really that much else going here – the same flavours as the palate, only more subdued and fading. I find the finish to be rather weak, and out of character with the impressively strong nose and palate.

So, how does this whisky compare to other inexpensive (and predominantly rye) Canadian whiskies in my database?

Alberta Premium: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews

This relative reviewer ranking shows pretty clearly where Northern Harvest Rye fits in – which is also pretty in keeping with relative prices (at least at the LCBO). Personally, I would rank Alberta Premium Dark Horse and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye both a bit higher in that list, but the overall ranking seems reasonable.

Let’s see how it does relative to the other well-known Crown Royals:

Crown Royal: 7.72 ± 0.52 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Black: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Special Reserve: 8.79 ± 0.62 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.91 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews

Corwn.Royal.HarvestInterestingly, Northern Harvest Rye effectively ties with Special Reserve, and rests below Monarch 75th Anniversary (although the number of reviews there is limited). I know there’s a bottle of Monarch waiting for me under the tree this year, so stay tuned for a follow-up review. 😉

Overall, I find this to be a decent Canadian rye whisky, with a lot going for it. I suppose it could be a good choice as a “sipping whisky” – although the overt sweetness on the nose and the bitterness on the finish detract for me personally.

If you want to read more opinions of this whisky, the three highest-scoring reviews in my database come from Jim Murray, Chip the Rum Howler, and Jason of Whisky Won. Personally, my relative ranking would fall closer in line with André, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. See also Josh of the Whiskey Jug for a slightly lower score and review.

Understanding Jim Murray’s Score

Jim Murray’s annual “whisky of the year” tends to garner a lot attention and controversy – and this year’s top pick has elicited more than the usual hand-wringing online and in the media. Much of the online commentary has been quite negative, with many accusing Mr. Murray of pulling an attention-seeking publicity stunt (see for example the Whisky Sponge).

While all would likely agree that Northern Harvest Rye is an above-average Canadian rye whisky blend for the price, it is a bit hard to understand how anyone could consider this one of the highest ranking whiskies ever – especially such an experienced reviewer like Mr Murray. His 97.5 score and “world whisky of the year” designation thus seem rather over the top!

A thoughtful concern, as expressed on Whisky Won, is that superlative scores by Mr Murray for entry-level Canadian ryes – like Alberta Premium and Northern Harvest – may actually be harmful for the reputation of Canadian whisky world-wide. Many will rush out, keen to try whiskies that routinely exceed 95 points on Mr Murray’s scale – only to walk walk away disappointed by the relative quality in the end.

But are these selections really as surprising as they seem?  What is lacking in many of these discussions is an understanding of how Mr Murray (or any reviewer) actually scores their whiskies.

One the advantages of running a meta-critic analysis site is that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how individual reviewers score whiskies. As explained here, scoring is simply a way of providing a relative rank to all the samples you have tried. It turns out most reviewers are actually quite consistent to each other in terms of their relative ranking. This is evidenced by the very good typical correlation of each reviewer to the properly normalized meta-critic scores (r=~0.75 across all reviewers). It is also the reason why you are better off just going by the meta-critic score – and not any one reviewer – when assessing overall quality. It’s good to keep in mind the biases and limitations inherent in quality ranking.

Mr Murray is actually something of an extreme case in my database. He has one of the lowest overall correlations to the combined meta-critic score (r<0.50). Indeed, he correlates quite poorly to all other reviewers in my database (paired correlations range from  r~0.10 to r=~0.45 to each reviewer, which are lower than typical). But that doesn’t mean he is entirely inconsistent in his scoring – there can be patterns in how he differs from the other reviewers.

For this simple analysis, I’ve looked at all the whiskies where Mr Murray’s normalized score deviates from the meta-critic score by a considerable margin. Using a cut-off of 1.5 standard deviation units, there are ~75 whiskies (out of >400 tracked) where Mr Murray’s score is that divergent from the combined meta-critic score. In particular, there are ~25 whiskies where he scores well above the norm, ~50 well below.

The larger number of cases where Mr. Murray scores below the norm are almost exclusively all single malt whiskies. These include many popular mid-range and high-end single malts (i.e., the mean and median costs are of these whiskies are higher than typical for my overall database).

In contrast, the smaller number of cases where Mr Murray scores above the norm are predominantly blends – including many Canadian rye whiskies. As you can imagine, the mean/median cost of these whiskies are below typical for the database.

To illustrate, let’s take a look at the top scoring blends in this divergent high-ranking group. To limit the list, I am including only those that make it into the 65th percentile of Mr Murray’s scores (i.e., ones that score 92 and higher). I am also putting them in rank order, from lowest to highest Murray score.

Pendleton Let’er Buck (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic 8.12 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews
Canadian Club (Canada): – $ – Meta-critic: 7.25 ± 0.97 on 11 reviews
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.19 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews
Black Grouse (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.04 ± 0.56 on 15 reviews
Green Spot (Ireland) – $$$ – Meta-critic: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews
Jameson’s Whiskey (Ireland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 7.73 ± 0.62 on 13 reviews
Alberta Premium (Canada) – $ – Meta-critic: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Chivas Regal 25yo (Scotland) – $$$$$+ – Meta-critic: 8.73 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews
Ballantine’s (Scotland) – $ – Meta-critic: 7.66 ± 0.77 on 8 reviews
Johnnie Walker Black Label (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.37 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews

Notice something interesting about relative cost?  With a couple of exceptions, these are mainly entry-level budget blends.  There is thus a very consistent pattern in how Mr Murray deviates from the rest of the review community: whew he differs, he preferentially favours inexpensive blends, and is less impressed with more expensive single malts.

It is clear (from the Meta-critic scores above) that Northern Harvest is a better quality whisky than the other Canadian blends on that list. So Mr Murray may indeed still be providing a personal relative ranking among blends with his scores – it is just that the absolute value of his scores are inconsistent across blends and single malts.

For experienced whisky drinkers, it is hard to reconcile this scoring pattern with a consistent overall ranking across classes. One possible interpretation of the data is that Mr Murray is explicitly factoring price into his scores. There are several reviewers who do this when providing categorical labels (i.e, “must have”, “recommended”, “avoid”, etc). But Mr Murray’s self-reported method for assembling his scores leaves no room for this.

Further, there seems to a preference for budget blends over budget malts in his scoring, so it is not strictly limited to just price. Thus, an alternative interpretation – and one that seems to fit the data the best – is that Mr Murray is applying a different relative scale for his scoring of budget blends than he does to other whiskies (single malts in particular).

To sum up, the apparent inconsistency is not that Mr Murray gives Harvest Rye such an incredibly high score. Rather, it is that he gives so many entry-level blends such high scores to start with. He is thus fairly unique in the whisky reviewing universe, giving a good number of mass-produced budget blends equivalent (or higher) scores than selective smaller batch whiskies – even when made by the same producers.

 

 

Holiday Gift Guide 2015 – Ontario

NOTE: This guide has been replaced by a new up-to-date analysis for 2016 – please check it out!

Welcome to my inaugural 2015 holiday gift guide!

You can find plenty of whisky suggestions online – but, of course, the specific selections may not be available to you locally. Given that liquor is controlled through the LCBO in my province, I thought I would highlight high-ranking, affordable whiskies (~$100 CAD or less) currently in stock across the LCBO this holiday season.

Of course, the following would be good choices for you wherever you live. I certainly also encourage you to explore recommendations from other whisky blog sites – but I also suggest you run them through the meta-critic Whisky Database here first, to see how they compare.

Similarly, nothing is stopping you from spending considerably more on whisky than the rather arbitrary cut-off of ~$100 CAD used below. But again, you will want to check the database to see how they score in comparison.

All scores below are listed as the average meta-critic score, plus or minus the standard deviation, on the given number of reviews. Check out by Meta-critic Score page to understand what the meta-critic scoring is all about.

Single Malts

As usual, it’s worth picking single malt whisky by flavour cluster, as described on my Flavour Map page. Specifically, I am going to work from the 5 general “super-clusters” I describe there.

Aberlour.ABunadh.49Super-cluster A-B-C

Full-bodied, very sweet, pronounced sherry – with fruity, floral, nutty, honey and spicy notes, as well as malty and smokey notes on occasion.

My top pick here would normally be the Aberlour A’Bunadh, which gets an impressive 9.02 ± 0.21 on 16 reviews in my database – and is only $95 at the LCBO. That is a steal for this level of consistent quality (and is bottled at cask-strength to boot). Unfortunately, it’s rarely in stock now, with only a handful of bottles showing up in current online inventory. Snag one if you can!

Failing that, your next best bet for a cask-strength sherry bomb is the more widely available Glenfarclas 105. It is a little over my arbitrary limit at $107, and doesn’t score quite as highly – albeit at a still very respectable 8.80 ± 0.39 on 15 reviews.

My budget choice, at $66, is the GlenDronach 12 Year Old. It gets a very respectable 8.66 ± 0.24 on 15 reviews. And don’t let the relatively young age statement fool you – this whisky packs quite a sherried punch (and see my commentary for info on its true age).

 

Super-cluster E-F

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet – with fruity, honey, malty and winey notes, with some smoky and spicy notes on occasion

Middleton Redbreast 12yo bottleOne of the highest-ranking budget whiskies in this class is Amrut Fusion, from India. At only $85, and scoring 8.93 ± 0.27 on 17 reviews, this is certainly an excellent choice. It’s also an opportunity for those looking to explore a tropical whisky. Unfortunately, it is not widely available through the LCBO – again, grab one if you can.

My top budget choice in this category is an Irish whiskey, Redbreast 12 Year Old. Redbreast is a single pot still whiskey. This is a traditional Irish style, where both unmalted and malted barley are distilled together in copper pot stills. The end result is closer to a Scottish single malt than a blend. Only $70, it gets a very good 8.83 ± 0.47 on 16 reviews.

A couple of new options at the LCBO you may want to consider are a pair of Glenfiddichs – Distillers Edition 15 Year Old and Rich Oak 14 Year Old. These are not your every-day entry-level Glenfiddichs, but more robust malts. The DE 15yo is currently on sale for $83, and scores 8.76 ± 0.38 on 8 reviews, and the RO 14yo is priced at $66, with 8.71 ± 0.35 on 6 reviews. Given the lower reviewer experience with the malts however, you should treat these scores as provisional.

 

Super-cluster G-H 

Light-bodied, sweet, apéritif-style – with honey, floral, fruity and malty notes, sometimes spicy, but rarely smoky.

Hibiki Harmony NASA really good choice here is The Arran Malt 14 Year Old. Typically, whiskies in these flavour clusters score lower than other clusters. And so, 8.71 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews in an excellent showing for this class. It’s not exactly cheap at $98 though, nor is it commonly available throughout the LCBO.

As a result, my top pick in this category (and my wife’s personal favourite) is the Dalwhinnie 15 Year Old ($95, 8.65 ± 0.4 on 12 reviews). A fairly delicate whisky, there is a surprising amount of complexity here. It also has lovely honey sweetness to it. Well worth a try.

A back-up budget choice you may want to consider is The Arran Malt 10 Year Old. A bit lighter in flavour than the 14yo, it’s cheaper at $70 – and more commonly available. Gets a decent 8.55 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews.

A different sort of option to consider is the only Japanese whisky currently on the LCBO’s roster – the Hibiki Harmony. Currently $100, its 8.45 ± 0.84 on 9 reviews is an average overall ranking – but one that has a lot more variability than usual (i.e., some really like it, some really don’t). Note that this is a blend, and is relatively delicate in flavour (which is why I am considering it in this single malt flavour super-cluster). But it’s your only chance to get in on the Japanese whisky craze through the LCBO, and I think it is a worthy contender to try (i.e., I personally fall in toward the higher-end of that scoring range). And it was just named as Japanese Whisky of the Year at WhiskyAdvocate.com.

 

Talisker 10yo bottleCluster I

Medium-bodied, medium-sweet, smoky – with some medicinal notes and spicy, fruity and nutty notes

This is a classic cluster for fans of smoky and/or peaty whiskies – though not out-right peat-bombs (see cluster J below for that).

And you would do well to stick with a classic member of this class, the Talisker 10 Year Old. Just squeaking in at $100, it gets an excellent 8.92 ± 0.2 on 15 reviews. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with this choice – anyone would thank you for it.

There are certainly a lot of other options to consider here, but nothing really jumps out at me as a particularly good buy at the LCBO right now (at least, nothing that is commonly available). With moderate availability, I suppose you could consider the Longrow Peated ($98, scoring 8.79 ± 0.27 on 13 reviews), or Springbank 10 Year Old ($99, 8.71 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews), for something a bit different.

A good budget choice – especially if you like a little sherry in your smoky malt – is the Highland Park 12 Year Old ($75, 8.69 ± 0.41 on 17 reviews). Unfortunately, quality seems to have dropped in recent batches, otherwise this one would have been a a top pick. Still, it may serve well for something flavourful in this cluster.

 

 

 

Laphroaig Quarter Cask whisky bottleCluster J

Full-bodied, dry, very smoky, pungent – with medicinal notes and some spicy, malty and fruity notes possible

You really can’t top the value proposition of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask – only $73, yet garnering a meta-critic score of 9.16 ± 0.18 on 15 reviews! That’s a remarkable score, if you are into these really fragrant (aka pungent) peat bombs.

Surprisingly, it’s even cheaper than the standard Laphroaig 10 Year Old expression ($84, 8.92 ± 0.29 on 14 reviews). The Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another consideration for an entry-level expression ($100, 8.99 ± 0.37 on 15 reviews).

Of course, there is a lot more to consider if you are willing to go a bit higher. Stretching the budget a bit, my personal favourite, at $122, is the Lagavulin 16 Year Old. It gets an incredible meta-critic score of 9.36 ± 0.24 on 19 reviews. Full of a wide array of rich flavours, I find it a lot more interesting than the younger peat-bombs above. Just be prepared to smell like a talking ash-tray for the rest of the evening!

 

Scotch Blends

There are a lot of great blends out there, most of which can be had for much less than a typical single malt.

Why not move beyond the well-established names, into the company that has made the most waves in recent years – Compass Box.

Right now, you can fairly easily find the Great King St Glasgow Blend at $58, scoring 8.75 ± 0.12 on 5 reviews, or Great King St Artist’s Blend at $55, scoring 8.73 ± 0.34 on 11 reviews.

There is a lot more to consider here – especially for those on a tighter budget – so I suggest you explore the Whisky Database in more detail.

 

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleCanadian Rye Whisky

Ok, you are NOT going to be able to find Jim Murray’s “World Whisky of the Year” – Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – very easily at your local LCBO. Due to its popularity, it sells out almost instantly whenever a LCBO store gets it in stock. It is attractively priced (on sale for $30), and gets a very good score of 8.81 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews.

But it certainly is not the highest ranked Canadian whisky overall by reviewers  – indeed, it is not even the highest ranked Crown Royal! That honour goes to the Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary ($60, 8.92 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews). You may want to consider that rye blend as a possible consolation prize.

The highest-ranked Canadian whisky in my database is actually Gibson’s Finest 18yo: 9.11 ± 0.41 on 8 reviews – and currently on sale for $67 at the LCBO. A great blend of flavours, and one of my favourite Canadian whiskies. Highly recommended, if you can find it (may need to hunt around several stores in your area).

Wiser’s Legacy is a solid second choice, with 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews – and regularly-priced at $50. It has a spicier rye flavour, and is a great introduction to that classic Canadian style.

But a personal favourite that I like to recommend to newcomers to Canadian whisky is Corby’s Lot 40. A straight rye whisky that has been extensively reviewed, it gets a very good 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews – and is quite affordable at $40. One of the best aromas you will find.

Personally, I would go for any of the three higher scorers above, before any of the Crown Royals.

 

American Bourbon

Sadly, Ontario is not a good place to find higher-end American bourbons (although you can certainly get a good selection of the more entry-level and lower mid-range stuff).

1792Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve ($57, 8.89 ± 0.34 on 5 reviews) and Maker’s Mark 46 ($58, 8.89 ± 0.23 on 11 reviews) would be among the top picks for mid-range bourbons, and both are at least somewhat available. Note that the Knob Creek Single Barrel is at cask-strength (60%), and Maker’s Mark is a “wheater” (i.e., mainly wheat-based for the secondary ingredient in the mashbill, after corn).

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon ($50, 8.78 ± 0.33 on 10 reviews) is a good option for those looking for a bit more rye spice in their bourbon, and comes in a nice decanter bottle. Probably the safest “gift” choice for a nice-looking bourbon (given that Blanton’s is not widely available at the LCBO).

Of course, maybe you are simply looking for a good quality “house” bourbon? Elijah Craig 12 Year Old ($43, 8.76 ± 0.36 on 12 reviews), or Buffalo Trace Bourbon ($41, 8.61 ± 0.44 on 14 reviews) would be top picks in that category, and widely available.

There’s a lot more to consider here – it really depends on your tastes. But I find inventories are kept so low on many popular bourbons, that there is really no point in discussing them in too much detail. You are best to see what is available locally, and then check the database to see how they perform.

—-

Again, whatever you choose to get, I strongly suggest you use the Whisky Database to see how it compares to other options in its respective flavour class.

Slainte, and happy holidays!

 

 

Lot 40

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottle

You can’t write a whisky blog in Canada and not mention Lot 40. 🙂

Lot 40 is made by Corby at the Hiram Walker facility (Corby is the same distiller responsible for the Wiser brand of whiskies). Lot 40 is actually a straight (i.e., 100%) rye whisky, and traces its ancestry back to the 18th century in Ontario, Canada. The name apparently refers to the lot where the distiller Joshua Booth’s farm was built. His whisky was resurrected by a descendent of the Booth family in the late 1990s as part of Hiram Walker’s short-lived Canadian Whisky Guild series.

Lot 40 apparently developed a strong (if small) following, and was profoundly missed when production ceased in the early 2000s. Corby brought it back in 2012, with similar composition and packaging. AFAIK, it is all produced from a single 12,000 L copper pot still at the Hiram Walker & Sons plant in Windsor, Ontario. Originally a mix of rye grain and a small amount of malted rye, they switched in 2013 to using 100% unmalted rye whisky (meaning enzymes have to be added). Later batches (e.g., 2015 onward) may also have received more extensive barrel aging, but no age statement is given.

Since its re-release, it has remained a continual favourite with critics and rye whisky drinkers alike – racking up an impressive series of awards. It scores 8.99 ± 0.30 on 13 reviews in my database – which is impressive both for absolute value and consistency. It edges out the Masterson’s Straight Rye 10yo (8.94 ± 0.44 on 12 reviews) and considerably out-competes the recent Canadian Club 100% Rye (8.64 ± 0.39 on 6 reviews). As previously discussed, I think the CC 100% Rye is a great whisky in its own right – but I have to agree that Lot 40 is better overall.

A truly stellar aspect of Lot 40 for me is its nose – a rich bouquet of baking spices (cinnamon and nutmeg in particular) and fragrant floral notes (including heather), with some dark fruits evident underneath. You can also smell the candied sweetness that is the characteristic of new charred oak barrels. Rich and complex, there are absolutely no false notes here­. Honestly I could smell it all night long (which, as my lovely wife has opined, would certainly make it last longer!). 😉

The palate is very pleasing as well, with much the same layered flavours as found on the nose. Not quite as fruit-forward as I was expecting, although still plenty of apple, pear and some prunes. A touch of anise. In addition to baking spices, it also reminds me a bit of the hot/sweet cinnamon candies I grew up on. However, I must admit that I find it doesn’t quite live up to the promise of that wonderful nose. As mentioned in my CC 100% Rye review, I actually like the more fruit-forward profile of the CC offering (as least as far as initial palate goes). Again, there is nothing offensive in the palate here – it is just a touch more subdued than I would have hoped for. Simply put, if the nose is a home-run, I’d rate the palate as a triple.

Lot 40 canadian rye whisky bottleThe finish is relatively long for a Canadian rye whisky, with a soft rye glow that fades into more typical vanilla sweetness (there’s that new oak again). A definite improvement over the very short-lived finish of CC 100% Rye. Again, it’s not going to compete with an expressive single malt, but it is a nice (if fairly simple) finish for this class of whisky.

Lot 40 is the first whisky that really got me appreciating the Canadian rye style. Like many people, I previously tended to turn my nose up at our home and native hooch. If you haven’t tried it, Lot 40 is a real eye-opener. It’s also a great bargain at $40 at the LCBO.

For typical Canadian reviews, you can try the rumhowler’s blog, Whisky Won, or CanadianWhisky.org. For some international perspectives, you can check out the Scotchnoob or WhiskyNotes.be.

Alberta Premium

Some things mystify me in the whisky reviewing world (okay, many things!). When looking into entry-level expressions, sooner or later I come across a reviewer who just seems to love one of these cheap budget products. Now, in the case of the entry-priced Canadian Club 100% Rye, I could understand that – it is actually an impressive quality product, clearly priced low to gather attention. But outside of the fictional Don Draper, I can’t imagine anyone actually recommending standard entry-level Canadian Club (aka “CC Premium”) as a top-pick in the world of whisky.

The recently discussed Alberta Premium Dark Horse is another example of an excellent bargain, as it is typically priced just a few dollars more than the base Alberta Premium. But what to make of the entry-level Alberta Premium? Identified as a straight 100% rye grain whisky, Alberta Distillers explains on its website that it is a blending of two whiskies, one of which is a “flavouring whisky” that was aged in used bourbon casks. The final product has apparently been aged for 5 years.

For an entry-level expression, Alberta Premium has an impressive Meta-Critic Score – a just slightly below average 8.37 ± 0.51, based on 9 reviews. Could a mass-produced Canadian rye whisky really compete on that scale, across all whiskies in the database?

The tip-off that something unusual is going on here is the fairly large standard deviation above. Basically, two reviewers love it, putting it in the top ~15-20% of all their whisky reviews. One reviewer finds it about average. The rest didn’t care for it much – with four putting it in the bottom ~15-25% of all whiskies tasted. I describe a slightly more balanced example of this divergence phenomenon with the Glenfiddich/Glenlivet 18 year olds here. In the case of AP, I personally have to side with the majority opinion and consider this to be one of the least interesting rye whiskies I’ve tried.

That said, I don’t find anything seriously wrong with it. For me, many whiskies at this price point are marred by undesirable characteristics in either the nose or finish (and would most likely benefit from extended aging to help smooth out the base spirit further). Although Mrs Selfbuilt reports a distinctly chemical solvent smell and taste to AP, I find it to be relatively inoffensive (for this entry level class). I just don’t see what there is to recommend it. Given its somewhat bland nature, I can only presume AP is designed to appeal to those who plan to use it as a rye for mixed drinks (given its lack of a strong character, one way or the other).

But there is one thing that is distinctive about Alberta Premium – the distribution of bottle sizes. I recently did an analysis of Canadian whisky inventory at the LCBO. Like most entry-level Canadian whiskies, Alberta Premium is available in a wide range of bottle sizes. However, unlike the industry heavyweights, the distribution of sizes for AP is skewed to smaller-than-typical bottles. Here is a comparison to the entry-level expressions from Canadian Club (Premium/Classic) and Gibson’s (12yo/Sterling):

Canadian whisky bottle size distributionMost high-volume distillers offer their entry level products in patterns similar to Canadian Club (roughly equivalent numbers of different size bottles) or Gibson’s (weighed toward larger bottle sizes). AP differs in that it offers a proportionally large share of smaller sized bottles, at least in Ontario.

Alberta Premium bottleOne possible inference from this is that the other makers already have significant market share, and are thus able to more easily sell large bottles of their product. In this interpretation, AP may be trying to get people to taste their product by offering it predominantly in smaller bottles. After all, you are more likely to take a chance on new product if it is in a small bottle at a lower price. Of course, the opposite interpretation would be that they may figure their best option to sell the stuff is by keeping the price particularly low to move inventory. 😉

In any case, to get some contrasting views of Alberta Premium, please check out the Quebec Whisky site. Whisky Won is another review site that I think has the measure of this whisky.

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