I’m happy to admit that even as someone who writes about craft beer and whiskey for a living, the world of Canadian whiskey can be a daunting one. A lot of the opaqueness has to do with its inconsistent classification and composition—most Canadian whiskeys you see on store shelves are blends of many different distilled spirits from a single Canadian distillery, but there’s little to no standardization as to how this is done. Most distillers create a high-proof “base spirit,” which is then diluted with a series of lower-strength distillates from individual grains such as corn, wheat, rye or barley. This flies in the face of American-style whiskey distilling, in which all the different grains are combined into a single mash before distillation. Hell, the national laws regarding Canadian whiskey classification and regulation aren’t even the same throughout the whole country—each province has subtly different rules. Is it any wonder why American drinkers are so often confused by the stuff?
Despite the occasional struggle to classify and detail the liquid within the bottle, though, one thing is certain: Premium Canadian whiskey has begun finding a home in the U.S. market. What has for ages been the sole domain of lower-priced blends (the U.S. consumes a huge amount of Crown Royal, among others) is slowly becoming a fertile market for more unique, expensive and flavorful whiskey styles.
Taking advantage of this new wave of interest is Canadian alcohol manufacturer Corby Spirit and Wine Ltd., which has assembled some standouts of the new wave of Canadian whiskey into a boxed set, dubbed the Northern Border Collection. The most recent release in this series, the Northern Border Collection Rare Release, features whiskey samples of eight different premium products (across four brands), all of which are distilled at the Hiram Walker distillery in Ontario.
We happened to get our hands on one of these boxes, so a tasting was obviously in order. Here’s our impressions of each in the box, in the order we sampled them.
Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whiskey
Our first sample is Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye, a brand that I can actually find locally—there’s a bottle in the dingy sports bar across the street from our office in Atlanta, Georgia, if you can believe that. This is a 100% rye product, although 10% of that is the more rarely used malted rye, which imparts a character that is more similar to malted barley. I found this one grainy on the nose, with a bit of cream-of-wheat sweetness, followed by a big punch of fruit-forward notes. It’s a very fruity rye on the palate, with apple and strawberry/red fruit impressions, which meld into a spice profile of anise/licorice and cedar-like cigar box. All in all, the anise note reminded me on some level of absinthe—an unusual, but fairly pleasant profile. This is a bit off the beaten path of the American ryes I’m used to, and although I still prefer the Americanized profile, there’s certainly unique aspects to this whiskey.
Lot No. 40 12 Year Cask Strength Rye
This bruiser of a cask strength rye weighs in at 55% ABV (110 proof), and is transformed by its increased strength and time in the barrel. Compared with the other Lot 40 it’s significantly richer and more deeply caramelized, with a profile redolent in baking spices that pop out of the glass with intensity. It’s fairly hot, which is to be expected at such a proof, with huge notes of rye grain and spice that are close to overwhelming when drinking neat. Cut with a little bit of water, it really opens up into a lovely profile of spice (cinnamon, clove, cardamom), dusty rye and bright citrus, although the residual sweetness is still fairly assertive. All in all, this is a much richer and more intense variation on the original theme, and I can only theorize that it would make for a fabulous base in certain booze-heavy bourbon and rye cocktails where its strength could afford to be diluted slightly. Good stuff.
J.P. Wiser’s 18 Year Old
This is the style of Canadian whiskey with which I am least familiar—an almost exclusively corn-mashed spirit that is distilled to a very high proof, aged in used bourbon barrels (as is done with scotch and Irish whiskeys) and then cut down to 80 proof when bottled. The results are rather unusual—green apple, floral and piney notes are big on the nose, leading me to use a word I don’t often use in whiskey descriptions, “fresh.” Having previously sampled Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Two Lanterns, a whiskey made from distilled Samuel Adams Boston Lager, I am reminded of some similarities—they both come across as aromatically woodsy (pine forest), spicy and herbal. Thin of body, J.P. Wiser’s 18 Year Old presents spice notes of anise, caraway and pine on the palate, before fading away cleanly with relatively little booze assertiveness. This is interesting whiskey, but not the most exciting of these offerings for my palate.
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old
Now this is some seriously old Canadian whiskey, right here. As with the Lot. No. 40 offerings, the extra age and strength (100 proof) added a much more intriguing element in my estimation. In fact, the profile hardly seems to share much in common with the 18 Year Old, being much more influenced by its time in the wood. Deep caramel and molasses notes are met by beautiful baking spices on the nose, with notes of cinnamon, baked apples, allspice, dill and plenty of vanilla—it’s like the whiskey equivalent of a caramel apple. There’s plenty of rye character, which manifests in notes of dill, black tea and floral impressions, while still retaining quite a lot of richness as well. This drinks exceedingly well neat, having a perfect balance between richness, heat and accessibility—I wouldn’t dilute it with any water. You’ll pay a boatload to get hold of this one, but it’s easily my favorite whiskey for neat drinking in this collection. Worth noting: J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old was recently named the Canadian Whiskey of the Year as well. Well earned, I’d say.
Pike Creek 10 Year Old (finished in rum barrels)
The younger bottling of Pike Creek (although 10 years is still a good while) is finished in rum barrels, and boy, does that quickly become apparent. Very sweet and “sugary” on the nose, with a lot of baked apple/molasses and buttery notes, it’s a little overwhelming in terms of residual sugar. Booze also makes itself felt; this is a hot and sweet whiskey. Dark rum and banana-like fruit implies a certain “island” vibe, while Dr. Pepper-like spicing and red fruit notes round things out. All in all, the rum barrels just impart too much of their own character on this whiskey for my liking, leaving the final product too sweet and too hot, especially for a mere 42% ABV (84 proof). This one doesn’t do much for me, although it might work for someone seeking a dessert-appropriate tipple.
Pike Creek 21 Year Old (finished in Speyside single malt casks)
Now this is more like it. I’m more of an American bourbon and rye drinker than I am a scotch connoisseur, but this Canadian whiskey finds a very intriguing middle ground between styles. Lighter in its caramel/molasses character than the rum-finished Pike Creek, this bottle still packs some lovely caramel and vanilla notes, followed by an array of spice tones, but its signature comes in the then unexpected kiss of smoke and peat that follows. These elements are appropriately subtle—you wouldn’t mistake it for an actual Speyside single malt, but it transmits enough of the heart and soul of the style to be distinctive. The 21 Year Old still retains a substantial amount of residual sweetness, maybe a bit more than necessary, but in comparison with the 10 Year Old it seems significantly more “earned.” Fans of both scotch and American bourbon will likely find this one intriguing.
Gooderham & Worts Canadian Whiskey
Both of these Gooderham & Worts offerings are classical Canadian-style whiskey blends, and both fall somewhere on the upper side of the offerings I tasted. The flagship Gooderham & Worts whiskey is really nice on the nose—rich, spicy and well-rounded with cinnamon apples, plenty of rye and ginger cookie sweetness. It’s easygoing on the nose, with very little heat. However, that heat unexpectedly shows up more prominently on the palate, which is also very spice-forward. Flavors of bread crust and barley-like maltiness make up the backbone, with baking spices and a prominent note of candied ginger. For being so easygoing on the nose, it’s curious how hot this seems to me on the palate—a bit more than I would expect for the 44.4% ABV (89 proof). All in all though, this is a nicely well-rounded dram.
Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 3 Grain Blend, Aged 17 Years
Unlike some of the other age-enhanced whiskeys I’ve been sampling, the 17 Year Old Trinity 3 Grain Blend is fairly similar to its base whiskey—it’s not the huge variation that I saw in the J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old or the Pike Creek 21 Year Old. The “trinity” in the title refers to the whiskey’s blend of corn, rye and wheat whiskeys, which work pleasantly in conjunction with one another. On the nose, this one is a bit bigger, burlier, boozier and more intense than the regular Gooderham & Worts, while retaining much of the same character. On the palate, however, things flip again—this seems less alcohol-forward than the regular G&W, while retaining its bready maltiness and leathery notes. More expressive woodiness is present here, with deep caramel and plenty of spice, chased by herbal notes of dill. It’s also more fruit forward, with pronounced flavors of red apple and red berries. All in all, a bit sweeter, richer and more decadent, with a bit less booze on the palate, which suits me nicely. Pretty good stuff.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.