Review: Mister Sam Tribute Whisky (Sazerac) by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

ABV
66.9%; 61.3%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
A blend of Canadian and American whiskies
Producer Sazerac

Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace, has been developing a presence in Canada for some years now particularly with the Royal Canadian and Caribou Crossing brands. Diageo also recently sold a number of Canadian whisky brands, including Seagram’s VO, to Sazerac in 2018. The whiskies, thus far, have been from stock which has been sourced from other distilleries in Canada. However, that is set to change with the construction of the Old Montreal Distillery which started to distill whisky in 2018. It’s open now for visiting.

Sazerac is releasing a whisky as a tribute to Sam Bronfman, one of the most ominous and greatest figures in the history of the liquor industry. Bronfman initially came to Canada shortly after his birth, the son of immigrant parents, from an area which is now part of the country of Moldova between Romania and Ukraine. He became involved in the family hotel business, which grew, relatively quickly, into a small empire in Saskatchewan with the income driven more by the bars that the family owned than the hotels.

As the temperance movement grew, Saskatchewan implemented prohibition and closed the bars. The family, in clever response, got a hold of one of the rare licenses to sell medicinal alcohol and started to develop a distribution business without much competition. Medicinal alcohol was an extremely popular “remedy” during prohibition. The company soon got into the distilling business, building the (now closed) LaSalle distillery in Quebec from stills acquired in the US. The LaSalle distillery became known for quantity, which lead to Sam Bronfman’s partnership with the Scottish DCL, a massive producer of Scotch which controlled brands like Johnny Walker, Dewar’s, and Buchanon’s . This partnership, formed in the late 1920s, catapulted Bronfman ahead of Harry Hatch as the head of the biggest whisky empire in Canada. Bronfman also obtained the ever-important Seagram’s line of brands. Among these brands was Seagram’s VO, Bronfman’s drink of choice, diluted with water. With the brands came the company’s namesake, Seagram’s.

The company stockpiled stock and assets through prohibition. Despite supplying the bootlegging business, prohibition was a challenging environment to operate in due to the challenges of the supply chain. The boom of the company came when the American market opened up: Seagram’s took control of the American market. Indeed, in the 1930s three out of five bottles of blended whisky sold in the United States were from Seagram’s. The company’s success accelerated - in 1946 Seagram’s controlled 14 distilleries, 60 warehouses, and 10 bottling plants - putting out 25 million litres a year (Source: The Bronfman’s, Nicholas Faith). To this, the company added the Chivas Regal brand and grew to become the largest liquor company in the world before it’s collapse, out of which arose Daigeo and Pernod Ricard which are now the two largest liquor companies in the world.

“Mister Sam” was not only a remarkable businessman, he was also a master blender with a remarkable understanding of the importance and technique of blending. He taught his sons the “art” of blending and ensured that he and his family could always assess the quality of his brands. To honour the legacy, Sazerac has released a whisky containing a blend of American and Canadian whiskies. It was blended by Drew Mayville, who worked at Seagram’s for 22 years and was the last master blender before the company’s collapse. The whisky is bottled at 66.9% ABV, and will be sold in the United States and Canada for about 250 USD. 1,200 bottles were produced, and the whisky is slated to be an annual release.

If you want to learn more on the subject, there are a number of good books lying about. I recommend The Bronfman’s by Nicholas Faith, Booze, Boats and Billions by C.W. Hunt. Davin De Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky gives a nice broad overview as well. To better understand the ever-important context of the time and the ever-important American liquor market, Bourbon Empire by Mitenbuler is a great read too.

If you get a bottle of this, there is a small booklet, containing a history of the Seagram’s company written by Samuel Bronfman for his 80th birthday, …from little acorns…. There are a few great nuggets and it gives a nice picture of pieces of how the organization functioned - highlighting specifically Bronfman’s bullishness about marketing, quality control and his penchant for blending. He often tested the blends personally and interacted with the quality control executives. The company had a library of hundreds of whiskies and 240 different yeasts! As Bronfman wrote, “Nothing is more important in our business than the quality of our products”. He also speaks of how he became convinced that US prohibition would end 5 years before it did, and started to ramp up production and build warehouses to get aged whiskies ready in advance. Even once the US market opened up, he made everyone wait until the US spirits had sufficient maturation in wood: “No matter, I waited. Quality in the bottle, and our reputation for quality, were much more important to me than immediate profits.”

Notably, he also discusses being disturbed when he saw drinking culture grow again after prohibition which lead him to release an advertisement: “We who make whiskey say: ‘Drink Moderately’”.

This whisky is available in the United States (already available) and Canada.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 2019 (66.9%)

  • Bottling Code: L19011331608E

  • Bottling Date: 2019

What a nose! What a nose! I’ll do my best not to be too wordy, but even at first whiff I know that will be difficult.

Sweet oaky caramel, rich deep oak (mossy, old, but very sweet like a damp bourbon warehouse), spicy rye, but it’s balanced with the nicest set of light fruit like white grapes and white mulberries. It is very reminiscent of good, cask strength Buffalo Trace compared to a cask strength blended Canadian whisky with less of a focus on oak. It reminds me, of course, of the Buffalo Trace antique collection.

But, back to the nose. It shines through incredibly with water – it seems to transition from an American style to a bit more of an oaky Canadian style with water (without too much rye). Fruits emerge – candied, dried – but also rich baking spice, fresh strawberries, cherries, praline (hazelnut and almond), dried chanterelle mushrooms, wintergreen, and the corn/rye grain character comes out richly. It has a really nice “dusty” rye characteristic, which I love. The nose really evolves, with more and more dried fruit (prunes, then dried apricots, then dried peaches) with time. This is all tempered by massive oak.

The palate is quite oaky, but surrounded at the edges by rich dried fruits, white pepper, and grapefruit skin (including pith). We also have cherry, dried ginger, dried apricot, dried peach, fresh plum, sweet creamy corn, mixed baking spices, and tobacco. These notes converge into a complex dose of baking spices and creeping tannins. The finish is dry, with toasted baking spices, sweet oak, cherry, dried apricot, corn husks, caramel, and tobacco. The finish is deep and long.

Heavier, oakier, richer, and much deeper than Little Book Chapter 02 (can you believe it?), which has a very different presentation of rye and has a light, vibrant fruit characteristic not present in Mister Sam (similar to the Jim-Beam-owned Alberta-distilled Canadian Club 100% rye). I love that Little Book whisky too.  A better comparison is the William Larue Weller I have in my cabinet from 2015. That one is sweeter, with more almond, maple, and a heavier portrayal of corn – the Weller is a bit lighter, and less complex than this stuff which is focused more on deep fruits, nuts, spice. The Weller, notably, has a bigger finish.  If the Weller is a peach galette with some slivered almonds on top, this is a spiced blackberry+plum+peach cobbler, sprinked with baking spices and baked a deep brown. Some, no doubt, will prefer the style of the Weller. But I like this stuff more.

This is extremely pleasant at 53.5%, the nose is best a bit lower ABV, but it is still awesome for its sheer power at 66.9%. It’s one of the most dynamic whiskies I’ve ever encountered in terms of how it changes with ABV. If you have one of these and find it too hot, just keep adding distilled water until it’s to your taste. The drinking experience does not suffer.

I wonder if Mister Sam would have liked the whisky. His typical tipple was Seagram’s VO, a much lighter whisky rather than this oak bomb. Nonetheless, masterfully blended!

This is in the top 6 whiskies I’ve ever tasted.

Exceptional (4% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Average, even at $250!


Review (2021)

  • Batch: 2021 (61.3%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This second release of Mr. Sam is a blend of Canadian and American whiskies by Buffalo Trace’s master blender Drew Mayville, also the last master blender of the once-mighty Seagram’s corporation. He describes the whisky: “Creating Mr. Sam has been one of the highlights of my career. The second release is very evocative of the first, with the same bold and complex flavours, but I believe this blend to be even closer to perfect. We’ve blended it with whiskies that slightly softened the explosive finish to allow a greater enjoyment of the essence of the whisky.”

Immediately, this is a bit more “Canadian” on the nose – a bit more centrality of corn. But, oh my….mint, oak, dried apricot, baking spices, sharp rye, fresh oak, caramel, fennel, dried corn, and a light, intriguing umami-like oiliness. The corn here is fascinating – both the big, fat corn that comes out in American whiskies but also the clean and elegant corn you find in Canadian whiskies. You have everything you could want here in a North American whisky – big oak, big fruit, multiple grains at play, spice, and balance.

The palate is big – all sorts of dried fruit – apricot, papaya, peach, prune – dried citrus, baking spice, vanilla, charred wood, dried peach, tobacco, and even a bit of grape. It’s quite interesting – it has all of the punch and power of the Buffalo Trace antique collection but it’s combined with an elegance that comes from the blending of the best Canadian whiskies. The finish is rich, fruity, oaky, spicy…here, the big American characteristics take over – spice, oak, and richness.

How does it compare to last year? More toward balance than brawn. They are still both massive, complex whiskies. Less oak, more grain, and softer – indeed, especially toward the finish. More subtlety, less “in-your-face” complexity. Both excellent and, I would say, flawless. I couldn’t ask for more.

Exceptional (4% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Outstanding whisky, but low given the price of $250+.


Review: Russell's Reserve 10 Year's Old Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey by Jason Hambrey

Russell's Reserve 10 2.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
Charred Virgin Oak
Recipe
75% Corn, 13% Rye, 12% Malted Barley
Distiller Wild Turkey (Lawrenceburg, Kentucky)

I go back and forth on how much I like Wild Turkey. While they have some fantastic offerings at the higher levels, and their 101 and rare breeds have their charm - sometimes their products miss the mark for me. But, I can’t resist good bourbon….this represents one of the older and more refined regular bottles coming from Wild Turkey.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: LL/IC270901

  • Bottling Date: ~2020

The nose seems to showcase malt quite clearly. Green apple, pears, brown sugar, rich oak, heirloom corn grits, caramel, and a really nice set of baking spices and oiliness. There is a thick, rich, oaky sweetness on the nose. The nose also reminds me of freshly cracked hazlenuts – we used to have a tree. The palate seems to brings forth more dried fruit (apricots, prunes) and the richness of the oak and the spices remain at the core. The oak is slightly bitter on the palate. The finish has dried orange peel, dried apricot, baking spices, and a bit of tobacco.

I like this – it is definitely more refined than the younger versions (which have a roughness that give them some appeal). Pretty good for the price – these days at least.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: high at $55.


Review: J.P. Trodden Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
3 years
Recipe
70% Corn, 30% Malted Barley
Distiller J.P. Trodden (Maltby, Washington)

This bourbon is made in Washington, from grain grown on a family farm in Quincy, Washington. The distillery makes a few different bourbons - this one, the black label, and also a single cask at 100 proof and a “reserve” at 6 years old.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2020

The nose has some really nice oily corn, floral, baked pear, baked apple, baking spices, raisin, honey, and canned peaches. A bit of a thick, oatmeal like character too. The corn character is just amazing here. The palate is rich, full of corn, stewed orchard fruit, baking spices, and light toffee and tannin. The finish has a nice bit of tobacco complexity to it and it is quite sweet.

There is a nice tangy savouriness to the whole affair which is quite nice. This is a unique bourbon, and one that I think is well crafted. I’d love to try the older version – the rich corn character comes through quite nicely. Despite having no rye, there is a lot of baking spice.

Highly Recommended (50% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).


Review: Michter's Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey by Jason Hambrey

Michter 2.jpg
ABV
45.7%
Aging
Charred Virgin Oak
Recipe
N/A
Producer Michter's (Kentucky)

There is a lot of “lore” about Michter’s products, but they are a producer that has been sourcing whisky for a long time and not distilling their own, but sourcing from other Kentucky distillers. They are marketed pretty well. (“truly small batch”….hmm….)

However, they are now building a distillery to produce their own stuff.

I’ve always resisted actually buying it since it’s so expensive, but I’ve been curious and the lack of bourbon in Ontario has me exploring things I normally wouldn’t.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Lot no. 21E1403

  • Bottling Code: LL/IC270901

  • Bottling Date: ~2020

The nose is nutty, with hazlenuts, candied pecans, almond, smoking oak wood, sweet corn, baking spice, and a really nice floral rye edge. The palate continues to be nutty, but it doesn’t have the broader, rich flavour profile of many bourbons – it is cleaner and more focused. I imagine a lot of people would describe it as “smoother”. For me, it’s not necessarily how I like my bourbon – I like a good punch of oak, spice, and grain. Nonetheless, this does go down very smoothly! The balance between the grains is terrific. There is a light umami characteristic to it also – nice. The finish is spicy, stone-fruity, and full of corn.

This is very well crafted – balanced and with a nice array of flavours. However, I still find the richness here to be a bit light compared to the sweetness. This, to me, fits in the category of a premium “casual” bourbon as opposed to a premium “tasting” bourbon – at least for how I enjoy them.

Value: Not great for a bourbon, compared to other great finds at half the price. If you are comparing to Scotch, it sits in the average category. It’s $90 in Ontario where I reside.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Not great for a bourbon, compared to other great finds at half the price. If you are comparing to Scotch, it sits in the average category. It’s $90 in Ontario where I reside.


Review: High Wheeler 21 Year Old Single Grain New Zealand Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Img0001.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
Ex-bourbon for 21 Years
Recipe
70% Malted Barley; 30% Unmalted Barley
Distiller Willowbank Distillery (Dunedin, New Zealand)

In 1997, the last remaining distillery in New Zealand was shut down, auctioning off all of their remaining stock. At the time, it was the world’s most southernmost distillery. In 2010, a company bought the remaining 80,000 litres and began to release some of it. The company hopes to get to producing their own distillate.

This whisky was made from unmalted barley whisky distilled in a column still, which was then mixed with single malt and laid down in ex-bourbon barrels. Non-chill filtered.

On a side note, the label is simple but packed with the information I’m interested in. Nicely done.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2020

A great aged barley nose – rich in apple and pear, grape candies, mixed fruit drop candies, as well as a very nice bit of earth and some sundried tomatoes. There is also a bit of baking spice and a great tension between the big fruit, the sweet vanilla, and an earthy grain character very reminiscent of unmalted barley. It does, indeed, have a bit of an oily irish edge to it.

The palate continues with a bright burst of fruit, but also with a smoky edge. It tastes a bit diluted – but, I am tasting from a heel that has been open for a while. This, undoubtedly, can have this “diluting” effect from my experience and I can tell that it was better before. The fruit seems to be increasingly candied on the palate, compared to the nose, and it leads into a very slightly drying, sweet, fruity finish.

If this is indicative of all New Zealand whisky, we should all try to get our hands on more of it!

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Low, since this is understably a bit pricy. Depends on how much you want to explore some well aged New Zealand whisky, I suppose!