Review: Wiser's Red Letter Canadian Whisky / by Jason Hambrey

Wiser's Red Letter 4.jpg
10/15 Years; Virgin Oak Finish
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

This whisky, at least in terms of name, is a very old release – Wiser’s “Red Letter Rye” was a highly regarded whisky first produced in 1857 when Canadian whisky was often known for their quality relative to the other whisky or spirit producers at the time. This particular bottling pays tribute to that whisky (and its recipe). A similar Wiser’s Red Letter was released as a 150th anniversary of Wiser’s in 2007 – though I did not try that one, I have heard that this one is similar in profile.

This whisky is aged in American bourbon barrels and is then further “mellowed” in virgin oak casks. I say “mellowed” since virgin oak casks have capacity to impart some pretty strong flavour – but the whisky likely did not spend (relatively) long in those casks. It is bottled at 45% ABV, rather than the typical 40% found in almost all Canadian whisky. Additionally, earlier batches were non-chill filtered – both a process that isn’t often stated on a Canadian label and a practice not that common within Canadian whisky. In fact this is the only non-chill filtered Canadian whisky at the present time as far as I know (I’m not sure what the craft distillers are up to!). This should give better weight and texture to the whisky as the oils and fatty components in the spirit are not filtered out to increase clarity.

Review (2013)

  • Batch: 2013 Release (10 years old)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2013

Nose: At first my nose picks up some fresh/baking rye bread notes, toasted oak, and toffee. Some cedar comes through, along with some wonderful earthiness that reminds me of moist soil with lots of vegetation and roots. Some vanilla and maple comes through as the nose sits some. It’s intriguing, and deep, but a bit quiet. There’s a bit of tawny port-like fruitiness and some interesting earthy vegetal notes of beets and celery root – though these are very slight. I smell a touch of sourness and spiciness, though it is slight. The nose seems fairly closed, and I find I get whispers of what might come rather than clear declarations. In that sense it is intriguing, yet also could be a little more outspoken.

Taste:  This one goes down easy! quite buttery in its feel and slightly sweet, with some spicy rye and a beautiful kick of spice at the end which keeps developing for quite some time. There is some sharp and grassy rye throughout, and with some vanilla and oak backing. The grains seem to shine through in this one as well, and you can taste the rye and the corn involved. Rye bread comes out quite nicely in this one, and the rye in this is just signature Wisers. It goes down quite easily, as I said, and is quite balanced. There are some citrus notes and grape-like fruitiness in the background, and are simply present just enough. You can sense the bourbon backbone of this whisky – it is fairly gripping especially towards the end – but I find I mainly notice this if I’m sipping it slowly, interestingly enough. I find just at the end of the palate the flavour drops off a bit and alcohol primarily comes through, which isn’t quite what I’m looking for. However, overall, this is fantastic stuff. This score would probably be a touch lower if not for the incredible weight and feel of the whisky, which does help it out a lot.

Finish: Dry with the tannins, and a beautiful glimpse of rye and vanilla with just enough acidity to keep you quite interested – the spiced picks up, with some cinnamon and clove, and the movement continues for some time in the finish which is excellent. I find I get some apple peel after some time as well. Quite excellent.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average.

Review (2020)

  • Batch: Distillery Release (2020) - 15 Years Old

  • Bottling Code: L20329IW07:21

  • Bottling Date: 2020

These new-oak finished, lighter whiskies are becoming quite a trend, not only in Canada but also around the world. This was released as a distillery exclusive, with the age bumped up from 10 to 15 years. The previous labels embellished the fact that they were non-chill filtered, while this one makes no mention on the label.

The nose is as one might expect - the nose is greeted first with the barrel finish: generous new oak, vanilla, caramel, douglas fir, and woody spices like clove. But, of course there is more behind the oak – light dried flowers, lilac, almond, corn husks, blueberry, green apple, red river cereal, and orange peel. The palate follows suit, but with a rich, caramel-laden texture and a firm handful of tannins to direct traffic across the palate. The finish slowly unfolds, with a tannic texture, bean sprouts, vanilla, and yet fresh with citrus peel.

It’s always quite nice for those new to whisky to contrast this whisky with a bourbon – both corn based and both with new oak as a major flavour driver, and yet, completely different based on how they are made.

How does this compare to the 2013 edition? That one had less new oak (more ex-American oak influence, relatively) and had a more viscous, thicker texture without as much tannin. Although they are similar in flavour, the oak here is much more of a flavour driver and the whisky is a bit less dynamic - but it does have more depth. I preferred the balance with a bit less oak, but that preference will be person-to-person.

Nice whisky!

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

Value: lower end of average at $100.