Review: Lot No. 40 Canadian Whisky / by Jason Hambrey

Charred Virgin Oak
100% Rye
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

This whisky recently pocketed the top overall award at the Canadian Whisky Awards, only two years after it won in 2013. This is quite a feat - to win, the whisky needs to have the highest overall rating across a judging panel of 10 independent judges (9 in 2013) in a blind test of a very large number of whiskies. In 2015, I sat on the judging panel, and doing so only increased my respect for this whisky - it is a great tribute to the quality and consistency of this whisky.

Lot no. 40 was well regarded among whisky connoisseurs, until it disappeared roughly in the 1990s - a move that had more to do with the whisky being ahead of its time than the quality itself being poor. However, it was re-released in 2012 and was received very well - once again.  It is a 100% rye whisky, distilled in a single copper pot still and aged in new charred wood. The style, itself, is a bit more of what has been seen in American straight ryes than what is released in Canada. It's not that Canada has not been making powerful, oaky ryes - but they are usually not released. Instead, they have typically been used as rich flavouring agents in Canadian whiskies composed of a blend of softer, "body" whiskies and these highly flavoured components. The market is shifting slightly, and we are getting to see more of these - a good thing for us all.

The recipe has now shifted, from previously being 90% unmalted rye and 10% malted rye to 100% unmalted rye sometime in 2016 - the new 100% unmalted rye bottles have a green label. They felt that the unmalted rye had better character, being less "funky". However, another change (I speculate, not confirmed) is likely that it is younger - this is my own speculation, only because the bottle I was given tasted less mature. The yellow label Lot no. 40s were basically all from the same batch, getting slightly older after each year. I haven't loved the shift, nor have some friends of mine - but it is still a terrific whisky and we'll see where it goes.

Review (2012)

  • Batch: 2012 Release
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: 2012

Nose: This is wonderful rye, and an incredible nose! The big, and distinctive thing is banana peel...and lots of it. There's also toffee, rye bread, oak, green apple, apple juice, lilacs, star anise, some beef-jerky smokiness, and some medicinal aromas - and it's a bit sour. Also, there's a touch of orange pekoe tea and some other floral elements including white, fragrant nectar-smelling blossoms- the name is escaping me, but, regardless, there's a lovely floral element to this.

Taste: Lots of toffee, tangy rye, and oak. It's very bold, spicy, and fruity with bits of green apple and banana coming through. The flavours are layered, one under another which is very lovely. I get some dried apricot and prunes, and a significant layer of oak under it all. The star anise from the nose carries through as well, as well as some wonderful clove and nutmeg. The spicy tingle at the end is just right...wonderful.

Finish: Warm finish with rising heat as it leaves the mouth, with spicy and fruity rye eventually leaving you with the oak and a touch of earthiness. Fabulous!

The more that I drink this the more I like it.

Score: 89/100

Value: 91/100 (based on $40)

Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A(Yellow Label: 90% Unmalted Rye, 10% Malted Rye)
  • Bottling Code: L14 147 EW 12:42
  • Bottling Date: 2014

This whisky is made from the same stuff as the 2012 batch, except that it was actually aged in wood a few extra years (and the bottle no longer contains "2012" on it).

Nose: Dried fruits, cinnamon, and, oak, oaky caramel, and mint. The grain is rich with a bit of a flambeed banana character. Yeasty, too. A bit sour too, like sour rye bread. Rich, oaky, spicy....there are a few out of place bitter notes which detract lightly as well. However, relative to the 2012 batch - more caramel and charred notes, and more rum. If I had to pick, I might say I ever so slightly prefer the nose on the 2012 batch, but they're close and consistent.

Taste: Tannic, and really it has pushed the oak right to the edge. Quite intense with some dark fruits and banana, mint, and lots of rye notes - for sure. Still has that classic mouthwatering, rich taste though which makes it hard not to adore this one. Light arugula is there as well. Delicious, pure and simple. It has the intensity and boldness to be chewed, really. Sometimes, similar to some bourbons and straight whiskeys, it is a bit too sweet - but, in this case, it's still nicely offset by the spice. This is really quite addictive stuff on the palate, and I think I like it a touch more than the 2012 batch - though, once again, they're consistent and very close.

Finish: A bit tannic, and lightly bitter. Spices are there, for sure, in good quantity, as well as sourdough, banana, green apples, oak and cinnamon.

The consistency is great - simply put, a very solid whisky. As I said, this one has pushed the oak right to the edge, but it's still ok here. It's certainly one I always like to stock, and my tastes and preferences have been shifting more in its direction as the years plod on, I think. Different, for sure, than the 2012 batch - but I like it just as much.

Score: 89/100

Value: 91/100 (based on $40)

Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: N/A (Yellow Label: 90% Unmalted Rye, 10% Malted Rye)
  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L15194 EW11:24
  • Bottling Date: 2015

This is the batch which I judged for the Canadian Whisky Awards 2015 - so the winner. Tasting Notes:

Very rich and very complex, with a layering of flavour - banana, and rye, rye, rye. And, behind that, lots of spice, a bit of malt, rye bread, and vanilla. On the palate, there's a surprising light thread of apples, developing sweetness, rich oak, black tea, white grape, and tannins with good body. The mix of spice, light fruit, rye, and everything else make this one particularly enjoyable whisky, and it has been consistently good. Highly recommended. Also, if you ever tinker with blending your own whiskies - this one works some magic.

Score: 90/100

Value: 94/100 (based on $40)

Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A (Yellow Lable; 90% Unmalted Rye, 10% Malted Rye)
  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L16041 EW14:49
  • Bottling Date: 2016

Lots of woody notes – oak, pine – and some molasses and caramelized sugar some of that brilliant spice – clove, cinnamon, nutmeg – but also showing a fair bit of sweet star anise this time. More than usual, and the banana is more reserved. The rye is fully there as well…how I like rye. White grape, raisins, and freshly baking rye bread. This smells quite strongly of rye bread, and caraway. My nose is now just full of that. Orange, too, coming in.

The palate is sweet and sour, with some spice and oak coming in on the end. This is very good, but not reaching the heights of last year – it’s a bit softer and more reserved, and a touch too sweet. Tannins take the finish, and black tea. Still quite complex, but this sample isn’t showing the usual. A bit too sweet, which takes this down a point or two.

Score: 88/100

Value: 89/100 (based on $40)

Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A (Green Label; 100% Unmalted Rye)
  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L16168 EW08:39 EW11:24
  • Bottling Date: 2016

I’ve scored so many of these I don’t know if adding more tasting notes is helpful. This batch is rich, but tastes younger than many previous batches - a bit more raw-ness in the mix, green banana, cola, and sourcherry. However, it’s full of terrific complexity as before and works a charm, as usual…lot of those great spice and tea notes. That sour cherry on the nose is different. Not the glory of some former batches but still very nice, and the wood and tea notes work quite the charm, as usual. And some tobacco works its way in on the finish, which isn’t something I have typically notice with these. I hope these don’t get much younger…this is a bit on the edge. The finish does a nice trick, though.

The nose is not so great here. Tasting this batch put me on a hunt for remaining yellow-label lot 40s, since this is definitely a change. The palate is quite good, but the nose pulls this down a score.

Side by side, though, this new label it isn’t quite what it was. Let's hope it improves as it gets older, if they let it. A few fine-palated friends of mine agreed that this was worse than standard. I'll have to try another bottle to make sure it isn't just a spoiled bottle, but let's hope things start going up for the green label.

Score: 87/100

Value: 86/100 (based on $40)