Review: Ninety 20 Year Old Canadian Rye Whisky / by Jason Hambrey

20 yrs
100% Corn
Producer Highwood (High River, Alberta)

This is a product of Highwood Distillery, in High River Alberta, and is another in their line of fabulous 100% corn whiskies (joining Century Reserve Lot 15/25 and Century Reserve 21 Year Old). It is called a “rye” whisky in that “rye” also is the name for Canadian whisky because of its extensive use of rye to craft the flavour profiles of its whisky. The name, “Ninety” is due to the fact that this whisky comes in at 45%, or 90 proof – higher than the nearly ubiquitous 40% for Canadian whisky. Higher alcohol level means less water dilution from the cask (which is about 75% at Highwood), and thus, theoretically, more flavour.

Highwood isn’t built to distill their own corn whisky – it is sourced from elsewhere, but brought to Highwood for ageing. Bourbon barrels from either Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam are used to mature their products. Though this whisky was released over a year ago, it has only just available in Ontario as a lot of distribution and production was put on hold due to some serious flooding, and the distillery has recovered well and has been back in full swing – and we are all grateful. I’ve been waiting for this to drift to the Ontario market ever since I heard about it…also, it’s another 20 year old Canadian whisky under $50 here – not something you will readily find in other markets.

Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A
  • Bottling Date: ~2014
  • Bottling Code: N/A

Nose: Vanilla, maple, and creamy nuttiness with an elegant feel. I am not quite sure how to describe the “elegant” feel to it – but I find that it almost “feels” rich and buttery as I smell. There are notes of bourbon, but it obviously doesn’t smell like a bourbon because it is not aged in new wood (though there will be small bits of bourbon directly in the whisky from the bourbon casks). There’s a bit of light dried fruit – like prunes, but the nose isn’t sour. A bit of darker elements of earthy woodiness and molasses lurk under the surface too. And, there’s toffee too. The range isn’t huge – but it’s very well done. And, for a 20 year old whisky, there is surprisingly little oak, even with a cask that’s been used once before.

Taste: A bit sweet to start, with a rich vanilla and maple undertow and fading to some drying spices (white pepper and some of the sharpness of clove) before being washed again with some creamy caramel. The palate lingers very well and the whisky flavour seems to keep developing uninterrupted once you’ve swallowed – which is very nice. The mouthfeel of the whisky is extremely nice – buttery and a bit viscous (though not too thick that it doesn’t slide down easily) – it slides down well, and I think the creamy notes on the palate also help the brain to perceive that it slips down even better. There’s a bit of an oaky rumminess and earthiness too, in the background – it’s quite nice, and enough for you to notice it, but not too much that it dominates over the softer and creamier primary flavours. There is also a light “rancio” note, like the oxidized nature of sherry or marsala – but this is light, and though I don’t like sherry or marsala much – it fits in very well here.

Finish: At first the corn (in the dimensions of corn on the cob and cornmeal) seems to come out with vanilla before oak slowly starts to take the reins with a bit of cinnamon, dried ginger, and orange peel. Also, interestingly enough, it’s a bit sour on the finish in a way it wasn’t at any other point in the whisky. It’s also a fitting whisky for fall, with notes similar to the reeds in marshes as they die and start to decompose in the fall.

A fitting fall whisky with the light earthiness and oakiness – yet it’s very elegant, easy to drink, and bright. The silkiness, richness, balance, and depth is wonderful. A pleasure, for sure. The first thing I thought with this whisky is how it compares to Century Reserve 21 Year Old, another 100% corn whisky coming out of Highwood which is a bit older but similar in terms of age. The profiles are similar, but Century Reserve 21 Year Old is a bit lighter and more floral while this one is a bit fruitier, and a bit more packed with flavour (particularly in the toffee department) and fruit, and the sherry-like note I mentioned earlier. Comparing it to Century Reserve Lot 15/25 (also with old stocks, and 100% corn) – there’s less vanilla, sweetness, and spice. But, they’re all very good – and particularly this one.

Score: 90/100

Value: 91/100 (based on $50)

Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A
  • Bottling Date: 2016
  • Bottling Code: 6118

This past year Highwood added new white labels to replace the old label (shown above), so that the product would stand out better on the shelves. I'd heard some good things about the recent batches of this, so I had to give this one another go:

Rich oak, coconut, vanilla, strawberry jam, campino candies, dulce de leche, clove –creamy and elegant. It opens up brilliantly as it sits in the glass. There are some really interesting fruit notes that I am having trouble defining – tropical, creamy fruits. The palate is full, lightly sweet, and creamy, with leather, stale clove and cinnamon, dried corn, and dried apple – finishing with oak and a bit more old leather. The old notes are very intriguing – I love them, and my appreciation for them has continued to grow as I’ve continued to taste more whisky. This batch is a bit brighter, and slightly less nutty and earthy, than the reviewed batch above – I can’t say I like it more, but I certainly don’t like it less. Terrific stuff. They’re both brilliant. All you connoisseurs of Scotch Grain Whisky need to get a bit of this.

It’s one of those whiskies to spend time with – drinking this one quickly, as with many old whiskies – you will miss much.

Score: 90/100

Value: 91/100 (based on $50)