Review: Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve Canadian Whisky / by Jason Hambrey

Blend of rye, corn, and barley whiskies
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

Whisky is a fascinating process, packed with flavour, partially because of the amount of time it takes to make whisky. Not only does whisky spend years in a barrel, the flavour for whisky really starts with the wood – which takes years upon years to form before being put into a barrel. This whisky pays homage to that fact in name as the trees from which the barrels come were around 150 years old – meaning that they started to grow in the 1860s – sometime around the time of the Canadian Confederation, which was the process by which Canada was formed into an independent nation in 1867. Hence, it is called “Confederation Oak”, and the the batches are labeled 1867.

John Hall, the whisky maker at Forty Creek, always wanted to see what whisky would taste like which is aged in Canadian Oak, as most whisky is aged in either American or European oak – different species which yield different flavours. Canadian oak is still the same species as American oak, but, because of the harsher winters it tends to be more dense resulting in a slightly different chemical composition interacting with the whisky. At present, this is the only whisky aged in Canadian oak.

Sourcing Canadian oak was not easy, and it happened nearly by accident – John Hall noticed some trees being cut down near the distillery, and went over and ended up buying the three trees. 90 barrels were made out of the trees, and, if my memory serves me correctly, the staves made from the oak were air-dried for 2 full years before being dry enough to make into a barrel. The trees were taken down to the US and made into barrels by the same supplier which makes most of the barrels used to make Kentucky Bourbon. John Hall says they are perhaps the most expensive barrels ever produced with all the work he had to put into them.

This whisky is made in line with the Forty Creek process, with aged, single grain barley, rye, and corn whiskies being blended together before being finished in the Canadian oak barrels for two years.

Review (2015)

  • Batch: 1867

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2010

Here is a legend of a Canadian whisky, near impossible to find now- the first batch of Forty Creek Confederation Oak. It was the first whisky to be matured in Canadian oak in the modern era, and was originally a limited release from Forty Creek before it was put into regular production. This sample was graciously sent to me by a friend, who gave me the last half oz of his bottle (#548) which had been open more than 4 years, so oxygen has done some work on this, but here is the review of the sample.

Nose: Caramel, toasted oak, vanilla, woody earthiness, dried corn maple, and some fruity elements as well. It evolves to show more nuttiness, maple, and lots of dried fruits with a sherry-influenced feel.

Taste: So syrupy - maple syrup dominates the palate, and the feel is very syrupy and mouthcoating - as if you are drinking oil which coats the mouth and lingers a bit. Toasted oak, candied orange, cinnamon, milk chocolate, nutmeg, clove, and a lingering sweet, dry, vanilla-tinged spiciness at the end. Fabulous creamy mouthfeel - magnificent. Being open so long certainly can't have brought too much disintegration to this whisky. On the palate, one of the best I have ever tasted from the feel to the complex layering of flavour.

Finish: Fabulous mouthcoating feel. Largely vanilla, spices, and oak, though there is more subtlety bringing in other elements - it lingers very nicely. Elegant.

There aren't too many canadian whiskies that I would describe as "elegant", a sublime whisky put together well and with a great mouthfeel, integration, and subtlety - but this is definitely one. Fabulous stuff from Forty Creek. This is a bottle I would have loved to have in reserve. The confederation oak series has changed batch to batch, but this one is pretty magnificent. This, along with batch B, are both stuff of legend.

Exceptional (3% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Very High. For a whisky this good, 70$ makes this a terrific value in terms of typical whisky prices for exceptional whisky.

Review (2013)

  • Batch: 1867-B

  • Bottling Code: 31A12 13:01:15

  • Bottling Date: ~2012

Nose: The nose is complex, and multifaceted – there appears to be a grain, cream, fruit, sweet, wood, and spice component all in this one nose, brilliantly integrated together. On the grain side, rye shines through brilliantly, with a fresh bread element – like fresh and hot rye bread. The rye is slighly grassy, reminding me a bit of a an irish pot still type grassiness. On the cream side, there’s wonderful creamy butterscotch and brilliant sweetness in the nose. The creaminess is fascinating – there’s butterscotch, whipped cream, caramel, and vanilla all shining through. On the sweet side, there’s honey, with some floral hints of lavender, and maple, which takes its place ahead of the oak that is present in the nose as well. In terms of spice, there is slight, subtle cinnamon spice and some pepper. I also get some stewed, slightly sour fruit like apricots or plums along with a bit of tartness as with blackberries.The nose evolves, with a bit more smokiness and fruitiness coming out as it sits and I incredibly enjoy appreciating all that is going on. It’s wonderful too, that it changes as you continue to sip through the bottle. On this, my third evaluative tasting, navel orange peel is rising like mad out of the glass. An absolute pleasure.

Taste: Silky smooth, with sweet citrus entry with some orange, as rising rye spice is balanced with beautiful vanilla sweetness which gives way to more vanilla and some nuts. A bit oaky as well, not too much, but just enough. it’s fruity, sometimes even showing some brandy character, as well as some raisins – a touch of a fruitcake comes in at times. A touch smoky, with the signature forty creek toasted oak present in the middle. The sweet/spice dynamic is brilliant, and the fruitiness is just about perfect to compliment the two. And even with that, there’s some intriguing tartness.

Finish: Long, slow, tingly, warming, slightly dry, and sweet. Very pleasant – you can chew on the flavour for some time. A bit earthy, with good depth and some maple syrup, nuts, vanilla, and some grassy rye. The tingly spice is also brilliant, with a touch of clove, and it is one of my favourite mouth experiences. Also, the tartness is also ever so slightly present just asking you to take another sip. As I sip, I find the finish has a bit more and more oak.

Hugely enjoyable with a fantastic (and approachable) flavour profile and brilliant balance. The soft, sweet flavours sit beside the spicy and bolder flavours, and a remarkable amount is going on. This is one of my absolute favourite Canadians.

Exceptional (3% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Very High. For a whisky this good, 70$ makes this a terrific value in terms of typical whisky prices for exceptional whisky.

Review (2015)

  • Batch: 1867-C

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2013

Nose: Showing some bourbon-like creamy vanilla notes, some different profiles of oak - musty, toasted, and charred - light rancio, and some fatty corn. Complex, and well integrated, but lacking some of the multi-dimensionality of the best Confederation Oak releases. A bit of light fruit (like grape) emerge as it sits, too.

Taste: Classic smooth delivery, with good viscosity in the mouth and a balance of sweet and spice. Toasted oak, citrus, and a spicy underbelly to this one, and light acidity once again doing some good work to hold everything together. The spice, in fact, I like in this - but it makes it less elegant than some of the releases. As might be expected, the palate finishes off with a touch of nuttiness.

Finish: Vanilla and oak come through at first, with some tingling spice (clove and dried ginger) and citrus and a very light bitterness, but not one that detracts much - perhaps more like a strong tea than a bitter coffee. Lightly creamy as well.

Conclusion: Interesting - this release seems a bit more driven by the grain than any of the other Confederation Oak releases that I have tasted - Batch D seemed more cask driven, and Batch B and F had a better balance between them (the better releases, in my opinion).

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

Value: Average. A nice price (70$) for a nice whisky.

Review (2015)

  • Batch: 1867-D

  • Bottling Code: 21D14 09:42:33

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

Nose: Sweet, with light corn and some rich, buttery maple notes too which continue to grow with time. Vanilla, also, emerges with time. It still holds the signature toasted oak, baked bread, and lightly earthy characteristics which are prevalent in Forty Creek. There is a touch of stale bitterness here, unfortunately. Still quite a complex offering but it doesn’t fit together as it should.

Taste: Rich and sweet, with grape and vanilla – but not that spicy or sharp. Toasted oak notes and tannins are felt, and some of that oakiness is quite rich. The light acidity also keeps it nicely in check. Delivery is quite nice, but here the balance is such that the sweetness is a tad too high, I think. Still controlled, and long though – it draws out the flavours nicely.

Finish: There is lots going on – vanilla, oak, currants, dried fruit, coconut some tingly spices…a bit dry with touches of tannin too and a bit of bitterness. The bitterness doesn’t help, and it’s not singing in harmony, though the feel is good.

Frankly, I’ve been quite surprised at this. It’s still quite nice – but it shows flashes of brilliance with some awkward bits rather than just being brilliant, as I’ve seen from this bottling before.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average. A nice price (70$) for a nice whisky.

Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: 1867-F

  • Bottling Code: 4G/DF29226

  • Bottling Date: 2015

Nose: Fresh oak, vanilla, and creamed corn along with some underlying nuttiness. The nose is quite sweet, and evolves to more maple. The nose has more oak than some of the previous confed oak releases - batch D at the least. Slight acidity too - there is a good amount of complexity for those who are willing to take time with this.

Taste: A nice, rounded mouthfeel. On top, maple with some underpinning toasted oak, caramel, spices, and dried fruit. It's more oaky and less fruity than some of the previous confed oak releases.  The texture is very intriguing - both syrupy on top and dry and spicy underneath, and ever so lightly creamy, along with a very light tannic structure. It still has a berry fruitiness to it - like raspberries. caramel. Quite elegant, but at times a touch simple - yet excellent, overall.

Finish: An evolving dry and spicy finish, with some orange rind, clove, raw almond, butterscotch, vanilla, and a decent amount of body and weight.  There's some berry-like fruitiness in here, with soft raspberry influences which lifts the finish up pretty well. Lightly creamy too, with the raspberry it is a bit like a campino candy.

The nose, unfortunately, is a bit restrained, but the palate does make up for that. Good to see quality coming out of the new casks at Forty Creek. Having been slightly dissapointed with batch D, it's good to see that the quality is not simply declining.

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

Value: Average. A nice price (70$) for a nice whisky.

Review (2017)

  • Batch: I

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Baking potato (i.e. earthiness), pencil shavings, vanilla, light oak, vanilla, and lots of classic dry Canadian spices – nutmeg, clove – and a light oily character too. Develops really nicely – older oxidation notes come through. Well worth pondering – I quite enjoy it, the most of the past 3 years of confederation oaks that I’ve tried. The palate brings forth floral notes, a dry spicy character, and a light bitterness on the end. A nice finish with waves of spices and vanilla. Really nice dried fruit, too. I do like the toasted oak house style, as I’ve said many times before…

It’s hard to put a finger on this one. The last few years haven’t given us what the first few years have supplied.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average. A nice price (70$) for a nice whisky.