Ranking the Last 7 Years of Canadian Whisky / by Jason Hambrey

I started tracking with Canadian whisky 7 years ago, and it is remarkable how things have changed since then. I expected this would change, and indeed it has - for the good, and also for the worse (releases harder to find, more expensive). And, indeed, as I predicted in 2016, Diageo found in 2018 Canadian whisky to be valuable enough to decide to lose a barrel in Diageo’s Crown Royal warehouses, releasing a “Lost Barrel” of 25 year old Canadian whisky as part of their premium Orphan Barrel set of releases.

So, how do I rank the last few years? I’ll rank them and give a snapshot of some highlights. I’ll focus on my favourite gains/losses, and the micro distilling market is largely absent from this list, in part because it’s young, and in part because they’re still dominated by whiskies that aren’t quite there yet (though I will mention a few highlights).

I’ll rank them in ascending order to my favourite.

7. In seventh place, I have 2012. We had a few very notable releases, headlined by the release of Lot no. 40, Forty Creek Portwood, and Highwood Stampede 25 Years Old. Then we had a number of other notable whiskies come to the scene, that seem to have been around much longer - Pike Creek 10 Year, Crown Royal Black, and Alberta Premium Dark Horse. Also, around this time Still Waters came to the scene with their impressive rye as one of the earliest craft distillers.

6. In sixth place, we have 2016. It contains one of my all time favourite whisky releases, Lock Stock and Barrel 16 year old - an amazing cask strength rye from Alberta, along with its cask strength sibling, Hochstadter’s Family Reserve. But, beyond that, a bit of a flat year - Wiser’s started finishing Pike Creek in rum rather than port barrels (I like the change), they introduced a terrific expression in their (very affordable) Double Still Rye, and introduced the sour-milk mashed Last Barrels. Crown Royal started the noble collection with their respectable Cornerstone Blend and Forty Creek released a subpar release in Founder’s Reserve. I think we lost Wiser’s Small Batch in here somewhere.

5. 2013 wasn’t that busy of a year, relatively, but we had the release of a number of very solid whiskies: Masterson’s Rye, Forty Creek Heart of Gold, and Collingwood 21 Year Old rye headlined the year, with notable contributions from Whistlepig (their 10 year old and Boss Hog), and Wiser’s Red Letter.

4. 2015 might have bumped into third place, but around this time we lost the terrific Danfield’s 21 year old which was a dazzling and very affordable expression. We also got a 35 year old Canadian Rockies at a blistering 79.3%, Canadian Rockies 21 to Canada, the amazing Crown Royal Single Barrel, Gooderham & Worts (yes, it’s only been around for three years…), and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. Forty Creek had another dip with Three Grain Harmony, but there was enough good stuff going on elsewhere to offset it.

3. In third place, 2014. A number of great baseline expressions were released - Canadian Club 100% Rye, Crown Royal XO, Lock, Stock, and Barrel 13 year old, and Ninety 20 Year Old (nice). But, no shortage of great limited editions either - Forty Creek Evolution, Masterson’s Straight Barley, Masterson’s Straight Wheat, Wiser’s Red Letter, and Crown Royal Monarch. We lost Crown Royal Cask no. 16 and Century Reserve Lot 15/25, good whiskies but not too big hits given the gains.

2. 2017 would have been number one, except for something of a tragedy - Wiser’s Legacy, one of Canada’s legendary whiskies, was discontinued. It was one of the best Canadian whiskies, and it was quite affordable. Also, the Lot no. 40 recipe changed, and in my opinion the bottlings just haven’t been as good since (likely due to younger age rather than a fault of the recipe). But Canadian whisky really buzzed this year - Canadian Club went head to head with Wiser’s, releasing a stunning 40 year old. Wiser’s released a magnificent set of releases - Dissertation, Union 52, Lot no. 40 Cask Strength, Gooderham & Worts 17 Years Old Little Trinity, a 21 year old Pike Creek finished in Speyside casks, Wiser’s Canada 150, and a 15 year old. Crown Royal got in the action with a great wine barrel finished special release and a Blender’s Mash release of some of their Coffey Rye. Forty Creek came through in a big way with Heritage, my favourite release from them in the past few years. We even saw something special from Collingwood in their double barreled Town Whisky. Also, Lock Stock and Barrel released a great 18 year old 100% rye from Alberta, though it is pretty hard to find. Oh, and Two Brewers came to the scene, producing Yukon single malt which I adore.

1. My favourite of the past 7 years was 2018, though 2017 only lost out because of the loss of Wiser’s Legacy, a magnificent core expression which special releases can’t quite replace. Two Brewers shone through with a great cask strength and hopped release, Forty Creek had a very well regarded limited release in Unity, Canadian Club dazzled again with a 41 year old, Diageo got in the mix with a 25 year old corn whisky from Crown Royal, Crown Royal released a terrific 13 year old “Bourbon mash” alongside a more mediocre non-age stated Bourbon (or Blender’s) Mash. We had some more great old corn whiskies from Highwood - a 30 year old special for BC liquor stores, and a 17 year old at 50% released from Canadian Rockies. Oh, and Wiser’s continued at breakneck pace - three whiskies for an NHL Alumni limited release, a 19 year old seasoned oak expression (terrific), a 2018 commemorative release, an oaky 21 year old pike creek matured in three oaks, a gooderham and worts special release from 11 spirit types, another terrific lot no. 40 cask strength, and another great 35 year old. Now that’s a year!

I didn’t try everything, but I was able to try most, so it’s been a privelege - and we are trending upwards! 2019, I expect, will have its share of great releases.