Fall is always a peak time for whisky. As the weather cools, the limited releases start to roll out as we all tuck in for winter and arm ourselves with a few fireside drams. Forty Creek, perhaps, started the Canadian fall releases with their acclaimed limited bottlings under John Hall’s guidance. Forty Creek continues the tradition – this year with their limited release Victory – but we have others in the mix like the Canadian Club 42-year-old and Alberta Premium’s cask strength and 20 year old release. Add to that a load of micro-distillery limited bottlings which are made available locally, if not nationally.
The most exciting set of Canadian whisky in the past three years has been the set of releases from Corby’s over the past four years. They portray just what you want in a limited release – a variation on the theme of the brand. What makes this set unique in Canada, though, is that it is a variation on the theme of multiple brands and not just one – Pike Creek is focused on the effect of finishes, J.P. Wiser’s is corn forward with a dash of rye (usually), Gooderham & Worts is made from multiple grains and multiple stills, and Lot no. 40 is the “unapologetic”, intensely flavoured, 100% rye whisky. But, every year, the limited editions are more than just a variation on the themes – they are a substantial step up in age and ABV.
This year, perhaps as always, the headliner might be Cask Strength Lot no. 40, coming in at 57%. The whisky itself, made with 100% rye, comes initially from re-used Canadian oak barrels and new American oak barrels. Then, 75% of the barrels were finished in French oak, meaning that most of the whisky in the bottle has seen new oak, twice. Don Livermore, the master blender at Hiram Walker, said the decision was based on his observations during his consumer blending classes at the distillery. The French-oak finished rye was such a hit that, in his words, he had to “listen to the audience”. It is Livermore’s favourite of the bunch.
With the Gooderham & Worts “49 Wellington” release, the blenders went nuts using red winter wheat , malted barley, and – of course – old corn whisky. This, combined with a variety of barrels - amber rum barrels, new American oak, re-used Canadian whisky casks, and casks with red oak inserts to give a distinct cedary taste (“you love it or hate it” says Livermore). As far as I’ve tasted, this is the first whisky I’ve had with any red oak maturation - white oak is the ubiquitous species used in whisky and spirit maturation. “49 Wellington” is clocking in at 19 years of age and 49% ABV.
Pike Creek is a 21 Year old is a corn whisky with a bit of rye added to it, finished in Oloroso sherry casks. While common in the Scotch industry, sherry casks aren’t used commonly in Canada (or at the home of the brand, the Hiram Walker distillery). It sits at 45%, and it’s actually my favourite of the bunch this year.
Wiser’s has also released their flagship older whisky – 35 years in the first two releases – but now at 23 years of age. This year it is in the bottle at a whopping cask strength of 64.3% ABV, a very rare example of a cask strength blend. The 23-year-old release was chosen for two reasons – 1) Don Livermore has worked at the distillery for 23 years, and 2) cask strength concentrates some of the old-age notes in Canadian whisky to such a degree that they can be a bit overpowering. Thus, a 23-year-old is a bit less aggressive in this regard than a 35-year-old. I’ve tasted a few old Canadian corn whiskies at cask strength myself, and I prefer them with a bit of water (even though I generally love cask strength whiskies). So, why release at cask strength at all? Livermore’s response, as before, was that he has been listening to the “wisdom of the crowd” in blending classes and whisky festivals. And he has decided to give those consumers what they want. Now there is a responsive brand - cheers Corby!