Canadian Whisky

Review: Whistlepig 10 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey by Jason Hambrey

ABV
50%
Aging
10 Yrs; Charred Virgin Oak
Recipe
100% Unmalted Rye
Distiller Alberta (Calgary, Alberta)

This whisky is somewhat notorious for trying to disguise both the source of its origin (Canada), and the fact that they don’t actually distill any of their product (yet). If you go hunting on the label, on the back, in the corner, is a small little statement “imported from Canada”. I should note, however, that not all of Whistlepig is sourced from Alberta - some of their recent rye bottlings are sourced elsewhere in the States.

Dave Pickerell, the former master distiller at Maker’s Mark, a well known whisky consultant who has a love for rye, is at the helm of the Whistlepig operation – and this product has been a huge success. The hope of the Whistlepig farm (in Vermont) is to do a complete seed to glass process, growing their own rye, distilling it, and aging it.

This whisky is sourced from Alberta Distillers, like some other successful and excellent whiskies such as Masterson’s Rye. It is made from 100% rye, unmalted – and, as Alberta does – this likely went in the barrel just short of 80% ABV, and came out likely above 80% before dilution. This shows the quality of the stuff that goes into the blends in Canada – typically a process with a “base” whisky which provides the bulk of the body and profile, and then this is “flavoured” with a stronger, perhaps spicier, whisky such as this one. I wish, among many others, that these flavouring ryes would be released because of their incredible quality…but sadly most of them are not - though we are starting to see more of them these days.


Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2013

Nose: Oak, and rye – simple, and beautiful – strong off the nose, with some wonderful earthiness too. Caramel, orange, a bit of arugula…a very similar style to masterson’s. Lots going on – vanilla starts to emerge, with some canola oil, tabacco, caramel, mint chocolate, star anise, a touch of smoke, and butterscotch – quite a wonderful and wide array of buttery and caramel notes. A bit of fruit, but it’s not overly fruity – cherry notes are present. A few odd notes start to come out with time, which I don’t like much – reminding me of ketchup chips (quite unlike anything else I’ve nosed). But, overall, quite good.

Taste: Fairly sweet, with a sharp arugula-laced rye body (the arugula is interesting – I find it strongly here, in Masterson’s, and in the Collingwood 21 Year old – all 100% ryes). There is a nice oaky underlying spice explosion (white pepper and cinnamon)- this is very, very enjoyable, and oak takes over towards the end. There is vanilla, too, wonderfully balanced in the palate. And, with all that, there are some nice, bright, floral notes hinting of lilac.

Finish: Marmelade, caramel, black currant jam, cinnamon, and a bit of dry oak….and our arugula. It grows as you drink more, with more spice (cayenne pepper, clove) and more fruit (I find green apple comes out)…and then woody notes like cedar start to appear. Very good body, spiciness, and sweetness.

To be honest, it’s surprising to me how much it reminded me of Masterson’s – they are both independently bottled from the same recipe and age of the same distillery. Whistlepig, though, is less intense – a bit woodier, and, perhaps darker – but less spicy, sharp, and refined with a bit less complexity and development.

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

Value: Average, at $70 CAD.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: A/354

  • Bottling Code: 20220317

  • Bottling Date: 2022

A few things have changed since the last time we checked this one in – while it used to be 100% unmalted barley from Alberta, it is now a blend of straight rye whiskeys. The nose is fruity, rich, and broad – capturing both the spicy, herbal, and rich rye to the big fruity characteristics that you can find in rye.  It isn’t as intense as it used to be and is a bit diluted compared to the previous version – however, it is still very nice and well-balanced. The spice/medicinal/herbal components are not as intense and I find it slightly less appealing as you don’t have the same intensity of rye at the forefront – it is somewhat diluted by corn. A nice, interesting whisky – but I like the younger, 100% rye piggyback over this version – that is an intense and fascinating whisky.

However, this might be more up the American rye-drinker style which still has corn as a significant player compared to the Canadian flavouring ryes which hold all the intensity of rye – which, if you’ve read a handful of my notes – is right in line with my favourite category of Canadian whisky.

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

Value: Lower at $100.


Review: Forty Creek Art of the Blend Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Blend of barley, corn, and rye whiskies infused with grapes
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

This is the 2022 limited edition whisky from Forty Creek. Very little is actually communicated about the blend, other than that it is made with whisky “infused with grapes harvested in the darkest hours of winter from the Niagara region.“ I assume that means icewine grapes macerated in whisky, rather than maturation in an icewine barrel. I suppose this moves them closer to their “Niagara” rebranding recently. Other than that, not a lot is said about how this is made - though I assume it is blended with the typical corn/rye/barley whiskies of Forty Creek.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: Special Release 16

  • Bottling Code: N.A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

The nose is very nutty, with roasted hazlenuts, mixed roasted nuts, cinnamon, toasted oak, vanilla, and a very interesting grape-quality much like grape skins. Citrus peel, milk chocolate, cloves, fuzzy peaches, wet wood, light earthiness – a bit all over the place. Some younger, oily spirits underneath too that have their charm but don’t fully fit here.

The palate is nutty, oaky, and spicy – very flavourful. It has sweet citrus and the nutty/citrus/vanilla reminds me of some flavoured whisky styles that I’ve judged – granted, without the sweetness. The finish is tannic and light.

I loved the 2021 release, Master’s Cut, which was a hearkening back to the early days of the special releases which set the bar for Canadian whisky. This release goes back to the style that we’ve seen for most of the last decade, which I haven’t been a big fan of – while being complex and flavourful, it hasn’t been clean or mature in character, rather it’s been young, a bit raw, and dominated by finishes and additions.

I love Forty Creek, and barrel select remains one of the best buys in Canadian whisky. But, I do wish their special releases would get back to setting the bar.

Value: low at $90.


Review: Bearface Canadian Whisky Wilderness Series - Matsutake by Jason Hambrey

A bottle of bearface beside one of the many shipping containers used to age bearface whisky in various locations. Image courtesy of Bearface Spirits.

ABV
42.5%
Aging
Red wine cask, sherry cask, matsutake mushroom cask
Recipe
N/A
Producer Bearface (British Columbia)

Bearface is one of the most interesting brands in Canada to follow – in large part because of their innovative and interesting outlook. It’s impossible to resist trying Bearface if you ever get to hear Andres Faustinelli break down one of his whiskies, component by component, then build it up again and show you how it works together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Andres went on a hike with some foragers and found some wild Matsutake mushrooms that had a depth of flavour that would integrate very well into whisky. This sort of pairing fits firmly within the bearface ethos: “Bearface has always been associated with being outside - for me, I enjoy whisky outside anyway. Incorporating the outdoors in ageing and crafting a whisky showcases that you can give a footprint of time and place to a whisky.”

Andres went back to central BC with a foraging team and collected close to 100 kilos to use in the whisky. After inspection and cleaning, the fresh mushrooms were put entirely inside a “teabag” in a cask of mature whisky. After a month and a half, the whisky had a very unexpected and interesting savoury funky component. As Andres remarks, “Think about a martini without the olive. You need that savoury, salty component. That’s how the mushrooms work for us here.”

Of course, blending played a big role in integrating the mushroom component into the whisky. The whisky is blended from amontillado sherry, cream sherry, pedro-ximinez sherry, and some unique casks that still had grape skins from winemaking inside them that give a strong wine-forward character. The emphasis on sherry is very intentional – it helps balance the dried fruit character of bearface whisky with the earthy, cinnamon-like character of the mushroom by building in hazelnut and nutmeg. After all that, it's hard to at least not want to try it, eh?

This one has almost sold out by now, but Bearface has more planned for the wilderness series in 2023.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: 01 Matsutake

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

The nose has matchboxes, fresh oak, woody forest notes, bright corn notes, blueberry, and white pepper. The palate is fruity and comes in with spice, oak, and dried fruit before finishing in a mixture of dried fruit – and it is here that the mushroom really comes out with a very appealing woodiness and savoury character. The finish is full of caramel, vanilla, and herbal, woody, notes – indeed, “forest” is not a bad descriptor. I find this one to have more depth and intrigue than previous Bearface releases.

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

Value: Average against the market at $50.


Review: North of 7 Single Malt Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
5 Years; Ex-Four Grain North of 7 cask
Recipe
100% Malted Barley
Distiller North Of 7 (Ottawa, Ontario)

It has been a pleasure of mine to follow this particular cask of single malt now for 3 years. I tasted it when it was just over 3 years of age in 2020, again at 4 years of age in 2021, and now at 5 years of age. This is North of 7’s first barrel of single malt, matured in an ex-four grain barrel (indeed, matured in their first cask of mature whisky, a four-grain cask 1).

While still young for a single malt, it has changed in some very dynamic ways over the years – being very bright and unbalanced at first, to still having sharp pear and an oily character with some dried fruit emerging, to this year – still fruity and bright, but with a much richer and more integrated cask character with more vanilla, oak, and nutty and roasty grain notes (from the cask). It’s odd since the cask character seemed to have come out more in the past year than the previous – not that it wasn’t present before, but it is further to the forefront.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: Barrel 48

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

Very fruity and bright, with green pear, blackberry candy, white pepper, cinnamon, prune, fresh hay, and earth. The character of the four grain is definitely present with roasted grain notes and a nice touch of nuttiness. The oak is present but quite subdued. On the palate, it is quite viscous in body (very nice) with vanilla, a sharp thread of clove, blackberry candy drops, hay, fresh apples that have peachy tones to them (like pizzaz or, less so, royal gala), and with a flourish of fresh peach, pear, and white pepper leading on the finish. It has some decent grip and character to it – and it’s very interesting – big, but not dominating, cask character, very bright (almost piercing) fruit – berries and orchard, and yet a fairly narrow but focused array of spices. A pretty good effort for a first single malt from North of 7!

The character is fairly fruity and grassy, so, while still firmly in the single malts class, it’s a style that isn’t as prominent in Scotch single malt as other styles.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). This will continue to improve with age, but it’s still fairly unique – and very interesting in terms of different flavours juxtaposed, while not clashing.

Value: Low at $60, especially when you compare to the four and three grains that sit at the same price and are at a different level of maturity (even if younger). Pretty high value for a craft/micro distilled single malt, though.


Review: North of 7 Three Grain Canadian Whisky ("Trad") by Jason Hambrey

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

ABV
45%
Aging
~5 Years; Virgin Charred Oak
Recipe
70% Corn, 25% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
Distiller North Of 7 (Ottawa, Ontario)

This whisky was filled into a barrel at 57% in March 2015, and bottled in November 2020, so about 5.7 years of age. I was able to taste it at cask strength in November as part of a private barrel selection, and it was my second favourite barrel of the ten we tasted so I’ve been waiting for it to come out.

Unlike most of North of 7 virgin oak casks, which are heavily toasted and lightly charred, this one is heavily charred which lines it up closely by recipe and by cask to the most popular bourbon brands.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Barrel 14

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

Quite different in profile to North of 7s other products, but still very rich in both oak and grain character. Caramel, corn husks, baking spice, oaky astringency (slight), dill, stewed peaches, vanilla, coconut, charred oak, fennel seed, dried hibiscus, lemon peel, and some lilac. The palate follows, starting out with loads of rye flavour before some rich corn character, breadiness, and milk chocolate emerge in the middle and the finish is full of spices – baking spices, dried chilli, milk chocolate, dried apricot. The chilli is great. Very nice finish.

Definitely mature whisky, this – reminiscent of some rye-heavy bourbons like four roses single barrel, but altogether different with a sharper oak character and not as much corn coming through.

I tasted it a few months ago and it’s come along further since then. To my recollection, this is only the second “trad” that they’ve released but the recipe shows a lot of potential. I’ll be looking forward to the later barrels.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: high at $60


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 28 (58.5%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This was the barrel selection from 2021 for me and a number of friends, from a selection of 6 casks. This one went into the barrel at 52.8% in January of 2016 and came out at 58.5% in October of 2021 (close to 6 years old). We loved it when we tasted it.

It has a rich, oaky nose. It ticks all the boxes - caramel, toasted baking spices, toasted fennel seed, dried apricot, dried peach, buttery caramel, and clove. A touch of dill too. Thick on the palate, with lots of spice. Good fruitiness and spice, and very well balanced. The finish is spicy, full of corn, and baking spice. The spices are surprising on the finish. It is very pleasant at around 45%, but this is just wonderful at cask strength.

Critically, it isn’t as good as cask 16 (our four grain pick from last year from the distillery) but I find it’s way easier to drink, in a way where I will rarely reach for 16 if it beside 28. Critically better doesn’t always mean more crave-worthy. Just awesome stuff. The closest big comparator I have is some of the “OB”, high rye recipes from Four Roses, but it’s still quite a bit different.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High at $70.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 21 (51.5%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This one was bottled at a slightly higher ABV than the normal 45% because the distillery ran out of bottles to do them all at 45%!

There are lots of nice earthy notes – oak, and think of a creek on a warm fall day – but still spicy with clove, cinnamon, cacao, brown cardamom, and other interesting (and good) notes – pencil shavings, rich sundried tomatoes, fresh apricot, and black pepper. The palate is softer than the nose, with lots of toasted oak notes which combine very nice with the roasted grain notes. The finish is spicy, with lots of toasted oak, roasted grain, and some more apricot. A very nice expression!

I do like these bottles at a slightly higher proof. Excellent stuff, as usual.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High at $60.