Highwood

Review: Great Plains 18 Year Old Jerez Brandy Finish by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Great Plains Craft Spirits.

Image courtesy of Great Plains Craft Spirits.

ABV
54.5%
Aging
19 Years
Recipe
91.5% Corn, 8.5% Rye
Distiller Highwood (High River, Alberta)

I am quite fond of old Canadian corn whisky. However, at times, despite the complexity, it can fall into a somewhat narrow style. A few years ago, I gave some feedback to a brand that they might want to consider finishing the whisky, just to touch up the flavor a bit - but not take it over. Well, Great Plains is starting to do that! The corn whisky here was distilled in 2000, and, despite the 18 year old age statement, was over 19 years of age when put into the bottle since its finishing time stretched from 12 to 15 between the time that the labels were made and the whisky was actually bottled.

Great Plains started with the idea of putting forward something that (almost all) the big producers weren’t doing, namely, taking old Canadian whisky, adding a bit of “snap” with some younger rye whisky, and then finishing it effectively. The finishing casks selected were inspired by a trip through Europe, where tasty eau de vies and brandies are produced in just about every neck of the woods. The other important step for Great Plains was getting past the nearly-ubiquitous 40% ABV of Canadian whisky by amping up the flavor with an appropriate bottling strength. For this release, they narrowed in on 54.5%. Mike Gordon, who oversees production, finds that these whiskies are sensitive “even to half a percent”. My experience concurs, especially for the old corn whisky out of Alberta which sometimes exits the barrel above 85%.

Great Plains has imported a few brandy casks - Jerez Brandy casks, Cognac Casks, and an Armagnac Cask. They were all imported whole. The brandy casks used for this product came from Bodegas Osborne in Jerez, Spain, where they held brandy for somewhere between 15 and 20 years. The cognac casks, were about 25 years old and were filled with the same 17 year old base as this product. The finishing process is still underway as the cognac notes are taking more time to gain appropriate weight and balance And, there is an Armagnac finish lined up, which started with a 32 year old base whisky and may be released at 35 years.

Exciting stuff!! The whisky, notably, won a gold model at the Canadian whisky awards - an accolade that I find is generally synonymous with the best products available in Canadian whisky, as well as the “Best New Whisky” at this year’s awards which included well over 100 Canadian whiskies.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Bond date – 09 01 2000

    Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2019

The nose and palate have burnt match, old whisky notes, light oak, and a great ethereal quality. I always like this style, there is so much here – deep oak, dried fruit, parmesan, raisin, grape soda, vanilla, stewed prunes, a touch of rancio and some mixed fruit preserves – marmelade, blackberry, and red currant – with a good dose of tannin. A really nice balance of fruit here – the rancio and dark fruit builds the more you have of this (that is, there is a difference between a full dram and half a dram here). The finish, particularly, has a decent dose of tannins -drying, with dried fruits slowly unfolding and held together by somewhat sticky vanilla. At the end, it’s almost more of a light brandy finish than a whisky one.

Nice, old Canadian whisky. Even with the rye, and the brandy finish, the old corn isn’t lost. Well done, especially for a first release. It opens well with water, and I find I generally prefer these light old Canadians watered down a bit - but not this one. Interestingly, I find the brandy notes shine at the bottle strength and the whisky notes at lower ABV. So, I suppose Mike was right in saying that there is an appropriate ABV down to the "half percent"!

Very Highly Recommended (19% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).
Value:
Average, from a pure taste perspective against the market – this is what I hope to find if I spend $120.But, when we look at this age and cask provenance - great value.


The Best Canadian Cream Whiskies by Jason Hambrey

Ceili’s photo courtesy of Highwood Distillers. Forty Creek Cream Photo courtesy of Forty Creek Distillery.

Part of my duty as a judge of the Canadian Whisky Awards is to judge flavored whiskies, which I don’t love - but I do genuinely enjoy the cream whiskies that come as a part of the group. Here are a few of my favourite Canadian cream whiskies. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as prominent (and delicious) as Bailey’s is – there are better options available in the Canadian market.

Ceili’s Signature Irish Cream

This is produced by highwood distillers, and is my favourite Canadian cream liquer. It is simple, but it does perfectly what it should – provide a thick, creamy product with a delicious centre that is enjoyable. It’s made with Canadian whisky and imported Irish cream, which is know for being floral and rich compared to other creams due to the diet of Irish dairy cows. Last year, it was the Canadian whisky of the year in the flavored category – it has won other awards as well. It is creamy, and nutty with pecans, praline, milk chocolate, brown sugar, and toffee. It has a wonderful creamy centre surrounded by caramel – a terrific sipper over ice or companion to hot chocolate or coffee. It entered 2 of the last 3 Canadian Whisky Awards, and each time was my favorite.

Forty Creek Cream

This was introduced a few years ago and is the most complex of the Canadian cream whiskies, and a very good sipper and mixer. It took home the 2017, 2015 and 2014 canadian flavoured whisky of the year. However, the complexity makes it a little less versatile because of the nutty, caramel, and coffee characteristics that can loom large. It is creamy and nutty, with Ferrero rocher, hazelnut skins, milk chocolate, and slight baking spice. It actually displays a flash of Forty Creek brilliance, which I quite like.

Gretzky cream

This is made with Gretzky No. 99 Whisky and fresh ontario cream. Nutty (hazlenuts), very creamy – with a rich rising cream coming through towards the finish. A clean, smooth finish full of cream and light wood spice.It has a terrific dairy characteristic at its core that you don’t always see in cream whiskies. The finish is smooth, sweet, creamy, and a bit spicy.

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

ABV
45%
Aging
20 yrs
Recipe
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.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very High. A balanced, elegant 20 year old whisky bottled at 45% and under $50? That is some great value.


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.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very High. A balanced, elegant 20 year old whisky bottled at 45% and under $50? That is some great value.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Oily and oaky, with beeswax, almond, coconut, clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, maple, hazlenuts, loads of subtle notes, and light oaky bitterness. The palate combines both all the subtle, soft notes of the nose with interesting grape notes, raisins, and port (I’m picking up notes of port-like fruit and rancio – interesting!). Soft, developing, and complex.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very High. A balanced, elegant 20 year old whisky bottled at 45% and under $50? That is some great value.


Review: Highwood Rye Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Rye and Wheat
Distiller Highwood (High River, Alberta)

This whisky is distilled from rye and wheat, and is the flagship whisky for Highwood - though it is not available in Ontario. The grains are distilled and aged separately, with wheat as the base, before being blended - in a typical Canadian style. According to Chip Dykstra, the whisky is about 5 years old.


Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 5114 07:26

  • Bottling Date: 2015

Sour, with some dry rye spice, flambeed bananas, orange peel, and some rich vanilla laden grain in the background with some mixed fruit drop notes. Grape and white raisin come in on the palate, slowly fading to light rye spice. The spice lingers for some time, with a bit of a cleansing and enduring, and lightly fruity finish with some canned peaches. Alongside being an enjoyable sipper, that rich grain in the background is the sort of thing that would turn this into a very nice mixer. The wheat, as often, brings in some quite bright candy fruit to the mix.

Score: 81/100

Value: 75/100 (based on $26)


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Coconut, peaches, orange peel, pine needles, vanilla, clove, and vanilla lead into a light palate with a bit of coconut, more pine needles, and dried orange peel. The whisky finishes with spices (clove and cumin), light oak, and orange peel. Young, but complex and quite enjoyable. Terrific mixer.

Value: Average. Not a fantastic whisky, but it’s simple and quite decent - and cheap (~25$).


Review: Century Reserve Rare Cask 30 Year Old Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Century Reserve 30.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
30 years
Recipe
100% Corn
Producer Highwood (High River, Alberta)

Now here is a whisky for you - a 30 year old single cask, 100% corn whisky distilled in 1988 and bottled for BC liquor stores. There is growing traction now for old Canadian corn whiskies, which are full of complex subtlety - though not all love the style. Production wise, it’s similar to an old Scottish grain whisky (or Japanese). However, I find, for the style, the Canadians to be better - though they are limited - we’ve really only seen these from Highwood (Ninety 20, Century Reserve 17, 21, 35) and Hiram Walker (Canadian Club 40, Wiser’s 35 - though Wiser’s 35 has younger rye blended in).

Also, only $150…but only available in BC.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: Distilled 1988, Bottled 2018

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Yes! What a rich, nice, easy nose. The age shows through incredibly – loads of light coconut, sunflower oil, beeswax – it is the best of old Canadian corn whisky. Very elegant. The best thing about the style is it seems to keep getting better with age and doesn’t usually over-oak…awesome!

It’s in the same class as whiskies like Canadian Rockies 21, it isn’t even worth writing additional notes to the above. If you want to see similar flavours, take a look at my review for that. It’s perhaps a bit richer, this stuff - awesome.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average. Terrific whisky, but $150 isn’t cheap. Nonetheless, it’s about average value for what I’d want to pay $150 for.