Northern Border Collection

Review: Pike Creek 21 Year Old Double Barrel Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Pike Creek 21 Oloroso 3.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
21 Years; Finished in Various Barrels
Recipe
Double Distilled Corn Whisky & Rye Whisky
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

This is part of the very impressive “Rare Range” (previously Northern Border) collection, and, in the "Pike Creek" tradition which highlights the impact of finishing. In 2017, the release was finished in a scotch cask sourced through a chivas regal connection (both Pernod Ricard). They also sent over some lot no. 40 casks, for their finishing purposes - so if you see a "rye finish" somewhere in the chivas family/distillery set, it's a good chance it's lot no. 40.

In 2018, the whisky was finished in a variety of different oaks. About 50% of this blend was finished in French oak - both Quercas Robor and Quercas Petrea, about 25% of the blend was finished in Hungarian oak from the danube forest region (seasoned for 36 months), while the remainder was American oak. Each type of oak has a different set of characteristics, and the flavour compounds vary significantly - for example, in one sample of wood, vanillin was the highest in French oak, 20% less in American oak, and 35% less in Hungarian oak. Similar analysis can be done for other flavours - almond, smoky notes, etc. The finishing regime here highlights the breadth of oak, and, the best part is that it still isn’t too oaky.

In 2019, now, they’ve used a cask often used in whisky - but not often at Hiram Walker distillery - an Oloroso Sherry cask, bringing in classic sherry notes of dried fruit, rancio, spice, and some caramel to the old spirit.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: 2017 (Finished in a Speyside Malt Cask)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

It smells old! And, indeed, it is. A rich nose, that just develops. Not really the same thing at all as it’s younger brother, the 10 year old pike creek finished in rum casks – the brand is about finishing, not about necessarily having the same profile (as when they switched from port to rum casks, but kept the brand the same). Not nearly with the same buttery, brown sugar notes of the rum finish. In fact, though they’re part of the same brand, I wouldn’t really compare them at all.

The whisky is largely double distilled corn whisky matured in reused casks...e.g., what is in Wiser’s 18 Year old, but a bit older and finished in a Speyside malt cask (take a guess... a Speyside from Pernod Ricard – Wiser’s also sent over some Lot no. 40 casks for them to use in finishing, though I haven’t seen the result of this yet). However, there’s also a bit of rye added in this time too. But, from the nose to the finish, a different whisky than the 10 year old.

The nose has rich blueberry, mushy peas, green apple, white grape, corn oil, and some old oak. Maple, toffee, candied nuts. The palate is very clean – light grain, celery seed, prune, with a finish that is slightly dry and spicy – an ever so light touch of either earthy barley or peat. Nice mouthfeel. Ever so lightly bitter on the finish – as I have found with most Pike Creeks, in fact. The finish, though, is still bright and fruity – mulberries, spices, and dried fruit (raisins, apricot). Finish isn’t very long, but is nice and grainy while it sticks around. A very nice whisky – those old age notes present in this whisky are continuing to attract me, and this blows the other pike creeks out of the park.

An interesting pour beside Wiser’s 18. Much lighter, more elegant, refined, and less spicy. But, better...Don Livermore, the master blender, said if he were to have two whiskies to sip from the Northern Border collection, he’d have Gooderham Little Trinity and Pike Creek 21. Interesting.

Terrific whisky. Fun to see Canadian whisky stepping up its game.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: 2018 Rare Range (Finished in European Oak Casks)

  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L18235EW1202

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Oaky, through and through – and it’s nice. But it’s not the bourbon sort of oaky, where it’s loaded with new wood. Also not the Scottish “too oaky” – it has a huge kick of oak, complex, but it still sits lightly above a fairly vibrant, aged corn whisky underneath. It’s very nice – there are nice grain notes lurking underneath, and rich spices – green cardamom, nutmeg, clove. If you like oak, but in a broad sense (i.e. not just heavily caramelized oak) you’ll love this.

The palate has dried fruits, light spice, and some jujube-like fruitiness at the centre – but oak sits overtop everything – like a freshly sawn pile of oak. Earthiness finds its way into the centre of the palate before tannins take over and we are left with light, sweet corn, spice, and white grape. Honey, too – and sweetness opposes the light oak quite nicely.

The finish has a rich, dried flurry of spice – a mixed old bag of baking spice (clove, white pepper, nutmeg, green cardamom) and a kick of dried fruit that slowly unpacks itself alongside some toasted almond.

Natural comparators are last year’s Pike Creek, or this year’s Seasoned Oak – a 19 year old whisky finished in seasoned oak. At a very basic level, this is more oaky, the seasoned oak is much more fruity and seems to have more influence from vibrant rye, and last year’s Pike Creek 21 has light barley overtones like Scotch (as one might expect) – think applesauce and green apple.

I like this a lot more than last year’s release (which was also great). Highly recommended. Also, I prefer the seasoned oak release, which is in a similar category (old finished corn whisky) but quite different.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 2019 Rare Range (Finished in Oloroso Sherry Casks)

  • Bottling Code: L19232EW1342

  • Bottling Date: 2019

This is finished in Oloroso sherry casks, and there are only 4481 bottles produced.

It definitely as a reddish hue from the sherry. No more twine on this bottle – I guess we are headed for a more elegant look.

Rich, woody, old age whisky aromas with a very pleasant fruitiness from the sherry. I was a little worried that the whisky would be too strongly influenced by sherry – not so! It’s quite well integrated. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised – old, light corn whisky would just get choked completely out by big sherry.  We have the usual, ethereal notes – but now lots more fruit and sherry-caramel: vanilla, light rum, apple seeds, and a really nice oaky earthiness – I guess a bit like decomposing, wet, wood that crumbles in your hand.

The palate is big and woody, with a load of dried fruit coming in near the mid-palate, followed by freshly cut wood and finally some oxidized wine notes. Largely the notes are as expected, but I find the texture is interesting - it’s quite woody with a good dose of structure from the tannins, but it also has a syrupy sweetness from the sherry. The finish is oaky, slightly tannic, with rich caramel-like sherry and some oxidized wine notes. Nicely done! With time, the wood dies out and the sherry remains – and it’s very nice. Tingly tannins keep you reaching for more, which I always like (until the bottle is done!).

Quite a nice effort. I find I prefer it without added water, which just brings out the woodiness even more – but a drop or two to bring it to 43% works well. I don’t know if sherry is the perfect match for the spirit – but it’s just about exactly what I want from a special release – a variation on the theme of Pike Creek while doing something different that pushes the boundaries a little. That being said, it’s a very good match nonetheless and I quite like what it does to the spirit. I’d love to see a first-fill ex-bourbon finish one of these days, but perhaps that would be too sweet.

It took me a few times to nail this review and decide what I thought - which isn’t typical, and is always a good thing – because I feel I need multiple assessments to actually cover the range of what is in the glass.

 I quite liked what they did last year with the various oaks, and I thought that release was brilliant and very interesting. This, obviously, is less wood-focused and has a very different focus, and may appeal to nostalgic scotch drinkers very well. My favourite Pike Creek to date, and my favourite of the Rare Range/Northern Border Collection this year.

Very Highly Recommended (19% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High. $90 for 21 years of age, well crafted, and complex? Yes please.

Curious about another review? Check out Mark Bylok’s review on Whisky.Buzz.


Review: Gooderham & Worts 49 Wellington 19 Year Old Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Gooderham & Worts 49 Wellington (2).jpg
ABV
49%
Aging
Various Casks
Recipe
Wheat, Rye, Barley & Corn, Whiskies
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

Now here is something unique - a blend to honour the original HQ of Gooderham & Worts at 49 Wellington st. in Toronto - made with a blend of various whiskies including some matured in red oak! This is something that isn’t often seen, and it’s the first bottling I’ve tasted using red oak. When I was at Hiram Walker a few years back, I got to taste some whisky made out of red oak casks (they didn’t leak, surprisingly!) - it was quite unique and I remember thinking it had a brown rice characteristic which was a bit unique.

But, enough about just the red oak - this stuff is 19 years old and a blend of 4 different grains with a bit of focus on wheat. However, wheat is still one of the “small grains” here, with corn being dominant.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 49 Wellington (2019 Rare Range)

  • Bottling Code: L19225EW1326

  • Bottling Date: 2019

The nose is very rich – sweet caramels, a grain character, biscuits, shortbread, oat cookies, and a bit of brown rice. I actually find the nose difficult a bit elusive, in part because it’s relatively light -  but it’s clear that there is lots there as in previous years and it does open up in the glass. I tackled this in multiple glasses and multiple tastings.  Sweet biscuits, whole wheat noodles, vanilla, clove, baking spices, pine, macadamia nuts, cream of wheat, apple, oak, light earth, maple (it really grows with time), and a nice savouriness. Cleaner and more refined than last year’s excellent Eleven Souls.

The palate is very rich and viscous with a light thread of spice and tannin for a good bit of structure. There is creamy butter icing, light oak, dried apricots, plums, orange zest, and a nice wheat finish which is incredibly soft and delicate. Quite grain forward, but very elegant and subtle. Lots of maple, once again.

Black tea notes, macadamia nuts, and dried fruit notes come out in the finish alongside toasted oak notes and some apple seeds. A very pleasant tingle, too.

Is it perhaps too easy to drink? This is so clean and simple at first glance that one might forget to look under the hood and see everything that is there.

I like this more than the first Gooderham northern border release, but it’s a toss up as to whether I like it more than the eleven souls (as with many whiskies, it’s a mood thing).

Very Highly Recommended (19% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). Very nice stuff.

Value: Average. But if you’re anything like me, you’re curious about what red oak does to a whisky and that’s pretty rare…

Curious about a second opinion? Check out Mark’s review at whisky.buzz.


Northern Border Collection 2019: Corby’s Rare Range is Inspired by Consumers by Jason Hambrey

Northern Border Collection.jpg

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!

Review: J.P. Wiser's 35 Year Old Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Wiser's 35.jpg
ABV
50%
Aging
35 Years; Refill and Virgin Oak Casks
Recipe
Double Distilled Corn and Rye Whiskies
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

The oldest release of Wiser's ever - in fact lots of old Canadian whisky is now coming on the market, quite affordably. This is largely double distilled corn whisky - distilled to a high abv, with a relatively light flavor - which would be an example of a "base" whisky used for blending - except that this is aged for a long time in a reused cask. At the distillery, it is very impressive - mature whisky is sucked right out of the casks from the top of the barrel after which point the barrels move about a metre and are filled with new whiskies, sitting empty for a matter of seconds. But, this light corn whisky picks up flavor as it ages years upon years in the cask, and becomes something rich and delicious. If you've had Wiser's 18, it has many of those characteristics, except - it is much older, richer, and contains about 10% column and pot distilled rye (matured in virgin oak casks) to give it incredible character.

This is part of the 2017 Northern Border Collection, originally released at the Victoria Whisky Festival. It is an annual release, and they have some great plans for next year.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

The nose here is glorious – light oak, old rye, black tea, raosted root tea, arugula, blueberry, rich old corn whisky, slate, tobacco, molasses, tofee, burning oak, boiled tomato, amber beer, and even complex underlying vegetal notes reminding me of roasting agave. One of the best noses I have had the pleasure of enjoying – marvelously complex, balanced, and interesting. The palate is full of flavor, starting with old, brilliant corn whisky before the rye in all its brilliance creeps in – floral, with lilacs, aged tea notes, and spices – clove, cinnamon, fiery arugula, and also oak bringing with it light tannins and smoky notes. The finish is full, rich, and encompassing – with luxurious blueberry, green apple, tea, roasted fennel seed, and clove. Ever so lightly, and pleasantly bitter.

Corby’s and Canadian Club have a bit of a bitter history over who got the distillery, and, likewise, two of the best Canadian whiskies ever released – Wiser’s 35 and Canadian Club 40, overshadowing the Wiser’s in age, have been released – and they are both of them marvelous whiskies. Wow. I do love the rye in here, and I find it more interesting – but perhaps less luscious than the equally terrific Canadian Club 40.

Exceptional (3% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation). One of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted, probably in my top 3.

Value: Very High. For such a good whisky to be in the realm of $165 CAD means it’s a great buy, but at the price, the quality needs to remain top-notch.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: 2018

  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L18205 EW12:47

  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose has lots of stone fruit – peaches, apricot, flavorful plums – but also green apple. There is a brilliant thread of spice in the background – star anise, clove, and freshly cracked black pepper (with all the cedary implications). It’s quite creamy, too! And, interesting – it has a nice, subtle grassiness to it – like a freshly cut lawn, in the spring, when it’s wet – not dry like in the fall. Lest we not forget grain, there’s also lots of notes of high-quality multigrain cheese crackers. The stone fruit is really well done here – it is less “quirky” than last year and fits more into the generic style of a top-of-the-line whisky (no slight against last year’s fantastic release). Great nose.

The palate carries through with all of the expected fruit, but leading in a bit with that earthy, funky rye which adds a terrific layer of complexity. There’s almost a smokiness to it – it is immensely complex. The fruit is great – it’s a rich, intense, dried fruit characteristic – most like dried peaches. Oolong tea, too.

The finish is fruity (dried peaches), lightly oaky, and carries a terrific thread of earthiness and intense floral characteristic. The rye has a great vegetal characteristic – spinach, kale, and arugula…nice.

Doesn’t have the rye-forward complexity of the previous years release, which had lots of earthiness – I found it quite fascinating. This is more on the fruit, and it’s a little more typical in profile. While I find it a bit less intriguing, it is easier to drink, and I keep reaching for another – moreso than last year’s release.

Another stunning whisky.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I review to date get this recommendation or higher). This is still a fantastic release - absolutely stunning.

Value: Average. The whisky is stunning, but the price jumped up to $200 and we’re getting into a dangerous zone value-wise. However, for a great whisky that’s 35 years old, there is still some value here.


Review: Gooderham & Worts Eleven Souls Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Gooderham & Worts 11 Souls 2.jpg
ABV
49%
Aging
Various Casks
Recipe
Wheat, Rye, Barley & Corn, Whiskies
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

I always enjoy these - this is one of three whiskies in Corby’s limited annual releases in their Rare Range, all premium versions of the standard (and excellent) Lot no. 40, Pike Creek, and Gooderham & Worts. We have Lot no. 40 Cask Strength, focused on pot distilled rye, Pike Creek 21 Year old, focused on barrel finishing, and this - focused on blending. The setup really works. Last year we had a 17 year old wheat, rye, and corn whisky - it was unique and very good.

This whisky is named after the 11 orphans that William Gooderham adopted on his way to Canada - as a tribute, this whisky was blended from 11 spirit types. This is incredibly impressive to blend together such a wide array of flavours into something so cohesive. The blend is composed of:

  • Grains: Brasetto Rye (a very flavorful type of rye that has been in recent production at Hiram Walker), Rye, Rye Malt, Red winter wheat, Barley, Barley Malt, Corn

  • Distillation regimes: column still, double column, still, pot still

  • Woods: Ex-bourbon and new oak

It was bottled at 49% in honour of the address of the old gooderham & worts distillery, 49 Wellington.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: Eleven Souls (2018 Rare Range)

  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L18213EW131

  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose is gorgeous. Coconut, oak, beeswax, old corn whisky, sharp baking spices, dried apricot, prunes, uncooked wild rice, semi-dried tomatoes, and light confectionary elements – evolving slowly. Light lilac too – very nice. Adding water opens it up, but it is perfect at 49%. There is a great richness – a great “middle” - to the nose. It certainly demands extra study from my nose – it draws you in beautifully. And it shows a bit of a different side each time you take a look at it.

The palate is rich, varied, and complex – from rich, oily to spicy (cinnamon and clove) to oaky to fruit (mixed dried fruit). The mouthfeel is fantastic – very viscous – and there’s a gradual development from grain notes to fruit notes to sweet, vanilla notes and finally to spice. It tells the story in a measured way, and the core is simple, but the fringes are complex. And the movement in the mouth is amazing – smooth and viscous to slightly drying and still richly mouthcoating, and then the dry-ness fades and then picks up again. Excellent.

The finish is clean and very moreish. Slightly fatty/creamy – it leaves a very pleasant coating of grain and oak on the palate. Lots of creamy grain, baking spices, stone fruit, and dried fruit.

I described more the textures and impacts of the whisky, as opposed to just tasting notes (I could do this too) – because this is the unique and special part about this whisky. It speaks to the quality of the whisky that I can do such a thing. It also has an array of flavours – grain, wood, fruit, spice, candy, floral, and some umami - but my list will make this review a bit long.

Very different than last year’s release, which was a bit narrower and with a very different set of flavours. More oak centred, more biscuit-like, fruity in more of a winey sense, and not as broad, integrated, or complex (though still a fine whisky).

My favourite of the “Rare Range” releases this year.

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

Value: Very high. $100 is not cheap, but this is a terrific whisky for that price!


Review: Gooderham & Worts 17 Year Old Little Trinity Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Gooderham & Worts 17.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
17 Years
Recipe
Wheat, Rye, & Corn, Whiskies
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

This whisky is named after Little Trinity church in Toronto, which William Gooderham established for his workers. It is 17 years old, and in the brand style of Gooderham & Worts, is all about the blending of different grains together - this time a three grain, rather than a four grain, blend. It's part of the impressive Northern Border collection, an annual release. Limited quantities, and a bargain price.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: 2017 NBC

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

What a nice whisky! The nose has caramel, rich corn, green apple, light rye, toffee, vanilla, cedar, oak, honey, dried apricot, cinnamon, and caraway. The palate has terrific feel – oak, menthol, cedar, oak, blueberry – but there is a growing glow of juniper and spices towards a buttery, tannic (but not bitter) finish that has lots of spice and rich grain notes. I’m surprised how much juniper there is in this! Developing, and tells a story with different notes coming out at different times.

How does it compare, though? The standard Gooderham & Worts has more rye (by taste), and it is nothing short of a fabulous blend. I love it. This is terrific – but very different. A lot more wood interaction, and so the focus shifts – old is not necessarily better. But, I rate them the same. Good, in different ways. Thrilled this is in Canada.

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

Value: Average. This is cheap ($80) for a 17 year old whisky, but I don’t quite like the taste enough to push it in a higher value category given the taste.