Saskatchewan

A Few Whiskies on the Way from Black Fox Farm, Saskatchewan by Jason Hambrey

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These days, most folks who start up a distillery have a background in brewing or distilling. However, Black Fox got an interesting start – from grain farmers John Cote and Barb Stefanyshyn-Cote. Many of the original distillers, indeed, were farmers who were able to distill grain to preserve it, make it easier to transport, and at times, make a bigger profit.

The prairies grow a lot of grain, and Saskatchewan is the heart of the prairies – indeed, there is more agricultural area in Saskatchewan than the other prairie provinces of Alberta and Manitoba combined. Based near Saskatoon, the farm distillery is taking a Canadian approach by focusing on single grain whiskies of various bases – wheat, triticale (a wheat/rye hybrid), and oat.

The whiskies, at present, are of age – about 3.4-3.6 years old each. I got sent some samples of a 100% unmalted wheat, 100% unmalted oat (toasted to help fermentability and flavour), and 100% unmalted triticale whisky each matured in new American oak as a preview – a date has not yet been set for their release. Triticale, particularly - is exciting - a hybrid of rye and wheat. The distillery had to go through a variety of different varieties until they found one which was good for flavor and fermentability. All the whiskies use a staged fermentation with multiple yeasts and are put into new oak. They are all coming along very well and they are in the group of higher quality whiskies which are currently on the market from Canadian craft distilleries and small producers. I wrote a few tasting notes below - note that these whiskies are not yet available and I will post proper reviews of the whiskies when they are ready to be released.

See a few notes on how they are progressing below:

Black Fox 100% Wheat Whisky Cask Sample

  • New American oak, filled 11/9/2015, sample drawn 4/03/2019 (3.4 yrs) 48%

The nose has charred oak, cream of wheat, red currants, orange, and a bit of black pepper. Some quite nice fruits to it – like elderberries and black currants. It is quite oaky, with an assortment of wood spices – it is a very nice woodiness. The nose isn’t raw, which is rather impressive at this age even with new oak.  The palate is lightly sweet, full of toasted oak flavours, orange, and light, sweet spice at the end along with freshly baked bread. The sweetness does well to balance out the spice and the oak – it’s lightly sweet, not too much. It has a really nice sweet wheat character to it. The finish has some more dark fruit, more oak, and spice.  The grain characteristics continue for some time, along with a bit more dried fruit.

If this whisky were to be released today, it would be in my “recommended” group.

Black Fox 100% Oat Whisky Cask Sample

  • New American oak, filled 8/22/2015, sample drawn 4/03/2019 (3.6 yrs) 48%

Again, we have some really nice grainy notes here. It smells, indeed, like oats! But there’s also some rich baking spices, a rich spicy woodiness, toasted oak, and even some more exotic wood notes like bamboo. Pear, too. Deep wood – it does a nice trick.

The palate is light, with creamy porridge, vanilla marshmallow, and a great creaminess. Vanilla and spice come in on the end, which is full of sweet creamy grain, light spices, and light charred oak. A bit more dried fruit and spice comes out on the finish. The finish has a set of notes I’d characterize as oats just starting to toast on a skillet. The finish is lightly tangy and sweet – which I quite like! Despite the new oak, the oat spirit is a worthy competitor and isn’t lost. Not as oaky or as sharp as the wheat, and a bit softer.

I recently pulled this out at a Japanese tasting and it was a hit.

If this whisky were to be released today, it would be in my “recommended” group.

Black Fox 100% Triticale Whisky cask sample

  • New American oak, filled 8/10/2015, sample drawn 4/03/2019 (3.6 yrs) 48%

Of the three samples I tried, this one takes the best to the new oak.

Quite different from the other casks. Coconut, pineapple, and a rich set of fruity rye-like spices, dried, fruit, cacao nibs, and vanilla. Lots of oak and toasted oak notes. This reminds me of rye whisky, with all the floral and spicy notes.  Nice caramel too. There is a nice grainy middle, and oaky base, and a spicy-floral intense set of top notes. Prunes, dried apricot, lilac, whole grain bread, whole mixed-grain porridge, toasted oak, and cinnamon.

The palate has a really nice spicy sharpness, lilac, clove, and a sweet grainy finish. There is a really nice set of dried fruit characteristics here which aren’t present in the other Black Fox whiskies. It has a really rich middle with quite good depth to it. The finish has dried stone fruit (prunes, peaches, apricots) but also fresh plums, peaches, and apricots – along with green pear, oak, baking spices, lilac, cream of wheat, and an Irish pot-still like green oily spiciness.

If this whisky were to be released today, it would be in my “recommended” group.

Review: Black Fox Oaked Gin by Jason Hambrey

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ABV
42%
Aging
6-8 months, American oak
Recipe
100% triticale spirit with botanicals
Distiller Black Fox (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

This aged gin is sold as a single barrel product. The gin has a bit of a bigger profile, particularly with more anise, than the other Black Fox gins - this gives it a bit more body to balance out the oak. The distillery releases about 20 casks of this per year.


Review (2019)

  • Batch:

  • Bottling Date: 2019

  • Bottling Code: N/A

The wood comes off initially – vanilla, caramel, dry white oak – but behind it we have spice, cucumber, sawdust, juniper, leather, and cinnamon. The palate has nice sharp spice, citrus, and floral characteristics embraced by sweet woody notes, vanilla, and structured with light wood tannins. Very nice! The finish has a bit more cucumber, caraway, dried floral notes, and almost a marshmallow-type wood characteristic.

For whisky enthusiasts, you might notice characteristics of a nicely toasted cask here – specifically the toasted, not charred wood characteristics. Excellent!

A very nice aged gin. It’s one that I like to sip neat. It’s good chilled – some of the complexity is lost and the woody notes come out at the core. Still quite good chilled, but I’d take this neat so as not to lost all the complexity and balance.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended.


Review: Black Fox Cucumber Gin #7 by Jason Hambrey

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ABV
42%
Aging
Not Aged
Recipe
100% Triticale Whisky with botanicals and cucumbers
Distiller Black Fox (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

Whole cucumbers are added to the gin after it is finished to macerate in flavor and colour. Once the gin is finished, the used cucumbers are used in the production of the next batch of gin. The recipe is distinct from their dry gin and aged gin, to appropriately surround the cucumber notes.


Review (2019)

  • Batch:

  • Bottling Date: 2019

  • Bottling Code: N/A

The nose is very rich in cucumber – it takes me to peeling field cucumbers. It reminds me particularly of sharp, slightly bitter cucumber peel rather than cucumber flesh. The palate is spicy, with cucumber at the centre and coriander spice surrounding it, alongside white pepper and a slight drying nature. There is a touch of cucumber peel bitterness in the palate which I actually really like. Caraway, quite brilliantly, comes out in the big finish. It’s a bit soapy – perhaps a combination of the cucumber and coriander, reminding me of some natural soap shops (not a bad thing). The cucumber on the finish is enduring.

I find the herbal notes are quite prominent, and at times too much – this sometimes smells a bit like the crisper section of my fridge when herbs have been in there a bit too long. This is not always to my liking, when sipped neat. But, chilled or in a cocktail these notes are lost and the freshness of the gin really shines through. I tested this with friends and many of them didn’t make any such association, so it might be a fairly personal preference. When chilled, the cucumber notes really come out, so it does exactly what you would want in a cocktail. This is a cocktail gin for me, not a sipping gin (as most gins are). As suggested, it works great in a gin & tonic or with ginger ale.


Review: Black Fox Dry Gin #3 by Jason Hambrey

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ABV
42%
Aging
Not Aged
Recipe
100% triticale with botanicals
Distiller Black Fox (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

This gin is the basic dry gin from Black Fox, designed as a martini gin - and it certainly works very well in a Martini (as in a honey gimlet). It is made with 15 different botanicals including Calendula flowers and rhubarb from the Black Fox farm. Also, an amazing bottle - they use the glass stoppers like Shelter Point does. The base for the spirit is Black Fox’s tasty triticale spirit which is spicy and fruity, and gives the gin good depth.


Review (2019)

  • Batch:

  • Bottling Date: 2019

  • Bottling Code: N/A

The nose is deep, with a nice contrast of flavours to it – slightly sweet, slightly floral, slightly spicy.  The bottle, also, is beautiful. Orange and rhubarb play off a slightly tangy sweetness (similar to yoghurt – this doesn’t smell like yoghurt; but the tangy/sweet characteristic is analogous to it), with a rich spice backbone that is quite woody like cloves and cinnamon. The palate is big, rich with floral notes (violet and chamomile) again contrasting woody spices. This is held together by a clean, slightly sweet spirit which isn’t lost either – quite excellent! The finish is sweet, spicy, and lightly tannic. The notes start with citrus and floral characteristics, but fade slowly to lightly grainy, woody, and sharp spice notes. Awesome!

When chilled, this retains the sweetness and the spice, which makes it for a kick-ass martini gin (as advertised). I do love the woodiness of the spices – these are not lost amidst being chilled. Similarly, in a pink gin or a gin & soda, this has a great character – so this is a premium mixer, too.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended.


Review: 100 Bushels Single Malt Rye Whisky (Sperling Silver Distillery) by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
Ex-bourbon barrels
Recipe
100% Malted Rye
Distiller Sperling Silver Distillery (Regina, Saskatchewan)

Here, another malted rye - this time a whisky - from Saskatchewan’s Sperling Silver Distillery.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Bright, fruity, and sharp – very bright. Apple, pear, beeswax, bubblegum, red twizzlers, and even some rather tropical fruit – think soursop, pineapple, and dragonfruit – and light spices. Tons of fruitiness, and it keeps evolving…the finish and palate explode with fruit, spice, and a gripping texture. Unique, and very intriguing! Very fruity. Grainy notes emerge more with time.

If you want a whisky which is more unique and displays some unique tropical fruit – I recommend. It’s very interesting. But, it’s still “not there yet” – I hope this continues to get a bit more maturity under its belt, then we might get some really interesting stuff! Fairly clean too – perhaps helped by their filtration process.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). This one presents a rather interesting mix of tropical fruit, oak, and spice. As I spent more and more time with it, I found it continually grew on me.

Value: Average, based on $60.


Review: Golden Stagg Blended Rye Spirit (Sperling Silver Distillery) by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Sperling Silver Distillery (Regina, Saskatchewan)

I haven’t had much whisky from Saskatchewan, beyond Last Mountain’s (very nice) stuff. This is a single malt rye, made from malted rye - it’s not something many small or large producers are doing these days and the character is quite different than unmalted rye - a bit more vegetal without as clean of a grain character. This is a “blended rye spirit - so I assume it is less than three years, but I know very little about it - other than the taste.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Light spice, rich rye, orange, and pine in the mix. Floral, earthy, oaky, fruity – there is a broad array of flavour here. This is loaded with juniper and light coriander - almost as if someone used a gin barrel to mature the spirit! To be a bit more cohesive – the nose has vanilla and oak combined with a light floral, spicy edge and a light roughness. The rye-like character reminds me a bit of MGP rye, in fact. The palate is light, slightly spicy – with lots of vanilla offset by light spice and slight oak tannin. And a bit of patchouli, and with slight tropical fruit character. The finish is sweet, spicy, and fruity – more on the side of berries than orchard fruit.

Quite decent, and clean, with a complexity which is quite decent – but it’s still a bit rough and young. It is also a bit sweet for my liking – I would like this a bit more if it were dryer. I like 100 bushels a bit more, I think, which has some similar characteristics.

Value: High. This is good stuff for $25!


Review: Rocking R 100% Rye Whisky (Rig Hand Distillery) by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy and copyright of Rig Hand distillery.

Image courtesy and copyright of Rig Hand distillery.

ABV
40%
Aging
3 years; ex-wheat whisky, ex-bourbon, and ex-sherry barrels
Recipe
100% Alberta Rye
Distiller Rig Hand (Nisku, AB)

Rig Hand’s first rye has come online! The whisky has the same maturation process as their single malt: 8 months in 10-gallon ex-wheat whisky barrels, 9-months in 25 gallon used bourbon barrels from Ohio, 18 months in ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky, and finished in 55-gallon used sherry casks. There are many more barrels stashed away, and the distillery is planning to increase the age of the product with time.

They also have some bourbon-style whisky on the way.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose has a nice set of floral notes, with a rich spiciness – which I quite like. Lilacs, clove, hibiscus, light oak, rose hip, and vanilla are involved. The palate is soft, full of fruit - dried and fresh, baking spice and a touch of dusty minerality as well. There are also quite nice pepper notes in this whisky. The finish is light, with light spice and floral notes, and a bit of white pepper. The tannins rise slightly at the finish.

This shows great promise, and has a very clean and refined sense of big rye. It’s one of the cleaner ryes I’ve had from a small distillery (at least of the ones which have big rye flavor). I’d love to see this with a few more years on it and at a bit higher ABV, but this is doing quite well as it is!

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

Value: Against the overall whisky market, this is in the average value camp, at $89.


Review: Diamond S Single Malt Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy and copyright of Rig Hand Distillery.

Image courtesy and copyright of Rig Hand Distillery.

ABV
45%
Aging
3 yrs; ex-wheat whisky, ex-bourbon, and ex-sherry barrels
Recipe
100% Single Malt
Distiller Rig Hand (Nisku, AB)

Rig Hand’s first single malt came of age in December of 2018, and was released to the market. The whisky is made with Rahr Malting’s 2-row malted barley, and starts in a 10-gallon ex-wheat whisky barrel for 8 months, followed by 9 months in a 25 gallon ex-bourbon barrels from Ohio, followed by 18 months in 53 gallon ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky and finished in 55 gallon sherry casks. This is the first batch, but Rig Hand is sitting on the rest of their barrels for a longer period to encourage further maturation. Particularly with single malts, time greatly improves the product - so I would expect the product to improve in the coming years.

Also, rig hand has put away some single malt smoked with Alberta peat (!!!).


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 001

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Fruity, buttery, and spicy – with a nice nutty characteristic to it and some oak and vanilla. There is toffee, mixed grain, green pear, baking bread, biscuit, caramel, and macadamia nuts. It’s spicy on the nose, too. It’s still a bit rough, but it has a really nice rich farm characteristic to it – in a very good way – like the great earthy smell of rich earth and agriculture.  The palate has lots of dried fruit a really nice malty kick at the end. The finish is slightly sour and spicy. The finish is big and farmy, with a nice malt characteristic at the end!

I really like the rich earthiness, and it has a great core which will improve with time it the cask. Also, it’s a spirit that will get better as it sits in the bottle, I expect.

Value: Low, based on $115. In large part, young micro-distilled single malts can’t compete on a price level with the whisky market at large dollar for dollar.


Review: Rig Hand Bar M Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Picture courtesy of Rig Hand Distillery.

Picture courtesy of Rig Hand Distillery.

ABV
45%
Aging
~4 yrs
Recipe
Wheat, Barley, and Rye
Distiller Rig Hand (Nisku, AB) and Last Mountain (Lumsden, SK)

This is Alberta's first micro-distillery whisky (released in November 2017), made with a collaboration between Last Mountain and Rig Hand distillery - a blend of Last Mountain's 100% Wheat Whisky (who produce the best wheat whisky I've tasted...) and Rig Hand’s 10% Rye, 40% Wheat, and 50% Barley mashbill. The Rig Hand component has seen a variety of casks: 10 gallon used wheat whisky barrels from Last Mountain, 25 gallon used bourbon barrels from Stillwrights, Ohio, 53 gallon used bourbon barrels from Heaven Hill, Kentucky and 60 gallon used French sherry casks.

Rig Hand hopes to collaborate more with Last Mountain to produce similar releases in the future and maintain the flavor profile. Rig Hand has other whiskies to be released when mature  - a 100% rye, a bourbon style corn whisky, and a single malt.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Grainy notes, light clove, roasted green peppers, coconut, orange peel, and grape lead into a palate which lends soft molasses, cream of wheat, light icing sugar, and that classic, dusty Canadian rye backbone of light spices. Lots of peppery spice notes on the nose. There is a light oiliness which is terrific, and a rising set of waxiness and woody spices towards the finish. The finish has some green pear, clove, and cinnamon with brown sugar making an appearance too once much has faded.

This isn’t a raw whisky – I say this only because often tasting something from a craft distillery means it is too young – this is not so, it is ready. It’s light, it’s fairly easy, and it is a whisky that leaves you wanting more. There isn’t much wrong with it – it’s balanced and interesting – but not overly complex. A good inaugural release - we’ll have to see what is next for Rig Hand!

Value: Low, for now - but almost up to average. I imagine with time we’ll see more. But, also - try their Brum!


Review: Rig Hand Brum (Sugar Beet Rum) by Jason Hambrey

Photo courtesy of Rig Hand Distillery.

Photo courtesy of Rig Hand Distillery.

ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
100% Sugar Beet Molasses
Distiller Rig Hand (Nisku, AB)

Here is something you don't see very often! Rig Hand distillery in Nisku, AB, wanted to make a local rum, however, sugar cane doesn't grow in Ontario. They turned their attention to sugar beets, instead, but initial experiments using sugar beets directly produced a spirit that had a dirt flavor no matter what level of cleaning was done. Consequently, they turned their attention towards sugar beet molasses sourced from the Rogers/Lantic plant in Taber, Alberta. It is reasonably sweet, but this is not from added sugar but rather from a backset flavouring technique where some of the unfermented water/molasses mixture is set aside before fermentation and added to the final distilled spirit for both flavouring and colouring.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Quite the nose! Earthy, earthy and fruity – loads of black licorice, spices, red cabbage, plums, red currants. Complex and interesting. A surprising palate, revealing more than the nose – clove, light nuts and loads of dried fruit – raisin, dried apricot – it also, for whatever reason, has many touches that remind me of rancio. Anyone who likes licorice flavors and sherry might find this of interest! Terrific finish full of spices, leather, raisins, red currants – it reminds me quite strongly of armagnac.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended. Taste alone would land it in the range of a recommended, but this is so unique and intriguing it’s one of my favourite tries of the year! Pick up a bottle, if you can find it.

Value: High.