Sazerac

Review: Mister Sam Tribute Whisky (Sazerac) by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

ABV
66.9%; 61.3%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
A blend of Canadian and American whiskies
Producer Sazerac

Sazerac, the parent company of Buffalo Trace, has been developing a presence in Canada for some years now particularly with the Royal Canadian and Caribou Crossing brands. Diageo also recently sold a number of Canadian whisky brands, including Seagram’s VO, to Sazerac in 2018. The whiskies, thus far, have been from stock which has been sourced from other distilleries in Canada. However, that is set to change with the construction of the Old Montreal Distillery which started to distill whisky in 2018. It’s open now for visiting.

Sazerac is releasing a whisky as a tribute to Sam Bronfman, one of the most ominous and greatest figures in the history of the liquor industry. Bronfman initially came to Canada shortly after his birth, the son of immigrant parents, from an area which is now part of the country of Moldova between Romania and Ukraine. He became involved in the family hotel business, which grew, relatively quickly, into a small empire in Saskatchewan with the income driven more by the bars that the family owned than the hotels.

As the temperance movement grew, Saskatchewan implemented prohibition and closed the bars. The family, in clever response, got a hold of one of the rare licenses to sell medicinal alcohol and started to develop a distribution business without much competition. Medicinal alcohol was an extremely popular “remedy” during prohibition. The company soon got into the distilling business, building the (now closed) LaSalle distillery in Quebec from stills acquired in the US. The LaSalle distillery became known for quantity, which lead to Sam Bronfman’s partnership with the Scottish DCL, a massive producer of Scotch which controlled brands like Johnny Walker, Dewar’s, and Buchanon’s . This partnership, formed in the late 1920s, catapulted Bronfman ahead of Harry Hatch as the head of the biggest whisky empire in Canada. Bronfman also obtained the ever-important Seagram’s line of brands. Among these brands was Seagram’s VO, Bronfman’s drink of choice, diluted with water. With the brands came the company’s namesake, Seagram’s.

The company stockpiled stock and assets through prohibition. Despite supplying the bootlegging business, prohibition was a challenging environment to operate in due to the challenges of the supply chain. The boom of the company came when the American market opened up: Seagram’s took control of the American market. Indeed, in the 1930s three out of five bottles of blended whisky sold in the United States were from Seagram’s. The company’s success accelerated - in 1946 Seagram’s controlled 14 distilleries, 60 warehouses, and 10 bottling plants - putting out 25 million litres a year (Source: The Bronfman’s, Nicholas Faith). To this, the company added the Chivas Regal brand and grew to become the largest liquor company in the world before it’s collapse, out of which arose Daigeo and Pernod Ricard which are now the two largest liquor companies in the world.

“Mister Sam” was not only a remarkable businessman, he was also a master blender with a remarkable understanding of the importance and technique of blending. He taught his sons the “art” of blending and ensured that he and his family could always assess the quality of his brands. To honour the legacy, Sazerac has released a whisky containing a blend of American and Canadian whiskies. It was blended by Drew Mayville, who worked at Seagram’s for 22 years and was the last master blender before the company’s collapse. The whisky is bottled at 66.9% ABV, and will be sold in the United States and Canada for about 250 USD. 1,200 bottles were produced, and the whisky is slated to be an annual release.

If you want to learn more on the subject, there are a number of good books lying about. I recommend The Bronfman’s by Nicholas Faith, Booze, Boats and Billions by C.W. Hunt. Davin De Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky gives a nice broad overview as well. To better understand the ever-important context of the time and the ever-important American liquor market, Bourbon Empire by Mitenbuler is a great read too.

If you get a bottle of this, there is a small booklet, containing a history of the Seagram’s company written by Samuel Bronfman for his 80th birthday, …from little acorns…. There are a few great nuggets and it gives a nice picture of pieces of how the organization functioned - highlighting specifically Bronfman’s bullishness about marketing, quality control and his penchant for blending. He often tested the blends personally and interacted with the quality control executives. The company had a library of hundreds of whiskies and 240 different yeasts! As Bronfman wrote, “Nothing is more important in our business than the quality of our products”. He also speaks of how he became convinced that US prohibition would end 5 years before it did, and started to ramp up production and build warehouses to get aged whiskies ready in advance. Even once the US market opened up, he made everyone wait until the US spirits had sufficient maturation in wood: “No matter, I waited. Quality in the bottle, and our reputation for quality, were much more important to me than immediate profits.”

Notably, he also discusses being disturbed when he saw drinking culture grow again after prohibition which lead him to release an advertisement: “We who make whiskey say: ‘Drink Moderately’”.

This whisky is available in the United States (already available) and Canada.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 2019 (66.9%)

  • Bottling Code: L19011331608E

  • Bottling Date: 2019

What a nose! What a nose! I’ll do my best not to be too wordy, but even at first whiff I know that will be difficult.

Sweet oaky caramel, rich deep oak (mossy, old, but very sweet like a damp bourbon warehouse), spicy rye, but it’s balanced with the nicest set of light fruit like white grapes and white mulberries. It is very reminiscent of good, cask strength Buffalo Trace compared to a cask strength blended Canadian whisky with less of a focus on oak. It reminds me, of course, of the Buffalo Trace antique collection.

But, back to the nose. It shines through incredibly with water – it seems to transition from an American style to a bit more of an oaky Canadian style with water (without too much rye). Fruits emerge – candied, dried – but also rich baking spice, fresh strawberries, cherries, praline (hazelnut and almond), dried chanterelle mushrooms, wintergreen, and the corn/rye grain character comes out richly. It has a really nice “dusty” rye characteristic, which I love. The nose really evolves, with more and more dried fruit (prunes, then dried apricots, then dried peaches) with time. This is all tempered by massive oak.

The palate is quite oaky, but surrounded at the edges by rich dried fruits, white pepper, and grapefruit skin (including pith). We also have cherry, dried ginger, dried apricot, dried peach, fresh plum, sweet creamy corn, mixed baking spices, and tobacco. These notes converge into a complex dose of baking spices and creeping tannins. The finish is dry, with toasted baking spices, sweet oak, cherry, dried apricot, corn husks, caramel, and tobacco. The finish is deep and long.

Heavier, oakier, richer, and much deeper than Little Book Chapter 02 (can you believe it?), which has a very different presentation of rye and has a light, vibrant fruit characteristic not present in Mister Sam (similar to the Jim-Beam-owned Alberta-distilled Canadian Club 100% rye). I love that Little Book whisky too.  A better comparison is the William Larue Weller I have in my cabinet from 2015. That one is sweeter, with more almond, maple, and a heavier portrayal of corn – the Weller is a bit lighter, and less complex than this stuff which is focused more on deep fruits, nuts, spice. The Weller, notably, has a bigger finish.  If the Weller is a peach galette with some slivered almonds on top, this is a spiced blackberry+plum+peach cobbler, sprinked with baking spices and baked a deep brown. Some, no doubt, will prefer the style of the Weller. But I like this stuff more.

This is extremely pleasant at 53.5%, the nose is best a bit lower ABV, but it is still awesome for its sheer power at 66.9%. It’s one of the most dynamic whiskies I’ve ever encountered in terms of how it changes with ABV. If you have one of these and find it too hot, just keep adding distilled water until it’s to your taste. The drinking experience does not suffer.

I wonder if Mister Sam would have liked the whisky. His typical tipple was Seagram’s VO, a much lighter whisky rather than this oak bomb. Nonetheless, masterfully blended!

This is in the top 6 whiskies I’ve ever tasted.

Exceptional (4% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Average, even at $250!


Review (2021)

  • Batch: 2021 (61.3%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This second release of Mr. Sam is a blend of Canadian and American whiskies by Buffalo Trace’s master blender Drew Mayville, also the last master blender of the once-mighty Seagram’s corporation. He describes the whisky: “Creating Mr. Sam has been one of the highlights of my career. The second release is very evocative of the first, with the same bold and complex flavours, but I believe this blend to be even closer to perfect. We’ve blended it with whiskies that slightly softened the explosive finish to allow a greater enjoyment of the essence of the whisky.”

Immediately, this is a bit more “Canadian” on the nose – a bit more centrality of corn. But, oh my….mint, oak, dried apricot, baking spices, sharp rye, fresh oak, caramel, fennel, dried corn, and a light, intriguing umami-like oiliness. The corn here is fascinating – both the big, fat corn that comes out in American whiskies but also the clean and elegant corn you find in Canadian whiskies. You have everything you could want here in a North American whisky – big oak, big fruit, multiple grains at play, spice, and balance.

The palate is big – all sorts of dried fruit – apricot, papaya, peach, prune – dried citrus, baking spice, vanilla, charred wood, dried peach, tobacco, and even a bit of grape. It’s quite interesting – it has all of the punch and power of the Buffalo Trace antique collection but it’s combined with an elegance that comes from the blending of the best Canadian whiskies. The finish is rich, fruity, oaky, spicy…here, the big American characteristics take over – spice, oak, and richness.

How does it compare to last year? More toward balance than brawn. They are still both massive, complex whiskies. Less oak, more grain, and softer – indeed, especially toward the finish. More subtlety, less “in-your-face” complexity. Both excellent and, I would say, flawless. I couldn’t ask for more.

Exceptional (4% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Outstanding whisky, but low given the price of $250+.


Review: Sazerac Straight Rye Whiskey by Jason Hambrey

Sazerac Rye 2.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
Virgin Charred Oak
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Buffalo Trace (Frankfort, Kentucky)

Another Buffalo Trace product on allocation - generally quite hard to find, this is the younger (~6 yrs) version of the esteemed Sazerac 18 Years Old which is part of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. In Ontario, they show up once or twice a year, but never last more than a week on the shelves.


Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

Nose: Oak, dried fruit, and even a bit of menthol come off the nose. There are bananas and notes of cola as well. There are a few off-notes which smell a bit like stale grain to me. The oak is a bit mossy, and overall, though the influence is heavy, it is quite nice. Dried apricot, as I find so often with many straight whiskeys, is also distinctively present. Vanilla, as usual, is present – but it is not a prominent flavour and sits nicely in the background.

Taste: An oaky entrance, with some dried apricot and a caramel and peppery background, with a light star anise note. The spicy feel to it is very nice, though I do think the oak does dominate a bit too much and gives it quite a dry feel throughout. The rye is a bit candied, as it so often is with the caramel influence of new charred wood in straight rye. The peppery backdrop is very nice, though.

Finish: The oak comes through with some dried apricot and light vanilla, and some earthiness- it’s light after the taste but is quite enjoyable. It lasts quite well, and has a pleasant level of spiciness and sweetness for me. There’s also some nice lift with some minty notes, but the mossy and earthy oak holds its own brilliantly once all else has faded away.

This is very enjoyable, and is a solid choice for me when thinking of American rye. It is sharp, candied, and spicy, with a decent kick of oak influence.

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

Value: Average, at $56.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2019

Rich in caramel, grain, and all those complex rye notes – mint, fennel, orange peel, oak, clove, licorice root, vanilla, tasted cumin, white pepper, and dried apricot. As you can tell, just loaded with spices. The palate is sweet, rich, oaky with loads of spices and stone fruit – plums, fresh apricots – and maraschino cherries and dried apricot. The finish is spicy and full of dried fruit and sweet oak.

Excellent stuff!

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

Value: High at $60.


Review: Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Caribou Crossing 1.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Producer Sazerac

You don’t find many single barrel bottlings in Canada, but here is one. In 2010, Sazerac, owners of Buffalo Trace distillery (among others), set their sights toward Canada and bought 200,000 Canadian whisky barrels from which they produced two products – this bottling, and Royal Canadian Small Batch. It is bottled in Kentucky though the liquid is sourced from an unknown distillery in Canada.


Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: B13 D60 16:37K

  • Bottling Date: ~2013

Nose: A grassy, pine-rich nose, with a hint of dry oak and a bit of an oily presence – the woody notes are pretty strong – oak, pine, and cedar. Some vanilla is present as well, with some corn chips, and hints of buttery caramel. Some nuts and spice come through – sharp cinnamon, allspice and pecans. There’s a bit of creamy fruitiness that comes in as well, a bit like some sort of pudding – that is quite nice.

Taste: Nicely loaded with spices (cinnamon and a hint of allspice), while retaining a relatively light profile and good body. There are woody notes of oak, pine, and cedar and also maple syrup. There’s a nice development of rich, oaky vanilla in the middle too, which is quite nice – in fact, without it, the taste might be a bit boring. The mouthfeel is very nice, though, and this does elevate the drinking experience. It seems to start, and end, with wood – in fact, I think it has a bit too much.

Finish: Cinnamon, a bit of a buttery flavour, and it is a bit nutty with some almonds on the end. A bit too much oak bitterness, I think, and quite dry…but it’s reasonably developed and involved.

It is similar in profile to Royal Canadian small batch, and, at least this barrel, in quality. The amount of wood influence in this one seems to be borderline…I am not sure what to think of it. Sometimes, it is too much, and sometimes, it is just heavy. I have also noticed that, as the bottle has been open longer, more prominent creamy and fruity notes than at first.

As they are both Sazerac bottlings from the same stock of acquired Canadian barrels, it is natural to compare this whisky to Royal Canadian Small Batch (RC). On the nose, the bourbon influence seems stronger in RC – I think the RC nose is better, but in Caribou Crossing there are more prominent notes of pine and rum (though those are also present in RC). The mouthfeel in Caribou Crossing is a bit better and it is a bit more “patient”, with the spices developing more slowly and the finish developing longer, with a bit more of a dry character. It’s also more woody, and a bit over the top, at times, I think. RC is also a bit sweeter. Of course, as Caribou Crossing is a a single barrel, the profile will vary slightly from barrel to barrel. Also, all the pine and rum notes make me wonder if at leats some of the Sazerac stock was sourced from Hiram Walker distillery…

Value: Low. Not bad, but not good enough to bump up into a higher category.


Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2015

A light beauty of a whisky. Rich, lightly creamy corn and slight barnyard aromas, wafts of bourbon, and a bit of a smoky touch on the end which is just brilliant. Well integrated and complex, with some intriguing elements - almonds, some earthy elements, prunes, apples, and, surprisingly, some salt. The grain is lovely here.

After the above review, I compared the two batches head to head, and, indeed - this is a lot better than the last barrel I tasted.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Oak, vanilla, bean sprouts, fresh bread, canned peaches and baking spices on a nose that holds cereal notes in the center. The palate is elegant, complex and sweet, with a great grain and confectionary character on the complex palate.

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

Value: Average - on whisky as a whole. Lower value, in just the Canadian category.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Christmas oranges, oak, celery seed, coconut, a biscuit tin – does the orange ever come out! Buttery, creamy, nutty – this is a great barrel! Nice grainy notes too – like corn husks and a grain silo. The oak, throughout, is rich. Clean and very easy on the palate, with light citrus, vanilla, buttery toffee, bamboo, and a green wood finish which develops into rich spices amidst mixed dried citrus peel.

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

Value: Average - on whisky as a whole. Lower value, in just the Canadian category.


Review: Royal Canadian Small Batch Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Producer Sazerac

This whisky is produced by Sazerac, a large drinks company who are known for innovation and own distilleries like Buffalo Trace and Barton 1792 Distillery (producers of 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, Very Old Barton, and more). This bottling, along with Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky, are produced under the supervision of Drew Mayville, the Master Blender at Sazerac. Mayville originally came from Canada, a Waterloo grad who worked at Schenley for a large number of years before moving over to Sazerac. This whisky has been crafted, along with Caribou Crossing, from a very large purchase of Canadian whisky barrels bought a few years ago .

Sazerac was one of the first companies to look to buy whisky that has been distilled and matured in Canada, and then export to the States for bottling and blending. This is a growing trend, with ultra-premium products such as Masterson’s (rye, barley, and wheat whisky), Whistlepig, and new products such as Lock, Stock, and Barrel. As the whisky boom increases, particularly the rye boom, Canada has been noticed as one of the only places with reserve rye whisky in stock, particularly older rye. Though many of the companies, like Masterson’s, which import Canadian rye, craft it toward more of an American style (with bolder flavours and more wood influence), this whisky stands a bit between the softer and subtle style of many Canadian whiskies and the big bold American ryes.


Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2014

Nose: Light and pleasant, with vanilla, light oak influences, pleasant fruity notes of sweet plum, fresh and canned peaches, yellow apple, distinct notes of cherry juice, light bourbon aromas, red grape skins, and some very light ruby port notes as well…along with some grassiness akin to that found in irish pot still whiskey. It’s light, but subtle, and well put together.

Taste: It follows the nose, with light sweetness and fruitiness. There’s light apple, prunes – but not quite as intense as prunes – more like boiled or stewed prunes, with vanilla, very light oaky bourbon notes, light cherry, raisins, and more hints of ruby port. It is nicely balanced, light, and subtle, much like the nose…

Finish: The palate dries out a bit, and there are hints of spice, but the flavour is a bit absent other than some light sweet vanilla with some vague fruitiness – largely in the form of light apples. The body and feel of the finish (i.e. other than flavour and complexity), however, are quite decent.

Score: 82/100

Value: Average.


Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2015

Granny smith apples in a glass - it's almost hard to get around them! Yet, it’s a bit creamy, too, giving almost a sense of an apple crisp with cream or custard. Behind, there's some oak, spice, and some candied fruit and some threads of smoke. The apples lift off after some time...with some underlying complexity which is quite nice including some spices which almost give the feel of a diluted home-made bitter (licorice, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns). On the palate, some lovely oak fits in the background with some underlying spice and dried berries. Interesting to compare with the tasting notes above- it’s the same, and in many senses these tasting notes convey the same thing in a similar way, though there are some differences – for sure.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Apple juice, clove, oak, plums, and vanilla – an easy whisky, full of vanilla and light spice. Light bourbon notes throughout the palate, mango, with pleasing dried spices. Lots of mango, too. There is a light grain character which is terrifically present, too. Lots of almond on the finish.

In this tasting, it’s oddly a bit like a Crown Royal, with all the bourbon nods and light fruit.

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

Value: Average.


Review: Rich & Rare Reserve Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

It is an odd experience for a Canadian to travel to the United States and find Canadian Whisky in liquor stores which cannot be purchased in Canada. It’s not solely a Canadian experience, as there are some export and duty free bottlings not available elsewhere (like Four Roses, which produces 2 offerings only available in Japan). However, there are quite a few labels I could not find in Canada. I picked up a bottle of Rich & Rare Reserve to taste (at a cheap clip! I don’t think you’d find this in Ontario for 13$…). Rich & Rare Reserve is distilled and aged in Canada, and then shipped to the States for bottling. It’s another Canadian whisky owned by Sazerac.


Review (2013)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2013

Nose:  The rye off the nose in this whisky certainly takes the fruity road, particularly with berry notes – raspberries in particular. There is also maple, a bit of sappy oak, and butterscotch. It lacks a bit of depth which I was looking and hoping for. There’s also a sour rye-corn aroma which I don’t love, but I didn’t notice it the first time I nosed the glass. It seemed quite a different nosing experience the second time – this time the spice of the rye dominated over the fruit, which I found interesting.

Taste: Soft, mellow, and watery corn to start before the rye kicks in and takes command. There are stronger notes of caramel at the end of the taste, and more sweetness alongside the ginger and white pepper which gradually dries out over the palate. A clean, unobtrusive, and mellow whisky which would likely be a good rye for beginners, or those not used to whisky. There is not much I can find in the palate which I don’t particularly like, but it does lack depth and intrigue.

Finish: A pretty strong finish which certainly does develop. Initially spicy with some ginger, and then the rye takes over and remains with a touch of caramel and a bit of raspberry.

Value: Average, certainly if you can get it for less than $20. At more than that, I might go other directions.


Review (2015; Blind)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2015

Rich grain leads with some oak, white pepper, red apple, maple, musty oak, and marzipan carrying through from nose to palate until the almond finish. Clean, and lightly creamy.

Value: Average, certainly if you can get it for less than $20. At more than that, I might go other directions.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Dry, oaky spice. Juniper, and loads of terrific grain notes with light caramel and clove on the finish. The palate is lightly sweet and bitter showcasing dried fruits and a drying finish full of spices.

Value: Average, certainly if you can get it for less than $20. At more than that, I might go other directions.