Seagram's VO

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

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

Image courtesy of Sazerac.

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. Tours are set to begin at the distillery in 2019.

Now, 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. 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 shortly to Canada: BC, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Review (2019)

  • Batch: 2019

  • 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: Seagram's VO Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Distillers Gimli (Gimli, Manitoba) & Valleyfield (Valleyfield, Quebec)

According to Davin De Kergommeaux’s book Canadian Whisky, in 1914 Thomas Seagram (the son of Joseph Seagram, one of the big pioneers of Canadian Whisky) asked the distiller in the now defunct Waterloo Distillery to provide him with a good barrel of whisky to celebrate his marriage, and it was liked so much that it was decided to be brought to market – and this became Seagram’s VO. The meaning of VO, apparently, is still unclear. It was a key illicit whisky for thirsty Americans during prohibition, and continues in production today, though a few flavour nuances have changed. The crest of Seagram’s shows horses, which is fitting because Joseph Seagram loved horses and had award winning stables alongside his whisky interests.

Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2014

Nose: Light, with some rye spice and light oak drifting in and out of the background. It’s a bit sour, with some light fruitiness. I find as the nose opens it improves, with some custard, bourbon aromas, and vanilla. This one noses a bit better in a wide glass.

Taste: Nice viscosity, with some light, rye-tinged vanilla, and some slight bitterness. There’s some light, sweet white grape-like fruitiness along with some bourbon notes fit in very nicely in the background. Quite easy to sip – it’s light and pleasant, though the bits here and there of bitterness detract from the experience. There’s even a light touch of acidity which is nicely balanced with the rest.

Finish: Some pretty good weight and substance to the finish. At first, it feels quite “clean” as the whole taste brightens up and gets lighter and some more sweetness emerges, along with some white grape and light fresh banana flavours and generic fruitiness. Eventually, we are left with some dusty rye, light spices, and light fruitiness, and, from time to time, nutty and almond-like notes.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). From a taste perspective, it doesn’t quite earn this ranking - but this is cheap stuff and represents a historic style of Canadian whisky and a large portion of what Canadian whisky continues to be - a light, slightly sweet, slightly spicy, style of whisky. For that reason, I think people who want to know what Canadian whisky is like, and where it came from, need to try it. Would I rank it in the best Canadian whiskies? No. But that’s not the point here.

Value: Average to high. that being said, it’s hard to do better with only $26 in Ontario.