Special Release

Review: Forty Creek 22 Year Old Rye Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Forty Creek.

Image courtesy of Forty Creek.

ABV
43%
Aging
22 yrs
Recipe
100% Rye
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

This is a real rarity, and a real “limited edition” - only 102 bottles made. Furthermore - it is in rarefied territory - a 100% rye whisky over 20 years old. So far, there are only a few in recent memory - the dazzling Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old whiskies, and the Collingwood 21 Year Old - all very distinguished bottlings. It was a pet project of Forty Creek’s chief Whisky Maker Bill Ashburn, who carried all the grain to the fermenter, pot distilled the lot, and selected the barrels - even hand bottling each of them himself! When it was distilled, John Hall and Bill Ashburn didn’t think it was very good, but a long time in the barrel did some real good! This whisky won the 2019 Canadian Whisky Awards, beating out over 100 other whiskies as part of a non-profit whisky competition judged blind by a panel of 10 people.

These notes are from my sample as part of judging the Canadian Whisky Awards, so no, the bottle hasn’t been released yet - I know many have been eagerly awaiting its release.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

This is quite unlike any Forty Creeks I’ve ever tasted. It’s very grainy, with a rich fruitiness – licorice, fennel seed, rye oatmeal – and a very rich oak character. We also have banana, rhubarb, spice cake, red river cereal, and rich oak. Awesome complexity, with both a subtle earthiness and creaminess which add significant intrigue.

The palate is clean, with oak, loads of rich rye, sharp spice and dried fruit, and a slightly drying, tannic finish full of spices and grain. There is a terrific size to the grain here, and fascinating notes of chilli pepper and roasted grain throughout – not to mention rye-heavy bread loaves. The whisky, throughout, has a great sense of umami. The finish has oak, dusty earth, mixed dried fruits (including prune, raisin, and dried apricot) and more sharp spices like fennel and white pepper. If you’ve ever had a rye loaf full of whole wheat rye - sharp, spicy, and earthy – this is similar.

In my blind tasting, I actually mistook this for a micro distillery product (it’s similar to North of 7) because of the rich grain focus and sharp spice, which most big distilleries don’t do in the same way – but this has a terrific depth to it, and the roundness and intrigue of the entire product is just fantastic. One of my favourite Forty Creeks of all time, vying for greatness alongside the best of Forty Creek (indeed, some of the best of Canadian whisky): early batches of Confederation Oak, Heart of Gold, and Evolution. Just brilliant.

Very Highly Recommended (16% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). It’s great to see Forty Creek release more spectacular liquid.

Value: Low. While it is true that it is extremely hard to find rye whiskies above 20 years old (near impossible), $225 means that the whisky has to be near perfect - to me. This is excellent, but there are better value buys.


Review: Forty Creek Unity Limited Edition Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Forty Creek Unity.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
4-10 yrs
Recipe
Blend of barley, corn, and rye whiskies
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

One of my favourite times of the Canadian whisky calendar is when Forty Creek releases their annual special release. Perhaps more than with any other release, I don’t have any desire to rush my analysis because these releases have truly represented some of the best Canadian whisky has ever offered. There were a few years which I didn’t like as much, yet, generally, the whiskies coming from Forty Creek have been in contention for my favourite whiskies of the year. Last year’s heritage fell into that category – I really liked it, and Evolution (2013), Heart of Gold (2012), and the initial Confederation Oak special release are among my favourite Canadian whiskies ever.

This whisky was a blend selected by five Forty Creek fans from a variety of potential blends developed by Forty Creek’s whisky maker, Bill Ashburn.

The whiskies have followed something of a wine theme few years, with Evolution and the two portwood releases all being blended with wine (it worked well). This year, Forty Creek did use some wine, but in a different way. The same style of wine used to make the barrels for the Portwood releases was added directly to the blend, being added in a small quantity directly to the whisky. Chemically, this is no different than the effect a short finish of a few months, as a “finish” is just the diffusion of the liquid soaked in the barrels into the whisky within the barrel (unless the maturation time is more than a few months, at which point actual aging effects from a different wood can take place). The whisky is made from a 4 year old sub-blend which was then matured further in a barrel with mocha staves. To this was added a 10 year corn whisky and a touch of 15 year old starboard wine.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: Lot 012

  • Bottling Code: BG/GG17176

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Terrific nose: Rich, nutty port notes and tannic red wine, hazlenuts, sharp rye spices I don’t see often in contemporary Canadian whiskies but rather older spicy ones, chocolate, toffee, and a light oiliness. I love the oaky, spicy house style of Forty Creek – it is present in all their whiskies and it is great. The nose develops over several minutes (impressive) before fading out. We also get wine gums, dried cherries, and green pear.

The palate is spicy and rich, and slightly oily in a similar manner to Forty Creek Copper Pot. However, it has a really nice subtle port influence and the finish has a developing wine influence with a good kick of oxidized wine. Very rich, with light earthiness too – the richness seems to grow as you drink more, which is great for both the analytical and casual enjoyment of this – it is gripping. Some of the youth isn’t ironed out, but I don’t mind – I find quality distillates are enjoyable, even younger than others might be in order to be similarly enjoyable.

White pepper on the finish, orange peel, toffee, tannins, toasted oak, prunes, almonds, and Ferrero rocher.

Too bad I don’t have a portwood to compare to. It would be quite an interesting comparison, I expect. The nose has complexity but not the depth of the best Forty Creeks – but I am now being perhaps overly critical – the benchmark has been set very high. Great stuff, and some of the best stuff in the past few years (but…don’t forget Confederation Oak – it’s always around, and it’s often better than the special release and the best thing on the shelves…).

I should note that I have liked the portwood releases less than some of my esteemed friends with good palates, so readers may like the wine integration more than me. It’s worth noting that Davin De Kergommeaux rated this a 93, very highly, and Blair Phillips a 92, similarly highly. I trust their ratings and palates, so I put that as an aside to those who have liked the more wine-driven Forty Creeks - you will probably like this. However, I also liked Evolution more than most of those friends, so maybe it’s not only the wine…

It took me a long time to grade this. That’s always a good thing - it means it could have gone a lot higher - rating whisky is more than a linear scale. Highly recommended if you like to analyze, assess, and savour whiskies - this is very entertaining.

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

Value: Average. A reasonable price for a whisky this good.


Review: Forty Creek Heritage Limited Edition Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Forty Creek Heritage 2.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
3-5 yrs; Finished in American virgin toasted oak
Recipe
Blend of barley, corn, and rye whiskies
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

The new limited edition from Forty Creek, made in the model of the old Forty Creek Small Batch - their first in the line of a very impressive set of special releases - only 6000 bottles were produced, and many people thought it was similar to a bourbon in style. The 40 Creek master blender wanted to revisit that flavor profile, and spent months blending to attain something similar - finishing the whisky in heavily toasted (not charred) casks, which apparently maintains more of the barrel spices without the sweetness since the charring would tend to bring out the caramels. There is a trend these days at finishing in new oak, but it's usually heavily charred not just heavily toasted - so let's take a look!


Review (2017)

  • Batch: Lot 011

  • Bottling Code: 4G/EF282S4 13:20:36

  • Bottling Date: 2017

The nose has loads of toffee notes, alongside fresh white oak – also cinnamon, grape, orange peel, semolina pasta, browned butter, caramel, rising sourdough (I love this note), white rice, and toasted oak – very much Forty Creek. The notes are rich, and interesting – not bad. The palate is big, buttery, and full of spice and toffee – and, again, slightly sour with a slight rancio character almost as if some sort of oxidized wine was in the mix. Great bready notes and oiliness. The finish has nice browned butter, caramel, toffee, licorice root (not licorice candy), old world pinot noir, and white pepper. Very nice – one of the best things to come from Forty Creek in the past few years. I’m really happy with this release – last year was a bit of a dissapointment, as was the year before – but they’re back at it, and it’s good. Terrific fall whisky.

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

Value: Average. A reasonable price for a whisky this good.


Review: J.P. Wiser's Dissertation Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
46.1% (molecular weight of ethanol)
Aging
11 Years; Virgin Oak
Recipe
87% Rye, 13% Corn
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

This whisky won one of 10 gold medalists at the 2017 Canadian Whisky Awards, though, at the time, no one knew anything about it. The name, dissertation, is because this whisky has been made from 60 barrels used as part of Don Livermore's study of the aging of Canadian Whisky for his PhD Dissertation. He used about 113 barrels, but only a little over half went into this - he is holding on to the rest for a later release. They were filled in 2005, into new barrels with char levels of 2mm and 4mm. Some say this is 12 years old, but I know this was submitted for the Canadian Whisky awards in the fall of 2016 and, as far as I know, this sat for a few months at the LCBO waiting to be processed.

Rye composes 87% of the blend, distilled to between 70% and 80%, and 13% of the whisky is corn whisky distilled to a whopping 94%. A mix of distillation styles went into the blend - column distilled rye, column and then pot distilled rye, double distilled corn. No caramel added.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 54SL24 L17067 EW09:53

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Very enticing - lots of sharp rye, perfumed and loaded with cherry and floral notes – lilac, rose – anise, oak (very woody with time), roasted coriander seed, clove, purple grape, banana, nutty....nutty almost as an armagnac might be. It opens brilliantly, with vanilla, maple, and lots of toffee. The palate is full of cinnamon and dried sour cherry, with tremendous oak and rye influence. It starts sharp, spicy, and rye centred before terrific clove and vanilla-laden oak take over and lead into a finish full of custard, bourbon notes, sour cherry, dry wood, brown cardamom, and a touch of spicy greens including arugula. Oh, and lots of cinnamon. Comparatively, lot no. 40 is tame.

It is almost too sharp to have a lot of – but I love a bit of this coupled with some time to enjoy and explore. After one dram my senses feel sufficiently overloaded so that I want to reach for something else, but I do love it. It’s different than the other Wiser’s out there – but terrific, interesting, and similar enough that you know where it is coming from and who is behind it. Another (great) winner!

I debated for nearly a week about whether to give this a 90 or a 91, and finally went on a 91 because of its uniqueness. I don’t see many ryes presented this way – so intense and concentrated, with flavors bursting out all along similar lines. It doesn’t seem to have the linking grain or oak notes that disperse some of the different flavors, but rather you get them all in a burst that slowly unfolds.

Any whisky, for me, that gets above a 90 has to have me thinking about it for the next day, or the next few. This is one of those - the rye is so chiseled and so sharp, while also integrated with bright fruit, floral, and spice notes. Master Blender Livermore’s PhD is well earned.

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

Value: Very high. This is awesome whisky, well worth the price.


Review: Forty Creek Founders Reserve Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
4-9 Years
Recipe
Blend of barley, corn, and rye whiskies
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

Here we have the tenth limited edition release from Forty Creek, which also marks the end of John Hall's time at Forty Creek. Sadly, he has retired, passing on the reins to his long-time friend Bill Ashburn. This whisky is a mix of 4(why?...)-9 year old whiskies, with a particular focus on the barley whiskies in the mix. 12,000 bottles were produced.

John Hall has brought us some of the best Canadian whiskies ever, including some of my all-time favorites in Evolution and Confederation Oak. He applied his winemaking experience, applying it to whisky, crafting a special process tailored to each grain used at the distillery, for both distillation and aging, before blending all together. He pioneered the use of Canadian oak in a terrific Confederation Oak release, and provided hugely diverse and complex special releases for the last ten years. What is more, though, is that through taking Forty Creek distillery, which he founded in 1992, to its place of prestige now, he started a huge movement in Canadian whisky towards the tailoring of craft whiskies which have boomed now with a number of new and special releases from Crown Royal, Wiser's, and Corby's. So, pick up a bottle, and toast John Hall.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 4G/EF282S4 13:20:36

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Fresh doughnuts, caramel, orange, anise – but I can’t get over the immaturity, though this lifts off as the glass sits – leave it 20 minutes if you find this. There’s so much complexity in the mix, but the last two years the special releases and the double barrel whiskies have just had some components that are just too immature. I suppose it's done for body, but it brings in some harsh oily notes. Anyway, to the complexity – stone oven baked bread, cigarette butts, brilliant spice – nutmeg, clove, white pepper – and some soft, creamy oak eases in as well. As it opens up, it does get better. Apple butter, maple butter, and touches of menthol. Hay. Terrific nose.

The palate has lots of orange, oak, brown sugar, with some light rye notes feeding in wonderfully in the background. The finish has lots of oak and spice, along with some orange peel, custard, black pepper, rich toffee (much like last year), wafts of bourbon, and a touch of tannin. Great complexity, and, actually, 90% of it is very nicely balanced. But there are just a few bits of unpleasantness – it makes me think that I would have withheld a few of those casks.

I actually had a hard time making up my mind up about this whisky. There is a lot of complexity but there is some harshness and bitterness – yet it opens up so beautifully. It probably will get better as it gets a bit of air and some of that harshness wares off. If the special releases continue in this vein, I will be less inclined toward them (they have comprised some of the best Canadian whisky I have ever tasted in the past) - the immature components are not too much to my liking. But don't get me wrong - this is still a nice whisky. More in the profile of last year than any other special release - a bit broader and complex – but a bit less unique. The ABV helps, for sure. If you’re just finding it harsh, drink it a bit slower – as typical with these forty creek releases. But, buy a bottle, toast John Hall, and admire the complexity. It is worthwhile celebrating his legacy.

Value: Low. I didn’t like it much, so I wouldn’t give it a high value score for a $75 whisky.