Words by @WhiskyPilgrim
Something genuinely massive happened in the whisky world on 13th June, and hardly anyone seemed to notice.
In fairness, there wasn’t much fanfare. Three new whiskies popped up on The Whisky Exchange’s website. Pike Creek 10 years old Rum finish, Lot 40 Rye, and J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. The significance? They are a trio of Canadian whiskies, and their appearance this side of the pond marks a watershed moment in world whisky appreciation and opportunity.
Considering it makes more than any nation other than Scotland, Canadian whisky is terribly poorly understood outside of its homeland. Relative to its size, it barely gets a passing mention in most whisk(e)y tomes; the only time it really made UK headlines was when Jim Murray named Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye his “Best Whisky in the World.” To which the near-universal response was “nonsense”.
For a clearer picture of the Canadian whisky scene, the only obvious comprehensive resource is Davin de Kergommeaux’s “Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert”. And as far as the UK consumer goes, good luck getting hold of it. I’ve had nothing but grief with my copy; a cautionary tale featuring 3-month delays, accidentally leaving it in coffee shops, and dropping it when fleeing a mugger. Hey ho. Perhaps he picked it up and educated himself.
The upshot is that misconceptions and sweeping statements surrounding Canadian whisky are rife. “It’s full of stuff that isn’t whisky” and “it’s all a load of rubbish” being the main generalisations. On top of which you have whiskies being called “rye” when they are mostly made from corn, myriad brands whose name bears no relation to the distillery that made them, and no real stylistic “signposts” such as mashbills to help guide the unwary consumer through profiles. (Canadian distilleries tend to mash the grains separately, blending them together as new spirit or mature whisky.)
Add to that the fact that Canada keeps most of its best juice “in house” and it is perhaps not surprising that Canadian whisky doesn’t command the legions of UK devotees enjoyed by Scotch or Bourbon.
A shame. Because Canada unquestionably boasts some of the best distilleries in the world, capable of making premier league whisky in a fascinating, unique and inimitable style. And three of the most well-known (over there) are Pike Creek 10, Lot 40, and J.P. Wiser’s 18yo.
Which brings us back to the 13th June.
More or less as soon as they appeared on TWE I hit the “buy now” button. Partially from excitement at finally seeing them, and partially because they are extremely handily priced. £25 for Pike Creek. £30 for Lot 40. £40 for J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. Try and find another 18 year old whisky – from anywhere – for £40. I dare you.
So, American whiskey fans, the big question. What does the stuff North of the border taste like? And does it compare to the juice we’re more familiar with?
Pike Creek 10 year old, Rum finish. 42%ABV
Intriguing nose. Rum makes itself known straight away, adding a splash of tropical fruit and bite. There’s also a perfumed wood aspect, and a spicy – almost botanical – lift. Rye is a presence, but not an overwhelming one. It’s one of those noses in which there is no single dominant characteristic. Medium intensity.
Even more rum-like on the initial palate. Viscous, oily and sweet. Brown sugars and caramels. After which a firmness, reminiscent of blended Scotch, creeps in. Wheat? Tasty stuff, if a little short and simple. Think a Scotch blend, but in caramel and rum sauce.
J.P. Wiser’s 18 year old. 40% ABV
Takes a while for the nose to get going. Doesn’t leap from the glass. Needs time and warmth, but patience is rewarded, because what emerges is terrific stuff. Woody, with cigar tobacco, cedar, leather and musky aftershave. A touch of pine too – really nice balance of the deep and the lifted.
Big fat, oily palate – surprisingly full-bodied for 40%. Flavours come in a couple of waves; sweeter than the nose initially – this is where the brown sugar and caramel makes itself known – after which rye spices, wood and musk return. Unctuous texture, but those deep, woody, chocolatey, nutmeggy flavours feel slightly muted and shortened. I’ve never wanted a whisk(e)y to be another 6% stronger more. (I promise that’s not just me being an alcoholic...)
Lot 40 Rye Whisky. 43%
Boom! Rye! Bounds from the glass, but not in a sharp, MGP-esque style. This is elegant and floral (crazy floral) – full of violets and gently lifted. A slight candied orange rind too, and a little sawn pine-wood. Most intense nose of the trio by miles – don’t need your nose anywhere near the glass – and beautiful stuff.
Palate effectively a continuation, thought the rye becomes spicier and extra-lip-smacking. Would make a fascinating side-by-side with Bulleit. Switched on, poised and lean; still very floral indeed, and with a big hit of rye bread. Probably my favourite of the trio, and quite simply spectacular value.
My initial reaction on tasting this trio was: tasty, but I want more engine. More oomph. The Wiser’s, in particular, seemed crying out for another 6% - those flavours are outstanding, but it feels as though someone’s turned the volume down. I was reminded of how I feel about Dalmore; another whisky with a thick, unctuous texture that seems to cruise along at 40%, dropping tantalising hints of just how special it could be.
But here’s the thing. The whisk(e)y industry is not built on high ABV, fasten-your-seatbelt stuff. Those might be the whiskies venerated online and flogged on the secondary market for megabucks, but they aren’t what bring people to the whisky table initially.
What really impresses me about these whiskies is how much they manage to deliver at such a modest alcohol level and, more significantly, such a modest price. J.P. Wiser’s, and particularly Lot 40, have plenty to offer the long-in-the-tooth whisky drinker, whilst also being supremely approachable, delicious whiskies for new consumers to get stuck into. As for Pike Creek, I can’t think of a blended Scotch on the market that can touch it for the price. And with its element of sweet new oak it makes a nice bridge in style from America to Scotland too.
These are serious, important whiskies. They are a platform from which Canadian whisky can grow in the UK. And I want more. Gooderham&Worts Four Grain was one of the most exciting whiskies I tried at Whisky Live in April – I want to see that on UK shelves too. Alberta distillery make some of the best rye in the world – let’s get some of that over here, and not just in overpriced WhistlePig bottles. And that’s before I’ve even mentioned the Single Malts popping up in distilleries across the country. I want to taste them all.
Hiram Walker, the distillery behind the trio I tasted, recently announced that they would be launching some special editions in the autumn. Amongst others, a J.P. Wiser’s 37 year old and a cask strength Lot 40 12 year old. I remember reading an article about them with longing, tempered by the disappointing certainty that none of those whiskies would make it to our shores.
Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves. They probably still won’t. In real terms, Canadian whisky has just dipped its toe into the UK market. There’s a long way to go before we start seeing special editions. But let’s hope that the three new arrivals are a statement of long-term intent. The Canadians are coming to Britain. And you need to get to know them.
I can’t wait.