When in Rome… er, Ontario.
A family road trip found me driving through Canada recently. I had heard tell of the astounding (in a bad way) prices for bourbon up north from some of my online correspondents. A pit stop at Starbucks for refueling (caffeinated beverages for mom and dad; baked goods for the kids) fortuitously landed me next to one of the province’s LCBO liquor stores.
In truth, what I found wasn’t that bad. Maker’s Mark for the equivalent of US$35 doesn’t seem excessive; local price is $30, though it’s more often found on sale. Nor was I shocked by Four Roses “yellow label” (this is the cognomen for their entry-level Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey; confusingly, the label is now more of a creamy peach color) for US$25, just a buck higher than the $24 asked at my most competitive local liquor chain.
More disappointing than the pricing was the selection; they had only a few bottles from a handful of distilleries, entirely comprised of the lowest end of their respective ranges. I can now understand if Canadians have a low opinion of my nation’s indigenous whiskey, given we’re clearly not sending our best and brightest bottles across the border.
So, with no bourbon worth schlepping home that I couldn’t already procure, I found myself in the awkward and unfamiliar position of leaving a liquor store empty handed. Though I’m relatively inexperienced in the category, I decided to quickly peruse the Canadian whisky section in the hopes that something obviously extraordinary would jump out at me.
As luck would have it, one bottle was conspicuously appealing, based on what I could tell by reading the label. I was therefore able to pick up a liquid souvenir of my brief time in “the Maple Leaf State,” as we Yankees like to call it when looking to antagonize our northern neighbors. (Just kidding; when we’re trying to irritate Canadians, we throw our recycling in the trash).
Thus, you find yourself in the middle of another one of Malt’s occasional “fish out of water” reviews, in which someone from one major whisky region reviews a dram from another, less familiar place. I’ve done it myself with a quick tour of Irish whiskey; Graham and David have both tried their hands at it by providing bourbon reviews from the perspectives of Scotch and Irish whiskey drinkers, respectively.
We’ve received criticism of this format, and I can’t say that I don’t understand some of our readers’ misgivings. After all, part of Malt’s hallmark approach is an in-depth consideration of a whisky’s merits, informed by the reviewer’s own expertise. I hope that what these types of reviews sacrifice in terms of connoisseurship, they make up for in a form of impartiality and the freshness of their viewpoints.
As I have responded to some of our critics: whisky is a big and expanding world, with enthusiasts from all over branching out into unfamiliar territory. A Scotch lover looking for an introduction to bourbon may be better guided by the likes of Graham than they are by me. Certainly, availability varies significantly depending on where you live, and I feel that there is some value to a foreign perspective that takes into account the relative value of whatever is handy locally, compared to the other options on the shelf.
I keep hoping that some literarily inclined Canuck will spend their time and hard-earned Loonies to educate the Malt readership about Canadian whisky (if you live in the Great White North and this sounds interesting to you, please get in touch directly). Until then, you’ll have to tolerate my inexperienced take on this Alberta rye.
We last covered Alberta Distillers in 2017, when Adam lamented the generally poor reputation of Canadian whisky abroad. This has certainly changed in the intervening years, with Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye named “World Whisky of the Year” by a former tastemaker-turned-pariah who shall not be named.
I was once gifted a sample of the 66% ABV follow up batch to that aforementioned award-winning 65.1% batch. I can’t recall a time when a whisky’s accolades and the actual experience of drinking the stuff were more at odds. Not only was it not one of the best whiskies I had recently tried, but it came very close to being one of the worst.
Looking back on my notes, I remarked “I struggled to finish a one ounce pour, which is a dishonor I generally reserve for the most awful of whiskies. This isn’t revolting throughout, but the chemical note at the end is sickening; the sensation of drinking this is more like swallowing bitter medicine or accidentally tasting a household cleaning product.”
Not one to let a bad first impression prejudice me forever, I have kept an open mind about Canadian whisky generally, and Alberta Distillers rye particularly. After all, I have enjoyed plenty of it presented under the labels of WhistlePig and others, who source the stuff when they’re not buying from MGP. I actually find that I prefer Alberta rye as a more pure expression of that grain, without any of the dill pickle notes that can be pushed to an uncomfortable degree by our friends in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.
So, what was it aboot this bottle that enticed me? Most obviously, the 20 year age statement is a multiple of what we typically see on bottles of American rye. Though the lower bottling strength (42% ABV) gave me slight pause, I hoped that the dilution down from cask strength might round off some of the unpleasantly sharp flavors that marred my last experience with this distillery.
Alberta Distillers’ own site informs me that this is a 100% rye mash bill. I paid C$90 for a 750 m bottle this (just north of US$70 at current exchange rates), which is the price I’ll be using for scoring.
Alberta Premium Aged 20 Years – Review
Color: Medium toasted orange.
On the nose: There’s a dominant note here that is unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. I have a hard time putting my finger on it, but it’s got some of the classic rye grain notes married to a very green woodiness. It’s almost exotic or jungle-like; I find more analogues in Mezcal than in any whisky (of any grain type) that I can recall. Getting past this, there’s an effervescent sweetness of cream soda, as well as some subtly spicy accents of cinnamon and nutmeg. A long inhalation reveals creamy vanilla candy filling and some caramelized sugar notes notes of crème brûlée. More time in the glass lets fruity notes of pomegranates and red raspberries begin to emerge. I can’t predict what this will taste like, but I am intrigued to find out!
In the mouth: This starts slowly, with a subtle woodiness and some vaguely nutty flavors. The whisky evolves a very gentle richness as it moves toward the middle of the mouth. There’s a sweet accent of vanilla cream that is very pleasant, indeed. Turning toward a sweet and fruity note, the finish commences with intertwined flavors of underripe stone fruit and some spicily woody accents. The berries once again linger on the finish. Texturally, this is soft without being watery; 42% feels about right.
One of my favorite things about venturing beyond my habitual whisky borders is the truly novel aromas and flavors I can find through exploration. In some cases, these whiskies become a microcosmic encapsulation of an entire country. This isn’t quite so all-enveloping as that, nor can I say that it contains Canada’s multitudes in a single glass.
What I can say is that this is very tasty, enjoyable whisky. That’s not to say it is pedestrian or forgettable; on the contrary, that dominant and difficult-to-describe aroma is unique in my whisky tasting experience. The palate, by comparison, is incredibly balanced. There’s no overwhelming flavor or single point of focus. Rather, this whisky takes a leisurely stroll across the palate, producing flavors as offhand remarks rather than as forceful assertions. It is very polite and mild-mannered; a true Canadian in that sense.
I’m glad to have a bottle of this. It’s one-of-a-kind, at least to me. I look forward to sharing it with friends more accustomed to younger ryes from Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee. This has reawakened my interest in Canadian whisky, and I’ll certainly be more consciously looking for other expressions from Alberta Distillers and others.