Trying to understand Canadian whisky can be confusing.
It’s a huge seller all over the world but it earns little respect from the whisky cognoscenti, since much of what Canada sells is [gasp] mixing whisky. Commence derisive guffawing. Of course, the world’s best selling Scotch whisky is Johnnie Walker Red Label. The best selling Scotch whisky in its venerated homeland is (wait for it) The Famous Grouse. Not exactly drams to make the Serge Valentins of the world wax poetic.
So, why is Canadian whisky summarily dismissed by so many? I can think of a few reasons: while Scotland produces a lot of malt whisky that targets cork sniffers – er, I mean sipping whisky enthusiasts – Canada has produced precious little upscale whisky until recently. Along with rarity, many of Canada’s best whiskies remain in Canada, unknown and unavailable to the wider world of enthusiasts. Visitors to the Great White North and those who live in border states may see and taste Canada’s best, but that club remains small.
Among those who know a bit about Canadian whisky, the woefully misunderstood 9.09% (or 1/11ths) rule prevents many from trying what Canada has to offer. Add to that the fact that “Canadian rye” does not have to contain any rye grain at all, and you have more confusion in the mix. In addition, many of my homeland’s best-known whisky experts are perceived as cheerleaders who are not sardonic enough to earn “whisky critic street cred.”
Perhaps a Panama hat would help? Then again, maybe not. The now infamous Panama hat-wearing whisky critic named a Canadian whisky his “World Whisky of the Year” back in 2016; a mixed reception of the news ensued. There was celebration in some Canadian whisky circles, teeth gnashing in some Scotch whisky circles, and accusations of payola in the darker, more cynical corners of the internet. Maybe a tinfoil hat is more appropriate than a Panama hat? What follows, then, is a review of that “controversial” (for a Canadian) whisky, along with two other sipping whiskies that may be more “findable” to non-Canadians.
Starting with Northern Harvest: most people reviewing this whisky want to eviscerate “he who shall not be named,” or vindicate him. I want neither; I’m just sharing my thoughts. The opinions of whisky reviewers are not at all pertinent to my purchasing habits… and no, the irony of that statement is not lost on me. This whisky is bottled at 45% ABV and was originally marketed as being “90% rye,” but I think they’ve dropped that from the label. I can’t tell you why, but I have noticed nothing noteworthy since the label change beyond standard batch variation. It usually runs about $35 to $38 CAD.
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye – Review
Colour: Dark copper.
On the nose: The first thing I get is a big hit of ground cloves, followed by fresh rye bread, orange peels, a touch of oak, and then vanilla and those soft caramel candies. There also some floral notes popping through after a rest in the glass, maybe lavender. I’m no botanist, so take that for what it’s worth.
In the mouth: Medium bodied, with brown sugar, orange zest, more ground cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, rye bread, cracked black pepper, ginger, and oak tannins. It isn’t as sweet as the nose may have suggested. Adding some water brought out more fruitiness, but I like my ryes and bourbons on the spicy side, so I preferred this neat.
I don’t think this is the best whisky in the world, but I enjoyed it. I keep a bottle around more often than not because of how accessible it is to those new to whisky, Canadian or otherwise. It also gets a high five for its affordability.
If the Internet is correct, the original Lot 40 (released in the late 1990s) was the brainchild of then Master Distiller Mike Booth. It was an attempt by Hiram Walker to create three different premium whiskies known as the Canadian Whisky Guild. The success of these whiskies was limited, probably owing to the reticence of consumers to embrace premium Canadian whiskies. Lot 40 was discontinued, much to the chagrin of Canadian whisky enthusiasts.
In 2012, Corby spirits (which had acquired Hiram Walker) re-released Lot 40. To ensure that they were not just selling a mythical name and capitalizing on the recent past, Master distiller Dr. Don Livermore consulted with the retired Mike Booth to ensure the recipe was authentic. The 2012 version of Lot 40 (with the yellow label) featured both unmalted and malted rye. The newer versions of Lot 40 have no malted rye. According to Dr. Livermore, the malted rye produced “off notes” that had to be distilled away. Canada permits the use of enzymes to help in the fermentation, and I’m fairly certain that’s what is used in the current version of Lot 40. This 100% rye whisky is distilled once through a column still and then once through a copper pot still. Price is typically $35 to $40 CAD, depending on the week.
Lot 40 – Review
Colour: Medium copper bronze.
On the nose: Rye bread, firm oak tannins, cinnamon, nutmeg, red apple skins, black pepper, and a suggestion of honey.
In the mouth: Medium-bodied, rye spice, toasted oak, lots of baking spices, cinnamon hearts, hints of Macintosh apples and caramel. The finish is not extremely long but it doesn’t vanish either. It is spicy with a hint of vanilla, with black pepper and oakiness lingering. With water, more herbal notes come through (rosemary?) and some tobacco makes an appearance. There is also a citrus note (orange zest?) that becomes more evident with water.
This whisky is a bit closer to an American rye, probably owing to the virgin oak influence… and, you know, presence of actual rye grain. It is rare for me to be without a bottle of this in my cabinet as it is quite affordable and consistently delicious. Examining the other whiskies available in this price bracket here in Ontario, Lot 40 gets an extra point in the “value for money” category.
Given the continued success of Lot 40 and its limited edition Cask Strength iterations, it was only logical for Pernod Ricard/Corby spirits to introduce a permanent line extension to the Lot 40 family. Lot 40 Dark Oak takes the popular Lot 40 rye and adds a second maturation in heavy #4 char casks. It’s also bottled at 48% ABV, which is nice. The whisky seems to be a total chameleon; just about every review seems to say something completely different.
Lot 40 Dark Oak – Review
Colour: A deeper, darker bronze than the standard Lot 40.
On the nose: Rich, dark caramel, rye bread, and baking spices (black pepper, cardamom, and cinnamon) appear first, but there’s much more fruit here; apricots, peaches, maybe some cherries. There are some herbal notes coming through as well, but I can’t really identify them. Mint, perhaps?
In the mouth: Medium bodied, vanilla, caramel, rye spice, more apricots and peaches, Macintosh apples, and over-steeped chai tea. The finish is very much like an apple pie, with red apples, cinnamon and cloves. There are also some dark cherries hanging out near the very end. Oak tannins and barrel char notes balance out the finish.
This is a funny one to score. Do I like it more than the standard Lot 40? I think I do… HOWEVER, I am unsure if the difference in enjoyment warrants parting with extra dollars. Will I buy another bottle of Dark Oak? I don’t know. I appreciate the fruitier flavours and the higher ABV, but given that the standard usually sells for about $20 to $25 less, I cannot guarantee I will re-purchase Dark Oak. I cannot rule it out either. Curious indeed.
Score : 6/10
Northern Harvest photo courtesy of Crown Royal. Lot 40 photo courtesy of Binny’s. Lot 40 Dark Oak photo courtesy of Dramstreet.
First off, Joel, I really enjoyed the review and your style of writing, so welcome to the site.
On Northern Harvest, I (like you) usually have a bottle of this around the house though I do not indulge in it all that often. It is a “nice” whisky, certainly head and shoulders above the cooking-variety CR, whose popularity I have never quite understood beyond the obvious marketing/packaging push it enjoys. I think there is an argument to be made that NH would do better as its own brand rather than being muddled in with the flavored varieties of CR that litter the shelves. Northern Harvest is bottled at a higher ABV level and often goes on promo here at our provincial liquor stores depending on Diageo’s strategy at the time, so it is decent value, and provides some flavor notes that make it interesting neat or with a bit of water or ice. A good whisky to have around.
Lot 40 is a rather sad story for me. When the original version was introduced it was fabulous, along with its stablemate Pike Creek which I actually liked a bit more. Both had the cherry-like rye notes I enjoy, in abundance. A few years ago when Corby changed the formulation of Lot 40 there was a noticeable decline in the taste profile at least for my palate, and I have not returned to it since. On that basis I would disagree with the esteemed Dr. Livermore’s explanation of the rationale because it seemed a distinct step backwards to me, but perhaps I need to revisit with the current incarnation. I have never had the Dark Oak variety although I do have a bit of the cask strength version here, which while certainly good, I found a bit of a disappointment in all honesty given the $100 price tag I seem to recall it having.
Canadian whisky overall seems to struggle mightily with its reputation in its minds of most consumers as a mixer and seems unable to easily support the required price points for more premium products.
Thanks for the kind words, Greg. While those of us who are more “enthusiastic” about sipping whisky would love to see more high end Canadian whisky and fewer “flavoured” releases (don’t get me started on those), the business-minded folks care about profits first and foremost. And indeed, it makes more financial sense to put more energy into what yields the highest ROI (that’s the extent of my business knowledge). Thus Canadian whisky finds itself in a kind of Catch-22. The Corporate Overlords are hesitant to push high end Canadian whisky because they’re worried the demand won’t be there. And because there are not many high end Canadian releases, there isn’t always a high demand for them.
As for Lot 40, I’m a fan of pretty much everything they’ve released although I never got to try the 2012 yellow label version. That said, if it’s cherry notes you love in a rye I can see why you wouldn’t care for the current iteration of Lot 40. I’ve never picked up cherry notes from it.
Thanks for the reviews. I would *love* to see more Canadian whiskey reviewed on Malt (Vancouver Island here).
It definitely lacks the cachet of other countries: our spirits tasting club, which met once a month, only featured Canadian once in over three years.
Yet, there is interesting product out there: Collingwood, Great Plains, Canadian Club Chronicles….
Anyways, I do like the first two bottles you reviewed, haven’t tried the Dark Oak.
I’m excited to be contributing here and I’ve got a few ideas for whiskies to review. More Canadian producers are venturing into the “upscale” section of the market so I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of Canadian whisky.
The Crown Royal Harvest Rye won a prize for best whisky in the world in 2016. I think it is an amazing whisky and very hard to beat at its price point…
I liked Collingwood when it was first introduced. Unfortunately our provincial liquor board de-listed it after a year or two due to poor sales. That is discouraging, both that consumers did not take to it, and that it wasn’t given much marketing push. I have also been disappointed by how Forty Creek has evolved since founder John Hall sold it to Cinzano. Some of their premium offerings were very good indeed while he was at the helm but I have not heard much about the company recently. Our provincial board has more recently increased the number of Alberta Distillers products they carry but I seem to not have a palate they enjoys their typical distillate, though I did find the most recent cask strength offering quite good. I have the same palate disagreement with most Canadian Club offerings for some reason.
I’ve got some forthcoming reviews that may address some of what you’ve brought up, Greg. I don’t think you’re alone in your mixed feelings about Forty Creek. John Hall was a fantastic innovator and an important contributor to modern Canadian whisky.
RYE crown Royal Love it I can not find the lemon crown i I saw it on Facebook I live in the United States of America this is what I’m looking for do they have it in the United States
That is the award Joel was alluding to when describing the man in the Panama Hat and his Whisky Bible. 🙂
I’m a displaced Canadian currently enjoying the lower prices of Scotch in Europe. However, I’m keen to explore more Canadian whisky, which I feel is greatly misunderstood by many, and will be picking up many bottles upon my return to the motherland this summer.
I’ve managed to procure both NH and Lot 40 for a steep 40€/bottle in Europe and enjoy them both immensely. I think growing up drinking Canadian whisky gives mean love for the strong rye notes that I don’t find in Scotch. I’ll certainly be buying the Lot 40 Dark Oak when I’m back and would love to try the CS version but won’t part with $100 for a bottle.
I truly hope Canadian distillers start offering more premium whiskies as part of their usual product lines (and international distribution channels) as I believe the market is ripe for people willing to try new things, as can be seen with all of the latest limited edition Scotch releases.
The first two editions of Lot 40 CS were easily worth $100 but the two subsequent releases were a bit more polarizing for sure.