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.