Canadian political historians like to use phrases like “evolution, not revolution” when describing our country’s history.
As with pretty much everything else in Canadian life, we compare the development of our nation’s institutions to those south of the 49th parallel. So, it should come as no surprise that the emergence of an “upscale” Canadian whisky market is the result of a gradual evolution and not a US-style “bourbon boom.
Forty Creek founder John K Hall was a winemaker by trade and, in 1992, he started Forty Creek distillery with Master Blender Bill Ashburn. As far as I know (and I could be wrong), there was no sourced whisky, no contrived stories about “great great great grandpappy’s secret recipe” or any such nonsense. The first Forty Creek release was in 2000. That’s commendable in and of itself. Eight years is a long time to wait for some return on investment.
The inaugural Forty Creek releases were well-received and signalled a subtle shift in the Canadian whisky landscape. Here was an affordable Canadian whisky that could be (should be?) sipped neat or on the rocks. I’m not sure if there’s a secret to Forty Creek’s success, but my own biases suggest that the use of virgin oak in corn-based blended whisky has something to do with it. Many Canadian whiskies rely on used cooperage and the result can be underwhelming at times, hence the endless use of the words “smooth” and “light” in its marketing. That’s not to say that Forty Creek doesn’t use the “s-word” in their media; they do. In fact, I think the word “smooth” is required by Canadian law to be on all Canadian whisky labels. I kid, sort of.
If you’ve ever seen a bottle of Forty Creek in your local grog shop, it’s likely been the Barrel Select. My history with this whisky is mostly positive, but in the past year or two I’ve hit a few less-than-stellar bottles. Of course, when ordering in a bar or sampling whisky at a friend’s place, you never know how long the whisky has been opened or how it’s been stored. Ergo, judgement under those circumstances should be tempered with discretion.
Forty Creek Barrel Select – Review
Colour: Medium gold.
On the nose: Sweet notes predominate. Butterscotch and caramel, very much like Werther’s Originals, caramel popcorn, rich and deep brown sugar notes, some vanilla and light rye spice in the background. Take your time and let it breathe and you may notice a bit of nuttiness in the background and a slight savoury note. Very full and inviting.
In the mouth: Rich arrival, surprisingly rich for a 40% ABV whisky, more butterscotch/caramel, a bit of milk chocolate, very light rye and pepper notes in the background with a bit of a light citrus note throughout. The finish is medium length, buttery and sweet with hints of berries (blackberries, raspberries) making an appearance. There is a touch of bitterness (grapefruit pith) at the death which some might find distracting or unpleasant. I don’t generally love this type of note in a whisky, but it’s not overwhelming here, and it does help to reset the palate and provides a nice contrast to the sweetness of the nose and palate. This is a very friendly whisky.
This is a very easy drinking whisky. It makes for a great “background” whisky when you’re having drinks with friends and you don’t want to spend all of your time or attention on what you’re drinking. But, sip it from a Glencairn glass, take your time, and there is some complexity here, albeit subtle. I can’t help but feel this one would be improved at a higher proof, maybe in the 48% ABV to 50% ABV range, but I’m biassed towards (moderately) higher proof whiskies. I think (rightly or wrongly) that there might be a bit more balance or that the rye spice and cask notes would balance out the whisky a bit better at a higher proof. That said, I don’t think you can find a better Canadian whisky for $29.
- Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Absolutely
- Would I order this in a bar or pub? Without hesitation. This is a pretty common whisky in bars and it is generally a safe bet. Even a “sub-par” pour is pretty good.
- Would I purchase a full bottle? Yes. It’s in my regular rotation, but it is not one I need to own all the time.
Forty Creek claims that their Copper Pot Reserve is “A bold whisky with intense spicy flavours resulting from higher degrees of ageing in new oak…this unique, delectable blend is bottled at a higher proof to complement its deep flavours.” Only in Canada is 43% ABV considered bold. Nevertheless, I’ve often had this bottle on my shelf as my “house whisky” for sharing with friends. The weakest batches can be pedestrian but inoffensive, while the better batches can be pretty darned good. It sells for about $34 in Ontario, which places it slightly above the “bottom shelf mixing” crowd.
Forty Creek Copper Pot – Review
Colour: Copper (too obvious?).
On the nose: A big hit of those individually wrapped Kraft soft caramels, a touch of rye spice, a hint of orange zest. To be perfectly frank, it’s not all that bold. I feel like this whisky used to be a bit more inviting than this bottle is. Maybe my nose and palate have changed.
In the mouth: Medium bodied, more soft caramels, almonds, a touch of butter, a hint of black pepper and nutmeg. The finish is short to medium length and shows a bit of pepper and nutmeg. There are some faint apricot and orange flavours, but sadly there’s also some bitterness that mars the finish, more pronounced here than in the Barrel Select. This bitterness is not uncommon with some Forty Creek whiskies in recent years. Sometimes it works, but I don’t think it does in this bottle of Copper Pot Reserve.
I hate to sound like Grampa Simpson, but I feel as though this whisky was much better a few years ago. Perhaps I’ve just had bad luck. Maybe this bottle was from a less than stellar batch? I don’t think I’m the only one who finds this one a bit inconsistent though.
Forty Creek Copper Pot used to earn “Silver Medal” status regularly at the Canadian Whisky Awards. This past year it was awarded “Bronze Medal” status alongside whiskies which are mostly “mixers.” Now I know awards aren’t everything, but to be fair, the judging for the Canadian Whisky Awards is done blind so that only smell, taste, and texture affect the score.
I can’t help but wonder if quality control has been affected since founder John K. Hall retired, or maybe it has something to do with Campari Group buying the brand and managing things differently. Whence comes the bitterness on the finish? Is the whisky proofed down to bottling strength too quickly? Does that really matter? It’s not scientifically proven, but some believe that slow dilution or “proofing down” of a whisky before bottling prevents the development of soapy, bitter, or other unpleasant flavours. Some distillers believe that gradually proofing down a whisky results in a more integrated flavour than a quick dilution.
- Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Sure. It’s generally at least OK.
- Would I order this in a bar or pub? It depends on the bar and the price. Maybe.
- Would I purchase a full bottle? Maybe. The Barrel Select seems to be more consistent. When the Copper Pot Reserve is from a good batch, it’s quite good…but not all batches are created equal.
If Forty Creek has led the charge and been one of the “darlings” of the Canadian whisky renaissance, Collingwood whisky has been slow to join the fray. Say what you will about “mixing whisky,” but it sells. Making money is kind of important to any business. Collingwood whisky is made at the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario. The distillery’s flagship mixing whisky, Canadian Mist, bears the distillery’s name. The Collingwood label is used for two slightly more “upscale” offerings: Collingwood Blended Whisky, and Collingwood Double Barreled.
Finding clear answers as to the makeup of Collingwood Double Barreled has been a bit tricky for me. Early reports suggested that this one is made up entirely of Collingwood’s rye “flavouring” whisky. This Canadian whisky enthusiast rejoiced at a whisky that wasn’t overwhelmingly made up of double column distilled corn “base whisky” aged in well-used barrels. I’m not an expert by any means, but Canadian whisky’s (over) reliance on “base whisky” is my personal bugbear.
According to actual Canadian whisky expert Mark Bylock, there’s no sherry or caramel colouring added to the Double Barreled, whereas the original Collingwood includes both. Double Barreled is also finished in virgin American oak (heavy toast, light char) for under a year. All of Collingwood’s whiskies spend time in a vat with maple wood staves which is a unique feature of Collingwood whisky.
But wait, according to one of Collingwood’s Consumer Engagement Associates, the Double Barreled offering is a blend of at least two whiskies; one has a “mashbill that is a combination of corn, rye and malted barley, and it is blended with rich, aromatic flavouring whisky from our single-distillery stock.” So, there you have it: it’s not all “flavouring” whisky, but from the comments it seems that the “base” whisky uses a mashbill, something not common in Canadian whisky. For those who are unaware: most Canadian whiskies are distilled and aged separately and then blended before bottling.
Collingwood Double Barreled – Review
Colour: Clover honey.
On the nose: Brown sugar, apricots, honey, some herbs (mint and rosemary perhaps?), peaches, pickled hot peppers, there’s a touch of ethanol/acetone but it’s subtle and doesn’t really distract from the overall experience.
In the mouth: There’s a slightly waxy texture at first which I love, but it thins out somewhat quickly. Then there’s toasted oak, icing sugar, honey, red apples, rye grain, and a touch of cinnamon. The pickled hot peppers return on the finish with drying oak tannins lingering. The finish is definitely on the short side and there’s a touch of orange zest at the “death.”
This is an interesting whisky that strays just enough from the standard “light and sweet” profile that is typical of lower priced Canadian blends to stand out from the crowd. Make no mistake though; this is Canadian whisky. It’s not entirely matured in virgin oak so don’t expect a big, sweet oak bomb like your run-of-the-mill straight bourbons. This is Canadian rye whisky, not bourbon. It’s not trying to be bourbon. I also appreciate that Collingwood bottled this whisky at 45% ABV. It is a gesture that makes me feel seen and heard as an enthusiast. Higher ABV and a great value for money ($37 CAD) bump this one up a bit in my estimation.
- Would I accept a glass of this if it was offered to me? Without a doubt.
- Would I order this in a bar or pub? Yes.
- Would I purchase a full bottle? Yes. I’m certain this won’t be the last bottle of Collingwood Double Barreled I own.
Barrel Select and Copper Pot images courtesy of Total Wine. Double Barreled photo courtesy of Collingwood.