At the Canadian Whisky Awards held in Victoria, BC earlier this year, Forty Creek founder John Hall took the podium to accept a Lifetime Achievement award.
“Canadian whisky is Canada’s spirit,” Hall declared. “It’s like hockey or maple syrup.”
He has a point. Canada’s homegrown spirit is a point of patriotic pride, much as Americans love to celebrate made-in-the-USA Bourbon. Hall—who sold Forty Creek to Campari USA in 2014 for a reported $120.5 million—rightly scooped up eight medals for various bottlings at the awards ceremony that evening. (Though not reviewed below, the Forty Creek Barrel Select is well worth seeking out.)
But somehow, quietly, Canadian whisky has reached a crossroads in the last year or two. It’s no longer just a mild-mannered whisky meant for mixing. Just look at Lot No. 40, a full-bodied caramel-and-spice sipper, or the newly-released Alberta Rye Dark Batch, with an unusual toffee and almost amaro-like herbaceous flavor profile, and you’ll see what I mean.
That doesn’t mean that “smooth” and “mellow” are no longer part of the Canadian whisky lexicon. Bottlings like the maple-y Collingwood or the luscious, pecan pie nuanced Crown Royal Reserve are still plenty mellow and easy to sip, but hardly forgettable.
In other words, Canadian whisky is no longer just Canada’s spirit. It’s gone mainstream. It’s rapidly becoming a world-class category, one to contend with Scotch, Bourbon and other highly renowned whiskey categories.
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel (Canada; Diageo, New York, NY), $55, 98 points. One of 50 component whiskies that go into the standard Crown Royal blend, this complex, delicious sipping whisky starts out with maple and vanilla aromas that then transition into enticing notes of tropical fruit and Sherry on the palate. It finishes long, warming and spicy.
Lot No. 40 Canadian Rye Whiskey (Canada; Pernod Ricard USA, New York, NY); $45, 97 points. This full-bodied blended whisky hits all the right notes, starting with plenty of rich caramel and oak tones on the nose and palate, plus touches of butterscotch, spicy cinnamon and clove. It finishes long, slightly oily and mouthfilling. Sip it straight or add a splash of sweet vermouth.
Collingwood (Canada; Brown-Forman, Louisville, KY); $27, 93 points. Noted for an aging process that unusually includes maple wood, this light, easy-sipping whisky is distinctly sweet and mapley on the palate. Bold vanilla and brown sugar flavors are sprinkled with baking spice accents on the drying, lip-smacking finish. Best Buy.
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky (Canada; Sazerac Co., Frankfort, KY); $50, 91 points. Dark honey in the glass, this whisky boasts maple and cedar aromas in the bouquet. Expect lots of spice on the palate, including clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne and black pepper, all smoothed over by a ribbon of maple and honey. It finishes big, round, buttery and mouthwatering.
Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky (Canada; Beam Suntory, Chicago, IL); $30, 90 points. This Canadian whisky is blended with high-rye Bourbon and a touch of Sherry, yielding a deep amber hue and unusual notes of herbaceous, almost amaro-like sarsaparilla and allspice. The finish shows dark notes of toffee, spicy Mexican chocolate and crème brûlée, plus a brush of alcohol heat. Best Buy.
Bison Ridge Special Reserve 8 Years Old (Canada; Prestige Wine & Spirits Group, St. Paul, MN); $20, 89 points. Golden and bright, this mellow and mild whisky has a soft core of tropical fruit accented by hints of butterscotch, lemon cream and ginger. It finishes dry, with a touch of campfire smokiness and mouthwatering saline on the exit.
Black Velvet Reserve (Canada; Constellation Brands, Victor, NY); $22, 89 points. This maple-hued, 8-year-old whisky has a light, fruity aroma and light feel on the palate, with notes of vanilla, oak, espresso and clove. A flicker of alcohol heat creeps in on the long, drying finish.
Dillon’s The White Rye (Canada; ECU Imports, Coral Springs, FL); $38, 89 points. Made with Canadian-grown rye but without wood aging, this clear spirit has a sweet, slightly floral fragrance and shows surprisingly delicate on the palate. Notes of pear and white flowers lead into spicy hints of ginger and white pepper spice on the finish. A nice change from often-rough “white dog,” mix this well-structured white whisky into citrusy drinks.