Whither Canada?

It’s no secret that Canadian offerings have been relatively underrepresented at Scotch & Ice Cream, with the bulk in a three-way comparison between Jefferson’s, Masterson’s, & WhistlePig. (You know, those “American” brands. Made in Canada.) The truth is, I haven’t had much interest, since as we know, most liquor stores have Canadian Whiskey in an uncomfortable ghetto near the collected industrial output of DeKuyper. Hey – if that’s your thing, I’m not gonna call you out for your love of 4 proof melon ball shots.

Several weeks back I had a phone call with Clay Risen and we were discussing the Canadian whiskey scene in America. To be honest, I didn’t feel like there was much to talk about – it’s the same story over and over: Great if you wanna be a quasi-baller and roll big with your Crown Royal (sorry, if it’s maple finished, I’m going to have to cut you), or do some kind of weird midcentury DDB/Leo Burnett sendup with Canadian Club. But for whisky enthusiasts, it’s been kind of bleak. Crown Royal offered their XR releases, some overpriced old rye trying to trade on the closed-distillery cachet that was more Brutini than Berluti. They weren’t bad… they just were middle of the road and certainly not worth the money.  Clay covered a lot of that ground in his recent piece on Canadian whiskey.

I was interested when I heard Lot 40 was coming to the US and had finally touched down in California. Lot 40 was on a short list of things that had my interest, so the opportunity to grab it was a welcome one. I went to the store, strolled over to the Canadian section, confidently made my way over to the Canadian section, ignoring the bargain-basement schnapps just over my shoulder, and scanned. And scanned. And scanned. Wait. It’s not here.

I looked in the case. It’s a premium whiskey, surely it’ll be alongside such amazing whiskies as Crown Royal Maple, Crown Royal Black, and Crown Royal Tarragon, Chive and Onion finish. Nope. I stepped back, less confident, and re-approached the shelf as if for the first time, and scanned looking for it. It wasn’t there! I figured the online inventory could be wrong, even though that was lame.

I rounded the corner and browsed bourbon for any interesting entries, while trying to hold back my urge to vomit at the sight of Jacob’s Ghost. Predictably, the bourbon shelf wasn’t stocking much of interest, and the case was the usual set of stuff. Until: Lot 40. In the bourbon case. Right next to WhistlePig.

This is a problem and will be a problem for Canadian whiskey in the US. This felt like one of those “separated by a common tongue” moments, even more so than the tendency to say “zed” or add the letter u to “color”. I’m not sure if the problem lies with the retailer, the distributor, or the industry in a larger sense. There’s almost a chicken and egg problem here.

Customers have not been presented with a really fantastic Canadian offering to date. Honestly, I look at whiskies like Lot 40, WhistlePig, and Masterson’s as incredible value whiskeys that don’t make much in the way of compromises. WhistlePig and Masterson’s try to obfuscate their origin and hang out in the American section, pretending they’re more or less the same as a Rittenhouse or a Sazerac. They’re not, but it’s great. They’re worlds ahead of most of the really sad LDI rye offerings, but by quietly adding the “Product of Canada” piece in the most hidden position imaginable, they undercut the quality of their source.

Retailers obviously have a bias to put things where they sell, and the Canadian whiskey section has not customarily been the spot where amazing whiskeys dwell — on shelves in the US at least. That probably explains the unbelievably odd decision to put Lot 40 next to a bunch of bourbons. Yes, it goes to to toe with a fair amount of them, but it’s different…. and that’s OK (Which consumers need to get comfortable with).

Finally, the question at the larger industry level: why keep apologizing for and obfuscating the source of a new crop of really fantastic whiskeys? Lot 40 is great in this regard, it declares itself to be a Canadian Rye Whiskey. No apologies. WhistlePig, Masterson’s and Jefferson’s would prefer to be lumped with the whiskeys produced south of the border. Perhaps they have longer-term plans to eventually be produced here (I know WhistlePig has made allusions to this), but if not, why bother?

Canadian whiskey is largely an inexpensive offering in the US, which makes it attractive against a backdrop of ever-more-expensive whiskeys from everywhere else. Part of this no doubt is due to an ocean of bad whiskey on the shelves: if all the rest of the world got from the US was Early Times and Ten High, perhaps perception would differ there, too. I’d imagine Canada is not immune to the industry-wide pressure on stocks. There’s an opportunity here though to land at 45-65 bucks a bottle with a good offering and absolutely own the “Premium Canadian Whisky” label among enthusiasts in the US. I’m always on the lookout for a better value, especially given the rising prices and outpaced quality of Scotch or the ever-younger bourbons. It’s different, and it’s staking out a new strategy, but that’s where you have the opportunity to make a land grab (which is far more rewarding, potentially, than being the eighth whisky from Scotland to “pursue a premium strategy” with dull, conservative presentation in margin-driving boxes and bottles).

This all leads to the whisky. I’ve tipped my hand that I think it’s better than the swill on most shelves in southern California. Let’s examine it.

The nose has an expected mix of spice – cinnamon and coriander; there’s some dry rye notes and a bit of cider that’s kind of lurking in the background. It’s not far off the mark of a WhistlePig but distinct nonetheless.

The palate is a little bitter at first; an odd mix of wood and an aggressive rye punch. It’s more oily and bitter rye than it is floral, but it works. There’s black pepper, cinnamon, and more of an oily quality overall. It finishes with an unexpected quick hint of savory sweetness – a hot, fresh doughnut with powdered sugar – which fades and lead to slightly bitter rye and a really pleasing sichuan peppercorn tingle in the lips and tongue.

I think the single biggest surprise to me with this is how big it is overall given the 43% strength. When I saw the strength, I initially sighed to myself and said, “another thin Canadian whisky”. Only after considering it later did I realize this really big, bold whisky that packed a punch was a lightweight in ABV. Fantastic stuff: It’s great to have a drink that’s not going to put you on your ass in the first three sips. This is no doubt in large part due to the pot still distillation, which lends an oily quality – sort of like the pot still Irish entries.

This one was a little less sweet than Masterson’s and more focused on an oily bitterness that is great and adds complexity. For my money, I prefer the dessert-in-a-glass profile of Masterson’s and (to a lesser extent) WhistlePig, but this is a worthy contender.

Let’s hope we see more of this on the shelves in the future, and more like it.

Canadian distillers, we’re waiting.

Lot 40 Canadian Rye (2012) – 43% ABV
Nose: 
Nice mix of spice – some cinnamon, a hint of coriander, a little rye dryness, even a touch of cider sweetness beneath it.
Palate:  A little bitter at first; some wood and then a pretty full-on rye profile, more oily and faintly bitter than having the floral tones rye can have. Some black pepper, a touch of cinnamon again. Slightly oily.
Finish:  A bit of sweetness not unlike powdered sugar on a freshly made donut, but it vanishes quickly, leaving a slightly bitter rye profile, some sichuan peppercorn tingle on the lips and tongue.
Comment:  Very surprisingly robust for 43%, likely owing to pot still distillation, a little less of the sweeter notes I found in Masterson’s. Another really solid Canadian rye, though I prefer the quality of WP/Masterson’s more.
Rating: B

4 thoughts on “Whither Canada?”

  1. Well said. I’m looking forward to trying Lot 40. I was pretty disappointed with the latest Wiser’s offering. Why is it that Canada sends us its best comedians, hockey players and maple syrup, but keeps all the good whiskey north of the border?

    Also, for what it’s worth, a well-positioned source tells me that Whistle Pig is now getting some of its stock from unnamed American distilleries — and yes, at least two different sources — as well as Canada.

    1. Maybe it’s a more cosmic fear of creating a whiskey equivalent of Nickelback. We devour Canadian bands, and then inevitably the barrel was scraped and Nickelback was birthed as an absolute evil. Perhaps they societally realized what this meant, and said, “you know what? We can’t let this happen to whisky, and we’re going to need to slow down on the Actor Export Program while we’re at it.” Seems reasonable, no? We couldn’t be miscommunicating this badly.

      Interesting on Whistle Pig. Not surprised. Honestly the 100% Canadian WP I had was one of the very best whiskies I can think of in recent memory. It’ll be interesting to see where that brand goes. I hope the underlying whisky still makes it way to us somehow.

      I hope you like the Lot 40 when you try it. I was really happy with it. Not a world-beater but certainly one worth drinking.

  2. There’s really nothing wrong with Nickelback…. It’s like all other music, you either like it or you don’t.

    I don’t think that Forty Creek can make enough of its premium limited edition offerings to supply the US market. That stuff sells out pretty quickly here in Ontario, but that’s something to consider trying if you like blended multigrain Whisky.

    And I believe most of the the production of “stalk and barrel” by Still Water distillery in Toronto is headed south of the border…though their single malts are not cheap and still quite young as a micro distillery just now bottling for the first time.

    But if you can source FORTY CREEK CONFEDERATION OAK OR HEART OF GOLD, i thunk you’ll be impressed.

  3. Quite honestly, Canadian whisky deserves the poor reputation it gets, at least what you Americans are parlay to. Crown Royal, Canadian Club, and low range Wisers, brown vodka indeed.

    It’s a real shame that brands like Alberta Premium Rye, Forty Creek, Pike Creek, Centennial, and the better Wisers like Legacy and the 18 year old don’t make their way below our border. The opinion of Canadian whisky would receive a much needed boost.

    And about the alcohol content, there isn’t a Canadian whisky on the market to my knowledge bottled at above 50%. It’s a pity, but the future can only look better.

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