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Canadian Whisky, a review of 2012

By Davin de Kergommeaux

What a year to be a Canadian whisky aficionado. In 2012 nearly every distiller pulled out all the stops to give us so much choice in top-end whiskies, it’s hard to know where to start. And according to a press release from Beam Inc., whisky lovers right around the world agree. From September 2011 to September 2012 Canadian whisky saw 4% growth in sales. Four percent is a lot of whisky when you are already selling tens of millions of bottles.

John K. Hall of Forty Creek Distillery really upped his game this year, divesting of his winery to focus solely on making whisky. The launch of a second batch of his Port Wood Reserve was accompanied by a new “amped-up” version of Barrel Select called Copper Pot Reserve. Confederation Oak and Double Barrel Reserve joined Barrel Select as core Forty Creek whiskies along with the very Christmassy Forty Creek Cream. And once again Forty Creek’s September open house was a smashing success.

Beam’s two main brands, Alberta Premium and Canadian Club each took different directions, with Alberta Premium introducing a new flavour profile in the succulent and hugely popular Dark Horse. It’s an absolute bargain at $30.00. Meanwhile, Canadian Club launched two new flavoured whiskies dubbed Dock 57, and two ready-to-drink whisky sodas. Canadian Club also re-jigged its packaging to look as different as possible from the familiar bottles tucked away in Don Draper’s desk. It also re-formulated its ever-popular 10-year-old Reserve as a 9 year old, re-naming it “Triple Aged.”

Corby’s scored big with the connoisseur crowd – huge actually – with the re-release after a decade’s absence, of the stellar Lot No. 40, and Pike Creek 10 year old. These two long-lost drams from the Canadian Whisky Guild of the late 1990s are bold and bursting with flavour. Lot 40, in its absence, having become the Holy Grail of Canadian whisky, is now available again in liquor stores right across the country. Add to these Wiser’s Spiced and the re-launch of Wiser’s Small Batch and it has been a very good year for Corby’s. Incidentally, Corby’s are the folks who now run the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor.

Not to be outdone, the ever-popular and often sold out Gibson’s Finest brand added a special release to celebrate the 100th Grey Cup Canadian Football match. William Grant & Sons, which owns the Gibson’s line recruited Glenfiddich blender, Brian Kinsman to create a brand new blend. He then tweaked his creation with just enough maple syrup to bring out elegant and crispy oak barrel notes that had been hidden below the threshold of taste. It was an excellent addition to the already popular Gibson’s Sterling, 12, and 18-year-olds.

Canadian Mist was still riding high on the strength of Collingwood, a premium whisky it introduced in 2011. Once it has matured and been blended, Collingwood is poured into a large marrying vat where it rests with toasted maple staves. This imbues it, not with maple notes, but with a bright fruitiness that centres on Bing cherries.

Controversy over the bottle shape – a throwback to 1950s classiness – helped generate lots of chat board chatter for Collingwood.

With supplies of Crown Royal XR running low, Diageo asked blender Andrew MacKay to come up with a new treasure and he obliged by mingling barrels of rye blending whisky from the now silent LaSalle Distillery in Quebec, with corn and barley whiskies from Gimli Manitoba. The original XR can still be found in some stores in Canada, but the new year will almost certainly see these replaced with the new LaSalle version.

The big story from Black Velvet Distillery was its new Toasted Caramel edition. This is not sipping whisky. Rather it is a liqueur-like aperitif or digestif that overflows with campfire-toasted marshmallows and rich creamy caramel. Blasphemy you say, to flavour whisky? Perhaps to some, but Black Velvet Toasted Caramel is bringing whisky flavours to a whole new demographic.

One of the most exciting new releases of 2012 was Highwood 25 year old. This long-aged whisky was released in a single batch of 6,000 bottles to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede. And recent versions of Highwood’s Century Reserve Lot 15/25 have been even better than the scrumptious and oh-so-wonderfully-oaky early versions. Meanwhile, Highwood’s White Owl, aged white whisky just keeps trucking along as quickly as the distiller can fill the bottles. Independent bottlers, the Fountana Group, also tapped Highwood to supply liquid for the October launch of their Canadian Rockies brand in Taiwan.

Among micro-distillers, two emerged with home-blended bottlings of sourced whisky. This is just a brilliant idea and will save a lot of tears later when their own precious and limited home-distilled spirits are ready for bottling. Both Still Waters, with its medal-winning 1+11 blend and Saskatchewan’s Last Mountain Distillery has taken this innovative step.

Independent bottlers made great strides too. Oregon’s Pendleton whisky added an all-rye-grain bottling called Pendleton 1910, while Jefferson’s and WhistlePig made further in-roads with its Canadian-made straight rye whiskies. The top story though, came from Masterson’s. Its 10-year-old Straight Rye, after winning gold at the 2011 Canadian Whisky Awards in January, secured distribution in Canada. There is no question that Masterson’s sets the pace for Canadian-made straight rye.

All in all 2012 has been a very successful year for Canadian whisky with each distiller bringing something new and premium to liquor store shelves. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: what a great time to be a Canadian whisky lover.

Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of Canadian Whisky The Portable Expert released in 2012 by McClelland & Stewart.