• Santina Croniser
  • Canadian whiskies, awaiting tasting

Canada has a reputation for producing light, smooth whiskies without much whisky flavor—which makes them popular among people who don’t particularly like whisky, and anathema to those who do. (Unlike the U.S., Canada, Scotland, and Japan spell “whisky” without the e.) That reputation isn’t entirely undeserved; for many years, the Canadian whiskies that were being exported to the U.S. were mostly along the lines of Seagram’s Seven, Canadian Club, and Canadian Mist—which are generally pretty tasteless—earning Canadian whisky the nickname “brown vodka.”

In the last several years, however, better Canadian whiskies have been arriving in the U.S., and it’s starting to get more respect. That message doesn’t seem to have reached many of the whisky enthusiasts who attended Chicago’s WhiskyFest 2015 last Friday evening, though: while the first seminar my tasting companion and I attended was packed (“The Most Interesting Whisk(e)y Portfolio in the World,” which admittedly had a better name), a talk by distiller Don Livermore on the rebirth of Canadian blending was only about a third full. Livermore is the master distiller for J.P. Wiser’s, which has been making whisky in Canada for more than 150 years, but was introduced to the U.S. only in late 2013.

Not surprisingly, the tasting began and ended with Wiser’s whiskies, though Livermore threw in a couple other Canadian whiskies from Corby, the distributor for Wiser’s. We started with Wiser’s Rye, which is quite smooth for a rye whisky, without much of the rye spice I’d expect (but not at all like vodka). I tasted raisin, oak, and some brighter fruit notes like cherry. Oddly, I liked the regular rye a lot better than the Wiser’s 18-year-old, which smelled like straight alcohol and tasted astringent, with distinct notes of acetone. I was surprised to learn that this whisky is only 80 proof; it tastes much hotter, and the aging somehow does nothing to smooth it out.

Pike Creek, on the other hand, is 80 proof and not only smooth but soft, making it incredibly easy to drink. Aged in bourbon barrels and finished in port, it has lots of fruitiness, vanilla, and honey. And it couldn’t be more different from the 100-percent-rye Lot 40, which is spicy, funky, and fabulously complex. It’s got tons of rye flavor, some sourness like sourdough bread, and baking spices, finishing with some citrus.

The last two whiskies we tasted were both experiments of Livermore’s that aren’t available commercially, which is too bad because they’re phenomenal. A 30-year rye smelled like green apple and had tons of bright fruit flavor—apple and peach—with some boozy spice. We finished with “Don’s PhD,” so named because Livermore holds a PhD in brewing and distilling from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University that, he joked, isn’t entirely necessary for a master blender (I don’t have a lot of notes for that one, but I do remember it being good).

On Livermore’s recommendation we made our way to the Forty Creek table after the talk for a little more Canadian whisky. Unfortunately, while there was plenty of whisky, the people behind the table were deep in conversation and uninterested in offering us any, even after we’d stood there for several minutes. We ended up pouring ourselves healthy samples of the Double Barrel Reserve and beating a hasty retreat. The whisky turned out to be well worth risking dirty looks from the brand representatives if we got caught (fortunately, they didn’t pay any more attention to us when we were pouring the whisky than when we were waiting to be helped). It’s very smooth and creamy, a bit floral, with lots of toffee and vanilla and a little pepper and rye spice.

Some of the first whiskeys I tried in the evening also have a connection to Canada: though Whistlepig Distillery is located in Vermont, the alcohol for its signature ten-year, 100-percent-rye whiskey originally came from Alberta Distillers in Canada, and some still does. The new product they were sampling at WhiskyFest, however, is not from Canada but from MGP, the Indiana manufacturer that also supplies Templeton, Angel’s Envy, Redemption, and Bulleit, among other distilleries (Whistlepig seems to have learned from Templeton’s mistakes after last year’s backlash; the brand rep told me where the whiskey was from before I asked). It’s called the Old World Series. After getting nine-year-old whiskey (95 percent rye, 5 percent malt) from MGP, Whistlepig ages it for another three years and then finishes it in various wine casks: sauternes, Madeira, and port. The plan is eventually to blend the three, but for now they’re releasing the results individually in limited quantities (it’s available only in New York, Illinois, and California; the sauternes is out now and the others will be out in the next few weeks).

What stood out to me most was how smooth and easy to drink the Old World Series is compared to Whistlepig’s other whiskeys—which can be explained partly by the fact that this series is bottled at 90 proof, unlike Whistlepig Rye (100 proof), TripleOne (111 proof), and the Boss Hog (117-134 proof, depending on the year). There’s also a little less rye, but I think it’s mostly the lower proof and the wine-barrel aging that smooth these whiskeys out so much. The sauternes-finished one is spicy, sweet, and oaky, the lightest-bodied of the bunch. The Madeira has a fruitier, fuller flavor—blackberry, cherry, and black pepper—and is equally spicy. The port barrels tame the rye spice almost entirely, making it the smoothest of the three, but also add a bit of sweetness and lots of red wine flavor. Full-bodied and fruity, with all the complexity of a good wine, this was my favorite of the lot (though I’d buy any of them if I had an extra hundred-odd dollars on hand and could find them).

Some other favorites from the evening, listed in no particular order:

Stranahan’s Snowflake: Stranahan’s whiskey, aged for three to four years in new oak barrels and finished in a combination of oloroso sherry casks, cognac casks, and cherry wine barrels. I already liked the regular version of Stranahan’s, but this is a serious step up.

Koval Rye Cask Strength (not available commercially): Shockingly smooth for its 113 proof—quite sweet, not very spicy, and almost more like bourbon than rye.

Angel’s Envy Rye: Aged in rum barrels, a very sweet, smooth rye with lots of molasses flavor along with ginger, cinnamon, and other baking spices. It doesn’t have much rye spice, but I didn’t mind.

Westland American Single Malt: This isn’t the first time I’ve had the flagship product from Seattle’s Westland Distillery, but its roasty, chocolatey flavor impresses me every time.

Old Potrero 18th-Century Style Spirit: Anchor Distilling’s attempt to re-create the original grain whiskeys produced in the U.S.—a 100-percent-rye whiskey that’s been aged in toasted (rather than charred) oak barrels—is toasty and very smooth, with tons of vanilla and a distinctly woody flavor.

Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: I wrote about the Taiwanese distillery Kavalan after last year’s WhiskyFest, but I was equally taken by their whiskies this year—particularly by this rich, spicy single malt aged in oloroso sherry casks, which has lots of dark, dried-fruit flavor.