Canadian whisky is the Rodney Dangerfield of brown spirits — it just doesn’t get the same respect as bourbon and single malts do in America.
Here, the category is dominated by brands like Crown Royal and Canadian Club. (Canada omits the “e” like the Scots do.) These labels are perennially popular in the U.S.; according to the Distilled Spirits Council, Canadian whisky sales rose by 7 percent between 2011 and 2016.
Their mainstream success hasn’t done much to elevate consumer expectations, though, particularly among discerning brown spirits enthusiasts and collectors. Many people unfairly think of Canadian whisky as unexciting, cheaply blended spirits that will do in a pinch. While this may be true when perusing the bottom shelf at your local liquor store, there’s much more to the category.
The recent Northern Border Rare Releases Collection, for example, is a set of aged and special-edition whiskies: Pike Creek 21 Year Old, Lot No. 40 Cask Strength, Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity, and the oldest, J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old.
All are under the Pernod Ricard umbrella and distilled at Hiram Walker, and are sold for $70 to $165. If they were bourbons, they’d be going for at least twice as much.
“The Rare Releases are carefully curated and finely tuned extensions [of] the standard Northern Border Collection,” says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of the book “Canadian Whisky“ and all-around expert on the subject. “They plan to have a new selection of four Rare Releases each year, one for each of the core brands.”
According to de Kergommeaux, there is actually quite a bit of Canadian whisky older than 20 years available in stores throughout Canada. (As of now, the Rare Releases are only sold in Canada.) He points to Danfield’s and Century Reserve’s 21 year old releases as some examples, although these are not readily available in the U.S. J.P. Wiser’s 18 Years Old is available here, however, as well as the recently released Orphan Barrel Entrapment, a 25-year-old whisky distilled at Crown Royal.
If you’re unfamiliar with some of these names, you’re not alone. Still, with Americans’ growing thirst for whisky, we could be at a precipice after which aged Canadian whisky finally gets recognized south of its border.
“The oldest [release] was Canadian Club 40 year old, released in 2017, and likely there are still a few bottles out there,” de Kergommeaux says. “There is still lots of 40-year-old Canadian Club waiting for bottling. So yes, you can pretty much always find whisky over 20 years old in Canada.” Here in the U.S., you can likely find a bottle on the secondary market, albeit marked up quite a bit.
De Kergommeaux says that it’s not just the age of these Canadian releases that may have them competing with the likes of the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection or Orphan Barrel releases, but their proof and barrel finishing as well.
“Lot No. 40, for example, is cask strength, and this is an uncommon occurrence (in Canada) for Canadian whisky,” he says. “The new Pike Creek will be a blend of whiskies finished in Hungarian, French, and American oaks.” And the current Pike Creek 21 was finished in a Speyside malt cask.
The bottom line is that age doesn’t equal quality in Canadian or any other type of whisky, but it certainly does attract customers. And there are, in fact, some incredibly tasty bottles coming from Canada that have spent a couple of decades in barrels. Given how Canadian whisky remains eternally popular here in America, and its continued and projected growth, expect to see more releases like the Northern Border Collection.
Five Aged Canadian Whiskies to Try
Lot No. 40 Cask Strength
This is a 100 percent rye whisky aged for 12 years that was bottled at 55 percent ABV, something that is unusual for Canadian whisky, as de Kergommeaux mentioned. Regular Lot No. 40 is bottled at 43 percent ABV and is a younger whisky, so expect a stronger, more intense sipping experience from this. Average price: $70.
Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity
Three grains were used to make this 17-year-old whisky: corn, rye, and wheat. Three corn whiskies were blended together, one aged in new virgin oak, one aged in once-used ex-bourbon barrels, and one in reused barrels, along with a rye aged in ex-bourbon barrels and a wheat whisky aged in virgin oak. Average price: $80.
Pike Creek 21 Year Old Speyside Finish
Pike Creek 21 is a blend consisting mostly of corn whisky with about 5 percent rye. It was finished in a barrel previously used to age an unnamed Scotch whisky from Chivas Brothers, giving it just a whisper of peat smoke flavor. Average price: $90.
Orphan Barrel Entrapment
This is a 25-year-old whisky that was released as part of Diageo’s Orphan Barrel series. The whisky is actually from Crown Royal, originally part of a batch of the Deluxe. The mash bill is 97 percent corn, 3 percent malted barley, and the flavor is deep and oaky. Average price: $150
J.P. Wiser’s 35 Year Old
Barring Canadian Club 40, this is believed to be one of the oldest Canadian whiskies currently released. It consists primarily of whisky aged in ex-bourbon barrels and is blended with a little bit of rye aged in virgin oak. Average price: $165.