I got two important press releases on the same day recently. The first was for a 52-year-old Bowmore, an old and rare single malt Scotch, at a breath-taking price of $30,000.
An hour later, the second one arrived for another old and rare 41-year-old whisky, Canadian Club Chronicles No. 1, Water of Windsor. While its $300 price was a tiny fraction of what the Bowmore is going for, it was no less shocking, since, after all, who pays $300 for a bottle of Canadian whisky?
Americans buy a lot of Canadian whisky–Crown Royal, Canadian Club, Black Velvet, Seagram’s VO, Canadian Mist, and more–but it almost all goes into cocktails. Canadian makes a lushly sweet Manhattan. It also mixes quite well with soda; it’s no coincidence that one of the biggest selling ginger ales is called Canada Dry.
As a result, we don’t think of Canadian whisky in the same way we now think of single malt Scotch: rare, aged, and sometimes sold for thousands of dollars. We think of Canadian whisky as the bottles and cases stacked high at the liquor store, and we look for whatever bottle is on sale. (Of course, it wasn’t that long ago that blended Scotch was popularly mixed with soda, too.)
But I think it’s time to change how we think about Canadian whisky.
Let’s start with this $300 bottle of Canadian Club. Where did it come from?Tish Harcus is the brand ambassador, and she’s been with CC since 1987. She knows more about the whisky than anyone else. But this project predates her.
“This whisky was something our master blender laid down in 1977,” she said. “There were no notes, no records on what his plans were for it. Finally, [as the whisky turned] 38, I asked, ‘What are we going to do with this?’ It was Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. They gave me the green light to release the 40-year-old. Then I said, ‘We have to start at $1,000.’ They looked at me like I had five heads. ‘You can’t ask that!’”
Ultimately, 7,000 bottles of the whisky were released exclusively in Canada for around $250. “It sold out in eight weeks,” Harcus said, and laughed. “I started promoting it across the country, and by the time I got to BC it was all sold!”
Davin de Kergommeaux, the author of the definitive Canadian Whisky: A Portable Guide, was one of the lucky folks who got a few bottles of it. “When Canadian Club 40-year-old was released, I lined up at the liquor store before opening. They had it in four-bottle cases and it was like a Walmart sale. You had to grab a case and run, or get trampled. By the time I was through [with] the cashier, they were all gone.”
Clearly Canadians get it. They aren’t alone, according to de Kergommeaux. “When Fountana Group released their Canadian Rockies 35-year-old, they set the price around $650 and it sold out in no time, in Alberta, and in Taiwan. These are Taiwanese guys who are not inhibited by Canada’s self-doubt. They set a fair price and got it.”
That’s all well and good, but is the stuff worth it? I asked to taste the CC 41 to find out for myself. They sent me a 100 mL sample, and I wasted very little time in getting it into my usual Glencairn tasting glass. After all, if that’s how I taste rare Scotch and hand-selected bourbons, Canadian deserves no less.
Lots of nice stuff on the aroma: light cedar notes wrap around caramel and surprisingly fresh fruit aromas, including melon and sweet white grapes. Wow. Oak and rye sparkle on the palate, surrounded by oily caramel and toffee, with, again, that feeling of a light cedar veneer around it all. A gift of whisky wrapped in light wood notes. High notes of white pepper pop on the roof of my mouth, and it all fades slowly in a sunset of caramel, spice, and a lingering faint breath of cedar. It’s as Canadian as a fishing trip, but one taken in a vintage canoe, with hand-tied lures, split bamboo rods, and a guide who smokes your fish as you catch them.
What exactly makes it Canadian? It’s the uniquely broad approach to blending. This whisky is made with that one set of barrels, laid down in 1977, but then the blenders added small amounts of actual Cognac, straight rye whisky, and sherry for additional depth and complexity. Only in Canada is that possible; only in Canada is it allowed.
“It is the most innovative and adaptable whisky in the world,” said Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender for Corby, the company that makes Wiser’s, and Lot 40, and Pike Creek. “The rules don’t tell me how to use a mash bill, how to distill it, the type of barrel to use. It leaves the creativity to the blender. Canadian whisky is diverse; isn’t that Canada? Our whisky forebears laid down the rules for whisky, and it reflects us. I wouldn’t want to be a blender anywhere else.”
Corby’s Northern Border Rare Releases in 2017 gave us a taste of the future of Canadian whisky. Four bottlings included a 12-year-old Lot 40 Cask Strength, a 21-year-old Pike Creek finished in Speyside malt casks, a Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 17-year-old three grain blend, and a simply stunning J.P. Wiser’s 35-year-old. These were snapped up, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this year’s offering at a substantially higher price.
Canadian whisky has been a bargain, one I’ve chuckled over every time I bought a bottle of Wiser’s 18, or Lot 40, or Crown Royal XO, or any of Forty Creek’s great bottlings.
But the door’s closing on Bargaintown, friends. Now’s the time to investigate Canadian whisky, and get some bottles in your bunker before everyone else catches on.