Don Livermore, master blender for Canadian spirits-maker Corby, recalls seeing an encouraging sign in an Atlanta liquor store recently. “There’s a rye section there,” he told me during an interview, stressing the “section” part. “They had 50 different brands.” Though most were American spirits, he said the large selection seemed like a good omen for Canadian whisky’s prospects south of the border.
I wouldn’t be so bullish. Colloquially termed “rye,” Canadian whisky has, confusingly, typically always been made mainly from sweeter corn (as is U.S. bourbon) or soft wheat, with only a tiny proportion of spicy rye added as a backbone seasoning, like pepper to a steak. Very little would qualify as rye under American law, which dictates that the spirit be composed mainly of the grain.
And yet, even as U.S. brands emerge from bourbon’s long shadow south of the border, the rye tide is having an impact here, thanks not just to American imports, but also to the grain’s growing prominence as a component in domestic products, from Corby’s terrific Lot No. 40, which I reviewed earlier this year, to Collingwood’s excellent, soon-to-be-released Rye 21 Year Old and Forty Creek’s Heart of Gold.
Forty Creek Heart of Gold Reserve, Ontario
Score: 95; price: $69.95
Grain varieties are like children to Forty Creek whisky-maker John K. Hall; he seems to love them all equally. In this case corn, barley and rye, the signature trio of his exquisitely balanced range of whiskies. With this limited-release gem (just 9,000 bottles produced), Hall has kicked up the rye presence using a few distilling tricks, including a wine-yeast strain to enhance the grain’s floral character and the practice of taking a narrower “cut” of liquid from the so-called heart of the still run (hence Heart of Gold). This is glorious, silky and simultaneously lively and complex, with notes of peach and orange mingling with roasted nuts, cereal and baking spices. Think of it as liquid granola – of the gods; $69.99 in British Columbia, $69.95 in Manitoba, $69.99 in New Brunswick.
Collingwood Rye 21 Year Old, Ontario
Score: 93; price: $59.95
Collingwood burst on the scene a couple of years ago with a whisky in a distinctive cologne-style decanter. Made in the Canadian Mist plant in Collingwood, Ont., by the distillery’s Kentucky-based owner, Brown-Forman of Jack Daniel’s fame, the spirit was distinctive, too. After years mellowing in oak, the corn-heavy blend spent a brief “finishing” period in contact with toasted maple staves for a syrupy sweetness. This new, limited-release 21-year-old is, by contrast, all rye, sourced from a forgotten batch laid down in the Canadian Mist warehouse in 1991. It ranks in a different league with more stories to tell. Creamy, rich and bold, it’s seductively sweet, with notes of caramel, maple, date, prune and fig and a Cognac-like vinous character. A marvellous after-dinner dram. Available early December only in Ontario.
Masterson’s 10-Year-Old Rye, United States
Score: 92; price: $75.50
Call this a cross-border rye. Distilled in Calgary by Alberta Distillers – Canada’s only rye-focused producer – it’s packaged and sold by 35 Maple, a company owned by members of the prominent Sebastiani winemaking family of California. Made from 100-per-cent rye grain in a small-batch pot still, it’s bold and very spicy, underpinned by soft honey, peach, vanilla and chocolate nuances, with tobacco-like earthiness running all the way through. Too bad about the British Columbia price: $130.72 in B.C., $84.98 in New Brunswick, $85.61 in Nova Scotia, $89.99 in Newfoundland.
Wiser’s Red Letter, Ontario
Score: 92; price: $115.25
Far too smooth to be likened to most U.S. ryes, this new ultrapremium – and very limited – bottling from Corby, which owns the Wiser’s brand, is made from a mash bill containing only about 10-per-cent rye. Still, that’s roughly double the content of Wiser’s entry-level whiskies and many other Canadian brands. And the spirit manages to make the minority grain’s presence felt. Master blender Don Livermore’s interpretation of a 19th-century style espoused by whisky baron J.P. Wiser, it’s unusual not just for its relatively high rye content, but also for its heavy reliance on new oak and lack of chill filtering, a stabilization technique thought to strip flavour. Pronounced vanilla, toffee and dried-fruit nuances are carried on a creamy texture that firms up with lively spice in the second act. Call me an infidel but I think it comes alive with an ice cube; $99.95 in B.C., $99.95 in Saskatchewan, $99.99 in Manitoba, $100 in Quebec.
Knob Creek Rye, Kentucky
Score: 91; price: $54.95
A limited quantity of this extension to Jim Beam’s super-premium bourbon brand recently spilled into Ontario and it’s going fast. Rich, sweet and round, like Knob Creek’s popular bourbon, this is unusual for rye, a spirit I tend to associate with a drier profile. But it’s mighty fine and powerful (at 50-per-cent alcohol), with welcome spice framing the rich marmalade, caramel and tinned-peach syrupiness. Available in Ontario.
Wild Turkey Rye, Kentucky
Score: 90; price: $32.70
Good, true-to-the-grain rye at a very good price. Dry and bracing, this tastes like black licorice between slices of rye bread, with overtones of spiced apple cider and charred wood. A great choice for a Manhattan or Sazerac. Available in Ontario.
Alberta Premium Dark Horse, Alberta
Score: 89; price: $29.95
The horse sure is dark, roughly the mahogany hue of vanilla extract. It tastes like it looks, too, thick and opulent, with a pleasantly sweet profile thanks to extended time in wood, specifically heavily charred barrels. Bottled at 45-per-cent alcohol, it’s syrupy at first, with loads of vanilla and toffee complemented by dried fruit, eventually balanced by a solid punch of dry spice. Launched last year and made mainly with rye (with a dollop of corn), it’s a robust Canadian whisky for bourbon or spiced-rum lovers; $28.99 in B.C., $32.49 in Saskatchewan, and $29.99 in Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
Beppi Crosariol is co-author, with The Globe’s Lucy Waverman, of The Flavour Principle, a sumptuous new cookbook and drinks compendium, published by HarperCollins.