It's tempting to describe Lot No. 40 as one of the best Canadian whiskies I have ever tried. But I know what some of my wisecracking Scotch- and bourbon-obsessed friends would retort: "Best Canadian whisky, sure. But is it any good?"
Such is the image our storied domestic spirit enjoys with many die-hard fans of single-malt and craft American spirits. Relatively light in body and designed with mixability in mind, Canadian whisky – most of it, anyway – is about as fashionable as Stephen Harper's haircut.
So, perhaps I should say it this way: Lot No. 40, priced at $39.90 in Ontario, is among the best new whiskies I tried in 2012, period. Launched by Corby in Ontario late last year and now rolling out to other provinces except Quebec, it's robust and multilayered, with bracing spice set against vanilla and toffee richness as well as chewy, raisin-like fruit. "This is a stunning whisky," says Davin de Kergommeaux, author of the recently released Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert.
In other words, save the Canada Dry for Silk Tassel or Canadian Mist; this is complex sipping whisky for a cozy winter's eve.
To be precise, it's not entirely new. The all-rye-grain spirit – a robust contrast to the sweet and mellow corn-heavy recipe favoured by Canadian whisky drinkers – was introduced about a decade ago. A limited supply was crafted by Corby's then master blender Mike Booth, who worked from a formula dating back seven generations to his Ontario ancestor Joshua Booth, a mill-owner and distiller. (The name is a tribute to the lot number near Kingston where Joshua kept his still.)
Guess what happened? The product flopped, buried in the dust of a consumer stampede toward high-end Scotch. Though it spawned some devotees, this writer among them, Corby pulled the plug.
"It was different from what the public was used to," says Don Livermore, Corby's current master blender. "There is a bit of a rye renaissance going on, and the timing seems to be better for it."
Though Canadian whisky has come to be synonymous with rye, most domestic offerings contain little, if any quantity, of that grain. We often refer to domestic brands as rye simply because the spicy ingredient was traditionally used as a minor flavouring, lending a piquant, dry character to the creamy, sweet essence of corn – like a dusting of pepper to a buttery cob.
But rye is in ascent, driven mainly by American distillers who are reviving, if in a small way, an ingredient that dominated U.S. whisky production in the 19th century. Back then, many U.S. distilleries were based in the Northeast, where hardy rye was plentiful. Sadly, Prohibition dealt a death blow to that industry. It also prompted a change in tastes, thanks in no small part to bootleg Canadian corn whisky that poured over the border into highball glasses filled with ginger ale and Coke. Following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Kentucky bourbon, also based on corn, became the go-to American spirit.
I love rye. It's not only spicier than corn but also drier. And it's a nice alternative when I want a change, not just from bourbon and premium Canadian products like Gibson's Finest Rare 18-year-old, but from barley-based single-malt Scotches, with their nutty, smoky, cereal-like character.
In fairness, rye has not been entirely absent in Canada. Alberta Distillers is the leading North American producer of 100-per-cent rye-grain whisky, far exceeding the total U.S. output. And its Alberta Premium 30-Year-Old and new Dark Horse are laudable examples. In Ontario, pioneering independent producer Forty Creek mixes a high proportion of rye with corn and barley to make a fabulous range of three-grain products, including the new Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve. And Corby, which owns the Wiser's brand, recently introduced one of my other all-time favourite Canadian whiskies, Wiser's Legacy, a barley-heavy elixir containing 33-per-cent rye.
But Lot No. 40 has more going for it than rye. Unlike most Canadian whiskies, which are aged mainly in older, used barrels that have shed most of their oak essence, it's matured in a high proportion of new wood. That imparts a rich vanilla and toffee underpinning, sumptuously balancing the rye. Also in contrast to most Canadian whiskies, it's made one batch at a time in a copper-pot still, as with single-malt Scotch, rather than in a so-called continuous still. That technique helps preserve the fruity, floral notes generated by yeast during fermentation, which tend to be stripped out in continuous stills.
"It's almost like the single malt of Canadian whisky," Livermore says. No doubt Corby is hoping some of my Scotch-loving friends will agree.