Hopscotch, Canada’s biggest drinking festival (and one of the world’s best), returned for its 16th run last week in Vancouver. At Saturday night’s sold-out Grand Tasting Hall – the event’s main draw – over 65 exhibitors sampled more than 250 global beers and spirits.
I strategized by homing in on some unique, perhaps lesser-known Canadian whisky. Armed with a souvenir shot glass, I worked my way through the bustling space: testing, interviewing, learning. Here are 5 Canadian whiskies that stood out from the rest.
1. Urban Single Malt Whisky
While it was the bottles – filled with amber liquid and wood (yes, wood) – that drew me in, it was the company story that kept me lingering. Urban Distilleries owner Mike Urban – who happens to be a master distiller and engineer – decided to let the consumer be part of the maturing process by dropping a part of a cask (French milled oak, in this case) directly into the bottle. You can then determine, in part, the flavor you prefer. If it’s a more woodsy and oaky profile you seek, simply let the cask sit in the whisky longer. Each additional week after the bottled date adds about six months to the aging process.
The finished product is smooth, almost silky, no predominant flavors. This whisky lacks a bit of the bite I’m accustomed to, but I like it. Super easy to drink, I could sip the night away with this.
2. Forty Creek Barrel Select Whisky
I’d heard of and seen this brand, but never got around to trying it, until now. And I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interview John Hall, the esteemed owner and founder of Forty Creek Whisky. “I’m actually a winemaker by trade, so I do everything the old-fashioned way, on small copper pot stills,” said Hall. “And I use three different grains: rye, barley and corn. I age the rye in a lightly toasted oak barrel, for up to 10 years. I do the same thing with the barley, but in a medium charred barrel (white oak), and the corn in a heavy char (as they do in Kentucky). After it’s all aged, I bring the 3 whiskies together, and round it off in a sherry cask for 6 months.”
The verdict? Subtle, but complicated. I’m not a wine buff, but I get a sense of Hall’s background as a winemaker. Forty Creek Barrel Select is sweet but not cloyingly so, subtly spicy, and balanced with notes of really ripe fruit.
3. Tap 357 Maple Rye Whisky
It was only a matter of time before these two beloved Canadian digestibles – whisky and maple – would come together. Produced in Western Canada’s oldest distillery, this unusual spirit is a blend of cask-aged 3, 5 and 7 year-old Canadian rye whiskies – distilled from 100% rye grain – and pure “Canada 1 Light” maple syrup (apparently, this is the “premium” stuff).
As one would expect, this one is sweet. Upon first sip, you get hit with the sugary maple, which immediately offsets the typical harshness. The finish, however, is long and pleasantly spicy. While I wouldn’t sip this one on its own (not more than a small glass, at least), I think it’d be terrific in place of a dessert wine, or as a cocktail base.
4. Collingwood Canadian Whisky
The pet project of Chris Morris, a master distiller at Woodford Reserve, Collingwood uses Canadian grains from Ontario’s Georgian Bay, and is aged in brand new oak (Canadian whisky is typically aged in used oak barrels). Bobby Raju, a brand rep, compared the unique maturation process to brewing tea. “The first cup of tea is full of flavor and color, while the second cup, and every cup after, loses flavor and gets bitter. The same idea applies to oak barrels. You’re allowed to add caramel flavoring or colors to Canadian whisky, but Collingwood does none of that. Our flavor pulls from the new oak.”
Collingwood is smooth and sweet with marshmallow and butterscotch notes. And not surprisingly, there’s a soft maple finish (the product is finished in toasted maple casks, a first for a Canadian whisky). Its sweet character would make this a friendly mixer or relaxing after-dinner drink.
5. Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Chatting with Dan Tullio, Canadian Club’s affable director who’s also nicknamed the “Godfather of Whisky” (in Canada at least) was well worth the wait. Albert Premium is one of North America’s only distillers to produce 100% rye-grain whisky, and Dark Horse, their newest offering, is no exception. “It’s a mingling of 4 different liquids (rye from Alberta Premium that’s been aged in once-used white oak bourbon barrels, rye from brand new American oak barrels, a smidgen of fantastic US bourbon (Old Grand-Dad), and a little bit of sherry cask,” shared Tullio. The name was inspired by Majestic Prince, a 3-year old Thoroughbred whom unexpectedly won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1969.
Dark House is my favorite of the evening. Its rich and robust personality, with lots of caramel and spice, made it a treat neat. A splash of water lent even more drinkability without sacrificing any of its spicy flavors. Dark Horse’s sturdy and strong character makes it super-versatile, and would easily hold its own in a cocktail or mixed drink.
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