Alberta Rye Whisky, Dark Batch is a Canadian Whisky I’d looked at a couple of times, mostly out of curiosity, but for some reason just never quite got around to buying. I guess I just needed the right reason! After the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye’s “selection” as World Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray, I bought a bottle of Dark Batch at the same time that I picked up the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye with the idea was that I would compare the two Canadian whiskies side-by-side. However, once I opened the two bottles, it was obvious that comparing the two whiskies would be difficult as they are quite distinct from one another and, to further muddle any comparison, the Dark Batch contains a surprise that renders doing a side-by-side comparison unreasonable, at least for me.
As a quick aside before we get too far along, I need to provide a quick clarification about the Alberta Rye Whisky, Dark Batch, because this whisky actually has two names. You see, in Canada, this whisky goes under the name Dark Horse, while here in the US it is released as Dark Batch. The reason for two names? Apparently there is a distillery in Michigan that has claim to the Dark Horse name in the States, so in order to release this whisky here in the US, a name change was required.
Canadian whisky has long suffered from perceptions about its quality and its flavor. Certainly, Canadian whiskies have had a tendency to be on the “lighter side” of the flavor profile spectrum, and, quite frankly, some of the better Canadian whiskies never seemed to make it beyond the Canadian border. Sadly, what we commonly saw here in the States were some of the more generic, “big batch” brands that never really offered any excitement. Now, though, there is a growing interest in Canadian whisky, thanks, in part, to some of the newer, smaller distilleries that have started to produce very good, very interesting whiskies, but also through an expansion of the offerings from the big producers that are beginning to show up on our retail shelves. (If you want to know more about Canadian Whisky, check out http://www.canadianwhisky.org/ the website run by whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux)
Also, there are a couple of interesting things to know about Canadian whisky that distinguish it from the whiskies of its peers. A couple of centuries back, when the fledgling Canadian whisky industry started, much of the whisky was produced using wheat, a prevalent crop in the Canadian prairies. Somewhere along the line, the whisky producers also began introducing small amounts of the highly flavorful rye grain, which proved very successful. Consumers began asking for these “rye” whiskies and, over time, Canadian whisky and Rye whisky became synonymous. Yet it is a common misconception that Canadian whiskies are primarily made using just rye grain, even though Canadian whiskies continue to be perceived as rye whiskies. The fact is that the use of rye grain is not dictated by law and Canadian whiskies are commonly made with only a small amount of rye grain in their mashbills. Today, like US bourbons, most Canadian whiskies are produced from a large percentage of corn spirits.
The other significant interesting factor is that Canadian regulations actually permit the inclusion of up to 9.09% “other spirits or flavorings, even if those spirits or flavorings are not Canadian in origin! As you can see below, in subsection (b) from the Canadian Food and Drug Regulations, Canadian whiskies may contain caramel (also permitted in Scotland and the US) as well as flavouring. It is the legal ability to add “flavouring” to the whisky that separates Canadian whisky production process from those of Scotland and the US.
Food and Drug Regulations (C.R.C., c. 870)
B.02.020 [S]. (1) Canadian Whisky, Canadian Rye Whisky or Rye Whisky
(i) be a potable alcoholic distillate, or a mixture of potable alcoholic distillates, obtained from a mash of cereal grain or cereal grain products saccharified by the diastase of malt or by other enzymes and fermented by the action of yeast or a mixture of yeast and other micro-organisms,
(ii) be aged in small wood for not less than three years,
(iii) possess the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky,
(iv) be manufactured in accordance with the requirements of the Excise Act
and the regulations made thereunder,
(v) be mashed, distilled and aged in Canada, and
(vi) contain not less than 40 per cent alcohol by volume; and
(b) may contain caramel and flavouring.
(2) Subject to subsection (3), no person shall make any claim with respect to the age of Canadian whisky, other than for the period during which the whisky has been held in small wood.
(3) Where Canadian whisky has been aged in small wood for a period of at least three years, any period not exceeding six months during which that whisky was held in other containers may be claimed as age.
Why is that important? Well, as it turns out, the Alberta Rye Whisky, Dark Batch actually contains 8% Kentucky Straight Bourbon and 1% Sherry Wine! While Scotland and the US are very specific in that only grain, water and yeast may be used (the exception is the small amount of e150a caramel coloring), and that they must be produced in the country of origin, Canada not only permits the addition of flavorings, but also permits the use of non-Canadian spirits while maintaining the “Canadian Whisky” designation!
About the Distillery
Alberta Distillers Ltd is owned by global drinks behemoth Beam Suntory, which is the fourth largest premium spirits company in the world, owner of eight of the world’s top-100 premium spirits and which generates over $2.5 billion in revenue. ADL, based in Calgary, Alberta, and operating from a very nondescript, industrial complex, is the oldest distillery in Western Canada and the world’s largest producer of 100% rye whisky. ADL has been producing distilled beverage alcohol for over 60 years and bottles four whiskies and two vodkas, including Alberta Premium 100% Rye Whisky; Alberta Springs, Tangle Ridge and Windsor Canadian Whiskies; Alberta Pure Vodka and Banff Ice Vodka. ADL also exports in bulk to over 30 countries.
Review: Alberta Rye Whisky, Dark Batch (bottled 2015, L5227CLA 057770731)
The Dark Batch recipe is an interesting amalgamation. The primary components are two “rye” whiskies, one is a 6-year old low-proof pot still rye aged in new American oak barrels, the other a column-still, high-proof rye that was aged 12 years in ex-bourbon barrels. These two rye whiskies are blended together in a 50/50 ratio and then vatted together with 8% Old Grand Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon (another Beam product) and 1% sherry wine.
(Note: one comment about the Alberta Rye Whisky, Dark Batch and this review; before I first tasted this whisky, I’d read (somewhere) that all or some of it had been matured in sherry casks, but that was the extent of my awareness of the sherry aspect. Obviously, as you can see from my notes, the sherry influence was very evident in this whisky.It was only after I completed my notes, and I started to research the whisky for this review, that I discovered that this whisky had sherry wine added to it. Take that info for what it’s worth, I just wanted to put in writing that I wasn’t overly influenced ahead of time by that fact!)
Color: Medium-dark mahogany.
Nose: This has a bit of a spirity edge when first poured. It starts on quite big notes of dark red fruits – think ripe plums, prunes, maybe even some dates…. A rather significant barrel-char smokiness shows up and pretty much lasts throughout. Quite aromatic with spices, a hint of either sandalwood or cedar wood, and some black pepper. A touch of caramel sweetness. There is a sherry component that is very evident, but without being too dominant. Adding a few drops of water really brings out the sherry spices – a touch of clove, some nutmeg and black pepper, Cocoa powder. Still get a big note of cedar wood. That initial “boozy” note is now gone, but I’m also getting more of a corn whisky sweetness.
Taste: More sweetness on the palate. The arrival is sweet vanilla, with the dark red fruits, dried fruits and even maraschino cherries. I have to say that this really tastes much more like a bourbon, and not necessarily a high-rye bourbon, than it does a rye whiskey as it is very much driven by the sweet vanilla and fruits with very little of the common herbal, grassy, spicy rye notes, at least, at first. However, after a few minutes, I started getting up some softly floral, herbal and delicately bitter grassy notes, yet it never really becomes very spicy, remaining more on the sweet side of the spectrum. In the mid-to-late palate that barrel-char smoke shows up, which is very enjoyable. This whisky is moderately viscous and rich on the tongue. I will say that adding water may help the nose but it really diminishes what was a pretty nice oiliness; the viscosity becoming much thinner with water. There remain some nice fruit notes: red apples, plums and some blueberries, along with some vanilla cream, pepper, and some orange peel – slightly bitter and drying, which is a nice balancing note.
Finish: smoked vanilla, sweet dried fruits, bitter grass, soft ripe fruits. Medium length.
Overall: A quite decent, perhaps even very nice, enjoyable bourbon, even if it is supposed to be a rye whiskey! This is a sweet, a bit undemanding, moderately complex, yet eminently enjoyable whiskey. The sherry notes are interesting and well-integrated, just don’t expect an overly spicy rye tasting experience. For me, this is certainly worth picking up a bottle to try as it represents a reasonable value and a fun tasting experience.
Distillery: Alberta Distillers
Type: Rye Whiskey*, Blended whisky
Maturation: New charred American Oak and First-fill ex-Bourbon barrels
Price: $24.99 (2015)
Availability: Currently Available (Total Wines)
Sample Source: My own bottle
*Classified as a Rye Whisky, but the straight addition of sherry would fall afoul of normal whisky classifications in most other countries who do not allow the introduction of “flavorings”.