A big step Forward for Hiram Walker
With the release of Lot 40 Cask Strength 12 Years Old, Canada has a rye whisky that stands with the very best whiskeys of any style anywhere. Previous to this, I’d include Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye in that pantheon as well as J.P. Wiser’s 15 years old (subject of a later review).
Obviously we have made many good whiskeys in recent years, but only those three in my view stand at the peak especially when viewed internationally. I include in this Masterson’s and that other group from the U.S. that originate from Alberta Distillers – good products but not in the same league as these other three.
I am not of the group that was delirious with the original Lot 40 release some 20 years ago. A bold and innovative move it was for Canada, and it was good to have something so different, so out there. But from a taste standpoint – all that counts in the end – the product was IMO rather harsh-tasting.
It was aged in reused whiskey barrels and not for a super-long time either for a whisky of that character, around seven years if memory serves.
I always felt it could achieve greater potential by being aged longer and in new charred oak. This is the genius of a spirit distilled in a traditional manner: when young it can be difficult to drink but with good age it acquires in the same measure fine qualities down the road.
For North American straight whiskeys the new charred barrel is virtually essential unless one will age the product 15-20 years, a practical impossibility especially in today’s market.
(Reused barrels will work similar changes but you have to wait longer. Think of the typical age range for quality Scots malts and Irish single pot still).
This is precisely what happened to Lot 40. For many years after the first release it appeared off and on, in unchanged form. A few years ago a version came out aged in virgin oak as the term goes today – new charred oak barrels. This improved the spirit, although the changes from the original were not greatly marked, a function in this respect of decent but not prolonged aging.
Lot 40 now too is made from 100% unmalted rye as I learned on my tour of Hiram Walker last year. The conversion in the mash is effected by commercially-available amylase enzyme. The first Lot 40s included some malted rye, a minimal amount yet that probably contributed some flavour elements and body.
So little malt was used though that moving to a 100% raw rye grist probably didn’t make much palate difference especially with advanced age.
And so behold the cask strength Lot 40 released this autumn: aged in new charred oak from such a grist for a full 12 years. It shows a powerhouse yet stylish palate that retains the innovation of the original release – the distillery character effaced from a grain whisky mash at almost 95% abv off the still – but further modified by the virgin barrel and extra years in the wood.
There is a spicy smoky fruity thing going on, a complexity that reminded me of 1950s Old Overholts tabled at private Kentucky tastings years ago. The smell off the frame of the emptied glass is a treat in itself.
The result is what Lot 40 always could have been, it’s just taken 20 years to get there, understandable given where the distillery came from, a specialist in blended not straight whiskeys.
The truth is, the flavouring Canadian whiskies, distilled that is at a proof traditional for straight U.S. whiskey or Scots or Irish pot still, need the charred barrel where sold on their own. At least this is so where made from corn or rye as most are. Where made from barley, malted or raw, the reused barrel makes sense but you need long time to get a good result, think again of the typical age range for fine Scots or Irish pot still.
Where used for blending though it is a different story: you are using whiskies to ramp up a much greater quantity of fairly neutral but aged grain whisky. When used that way, the acetone or other youthful features are a plus as they perk up a bulk of whisky that might otherwise seem too bland. The addition of a touch of sherry or brandy or caramel can wrap the whole thing in a pleasant package.
This is another odd truism of whisky blending: things that seem lesser tasted on their own acquire a synergy, a new quality, in blended form. The sum is greater than the parts.
But for unblended rye or corn straight whiskies you want good age and the new charred barrel. It’s true that excellent bourbon and straight U.S. rye can emerge at four to eight years old but I’m convinced the extremes of the Kentucky and Tennessee climates contribute to that.
Canada’s climate is less extreme notably on the hot side of the equation. It means to get similar results we need usually to age longer. The cask strength Lot 40 shows the benefits. At 12 years it offers a similar richness of palate to many American whiskeys I know years younger.
At the same time the new charred barrel contributes desirable “red layer” notes, the toasted wood gums and charred notes that make bourbon and U.S. rye in large measure what they are. Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye also is aged 100% in new charred oak.
(Somehow it achieves a maturity comparable to good U.S. straight whiskey at about eight years old. Perhaps the Alberta summers explain this, or some other factor).
If you dilute the C.S. Lot 40 to about 40% abv – the best way to drink it IMO – those charcoal notes emerge especially in the finish. They are also evident on the side of the glass when emptied. There is no obligation, or very much history by the way, of drinking cask strength whiskey neat.
Adopting the new charred barrel for Lot 40 was an inspired move by Hiram Walker. What I foresee as regular-issue Lot 40 in the years to come is a 40% abv version perhaps not aged 12 years, but 10 years would be good, perhaps even eight years but with enough 12-year blended in to enrich the whole.
Finally, would a 15-year-old C.S. Lot 40 trump the almost perfect 12-year expression just released? There is only one way to find out…