Whisky is also an interest here at Beer Et Seq., so today we will consider the first Canadian whisky in modern times to have an emphatic whisky (distillery) palate, Lot 40 from Corby Spirits and Wine.
By distillery palate, I mean, one from which the grain character has not been stripped out by distilling it at or near to neutral spirit (vodka) level.
The Canadian whisky style since the late 1800’s has been to distill a base spirit, often from corn but another grain can be used, to a largely neutral taste. It is then aged in wood barrels. Prior to bottling, a small amount of characterful aged whisky is blended in, made often from rye, which adds a subtle spicy or peppery note. Sometimes, the two types of whiskey are blended unaged, and the blend is put in barrels to age at least three years. More commonly the neutral and “flavouring” elements are aged separately and then blended before bottling. The blended or “married” spirits can be given a further period of aging in wood or “resting” in ceramic, glass or other containers.
Products like U.S. bourbon and the Scottish single malts, as well as Cognac, tequila, and rum when made in a traditional way, are distilled to a low proof (alcohol level) off the still and aged to maturity. They acquire a resultant “heavy” or distinctive spirit character. The character comes, not just from the wood compounds leached into the whisky during aging and certain oxidative changes, but from the chemical composition of the spirit when new. A traditional spirit off the still has a characteristic strong chemical taste, this is so whether it is made from rye, barley, the tequila plant or grapes. This quality is altered by the effect of aging, except for white tequila, or white overproof rum, where the taste is wanted unmodified.
Canadian distillers always made – or brought in – some of this traditional heavy spirit, but they used it to blend with, not to sell on its own. In Scotland, some unblended whisky – the single or vatted malts – was always sold on its own, ditto for U.S. bourbon and straight rye. The U.K. and U.S. also produced blended versions, but the original unblended whiskies were never taken off the market. In Canada, for some generations at least, you could not buy the so-called flavouring or heavy whisky on its own, its purpose was for blending only. Some distillers felt the unblended product was too harsh in taste for the general market, but this may have been a justification to sell a more profitable product.
About 15 years ago, Corby to its credit released Lot 40 which is not just a 100% rye product, but is distilled at a low proof, one comparable to that used to make the spirit for a single malt or bourbon. In recent years, other whiskies have emerged in Canada which represent this flavouring element on its own or are blends which use a higher percentage of the flavouring element than has been traditional.
This article contains an interview with Corby’s master blender which explains the production of Lot 40, and other whiskies produced by Corby, in numerous aspects. Essentially, Lot 40 is distilled like a U.S. bourbon, once in a column still, and once in a pot still. The resultant spirit will have a lot of taste, a lot more than the neutral-type base whiskies referred to in the interview, and is put away in wood for at least three years. The final age is not disclosed, there is probably a combination of different ages in the bottle. Whether some base whisky, often called grain whisky, is added to the bottle is an open question, but Lot 40 has a very pronounced palate so the effect of any such blending is minimal. For all practical purposes, I consider Lot 40 a straight whisky, comparable in production style to a U.S. bourbon or a Scots single malt.
One factor that can notably influence the palate is the kind of barrels the whisky is aged in. Canadian distillers sometimes use barrels sent by American distillers after their fill of bourbon is emptied. Sometimes, new oak barrels are used, charred black on the inside or not, or ex-wine or brandy barrels, etc. Each whisky brand and each distiller will have a particular specification and approach.
I’d guess Lot 40 is aged in reused bourbon barrels, which the linked article appears to confirm.
Lot 40’s recipe was developed in the 1990’s from an ancestral recipe associated with an early Ontario pioneering family. It is clearly akin to the “flavouring”, or straight-type whiskey used for blending by Canadian distilleries. I once asked a distiller who worked at a now-defunct Canadian distillery what his flavouring whisky tasted like. He said, like a bourbon or U.S. straight rye. (These latter differ only by the relative proportion of corn and rye in the mash).
So, Lot 40 is really “our” bourbon or straight rye, or “our” single malt to use a more distant but still relevant analogy.
What does it taste like?
Indeed, Lot 40 tastes rather like a bourbon, or a U.S. straight rye such as Bulleit Rye or Wild Turkey Rye. It has, not just a woody taste as any whisky does, but a “distillery” palate resulting from the chemical composition which distillation at a low proof (under 160 proof, or 80% abv) imparts. Various bottlings of Lot 40 show this chemical edge more or less, which may recall for some a gingerbread or rye bread note but also floor cleaner or acetone – these are simply metaphors to try to get at the taste. All traditional whisky, no matter how long-aged, has a chemical note, but in different concentrations and manifestations. To my taste, Lot 40 is a bit too raw and chemical-like. I believe aging it another few years would transform that element into something softer and more fruity, as in a 8-10 year old American bourbon or rye. It may depend too, again, what type of barrels are used for aging. Aging in reused barrels generally requires a longer maturation period than aging in new charred oak barrels. I would like to taste an “extra-aged” Lot 40, in a word.
Generally, after tasting a dram or two on its own, I end by blending Lot 40. I might combine it with two parts bourbon, say, or that plus another Canadian whisky to dampen down that “acetone” flavour. Of course, it is precisely that vigorous raw taste which many people admire in the spirit. There can be little doubt that prior to the development of modern blending and rectification techniques, much whisky on the market, in Canada and elsewhere, tasted like Lot 40. This is why whisky was often used in punch, or in toddy with sugar, or in cocktails and mixed drinks, to somewhat alter its feisty character. In fact, Lot 40 makes a fine Manhattan cocktail or whisky sour. On its own though, which is how I normally drink whisky, I prefer a more approachable taste, hence the kind of blending I mentioned.
And so, the process comes full circle in a sense, once can see why distillers, not just in Canada but around the world, evolved blending techniques to soften and make more approachable the taste of traditional spirits. Still, some of these can reach a high level of gastronomic achievement, as a fine Scots malt, say, or premium Cognac. I wouldn’t put Lot 40 in that group, but perhaps one day an iteration will emerge, further-aged or with some additional process used, which will put the brand in that class.
Note re image used: The image of the Lot 40 bottle was taken from Corby’s website.