The world needs another whisky blogger like it needs more greenhouse gases, so the whisky world need not worry, as I have no intention of writing about it on a regular basis. But I like whisky, especially Scotch and Canadian whisky, have a ridiculous amount of it here, and continue to purchase new arrivals to try.
The latter part of 2015 has brought us several new entrants in the Canadian whisky category here in Nova Scotia. The much-publicized Crown Royal Northern Harvest, proclaimed as Whisky of the Year by Jim Murray, has gotten most of the attention. But we have two mostly local whiskies that appeared this fall, Caldera Hurricane 5, out of River John, NS, and Glynnevan Double Barrelled, out of Guysborough. I say mostly local because in both cases, the latter two are combinations of local aging of whiskies that are sourced from out west (in the case of Glynnevan) or locally produced blended with whisky from elsewhere (in the case of Caldera). I understand both of those operations are either currently or planning to distill their own product down the road.
As a personal note, it is great to see the distilling sector beginning to develop here in Nova Scotia. When I joined the NSLC in 2003, the only distillery in the province was Glenora. As a Scotch whisky fan, I found myself wondering why New Scotland was so lacking in the manufacture of spirits. Ironworks set up in Lunenburg several years later, followed by a small operation at Jost Vineyards, which I understand was discontinued with the sale of the winery in the last few years. Now, there are not only the aforementioned operations but also a few others either already doing business or in the process of getting going. The effect on the local economy from buying locally manufactured product is much greater than when buying something from outside the province, and the more we do that, the better off we all are.
But speaking of things produced outside the province, the phenomenon of Crown Royal Northern Harvest, made at Diageo’s Gimli, Manitoba facility, is rather remarkable. Introduced earlier this year without much fanfare, I saw it as just another extension to the Crown Royal line, which ranges from never-gonna-buy (CR Apple) to quite good (CR Cask 16), and I never gave it much attention. When Jim Murray proclaimed it his Whisky of the Year for 2015, the attendant publicity caused it to immediately start flying off the shelves at the NSLC in a way I had never seen any whisky move before. Naturally, at that point I had to get my hands on a bottle to see what the fuss was all about, and I thought it would be interesting to compare the two local products while I was at it.
Crown Royal Northern Harvest
Reportedly made from 90% rye grain, Northern Harvest possesses much more character than regular Crown Royal, which is balanced and smoothed to the point of inoffensiveness. Points to Diageo for bottling it at 45%, which allows the flavors to be somewhat more concentrated. While the nose on all three whiskies here are nothing to write home about, you do get a whiff of spice and cereal here. On the palate it is very good: sweetness, more cereal, vanilla and, with a bit of water added, a hint of maraschino cherry and rye bread character. It is quite flavorful while retaining the usual CR balance, and very smooth. I don’t know how long this has been aged in wood, but it has been aged long enough to round off the sharp edges but not let the wood take over. At $35, this is good value and a very nice whisky indeed. Maybe that’s part of Murray’s criteria for naming it Whisky of the Year, I don’t know. But it isn’t “The Best” Canadian whisky by a long shot, not when you consider what else is out there. As long as we keep that fact straight, I have no difficulty in recommending it at the current price point.
Caldera Hurricane 5
The small community of River John, not quite halfway between Tatamagouche and Pictou on Highway 6, seems an unlikely place for a distillery. A place that once made wooden ships is now the location of Caldera Distilling, run by Jarret Stuart. Caldera is apparently growing some amount of their own grain for use in making whisky, and contracting local growers for more. As of now they are not distilling on a large scale, but have commercial-sized stills being manufactured for installation next year.
While it is difficult to determine exactly where what is in the handsome Caldera bottle comes from, or what is in it, Hurricane 5 is obviously fairly young whisky. There is a strong ethanol scent on the nose with a hint of citrus or fresh ginger, and some hot pepper on the palate. With a bit of water the nose reveals some toffee notes, and the palate provides some cereal flavors that remind me a bit of Shredded Wheat, though I wouldn’t recommend this as a breakfast food. The overall flavor profile is fairly light, despite the deep color of this whisky, adding to the suggestion this is quite young, and I suspect there isn’t a huge percentage of rye in this blend. Yet there is something about it that keeps drawing me back in, a character I cannot quite pinpoint. With water or over ice, it is eminently drinkable, with a smoothness that belies its youth. I expect good things from Caldera in the years to come.
Glynnevan Double Barrelled
Several times during my career at NSLC I had occasion to meet Glynn Williams, impresario of the Authentic Seacoast operation in Guysborough and someone who has singlehandedly brought a number of new businesses in the town to life. Not long before I departed the premises at the Liquor Corporation, Glynn and his General Manager visited to show us their plans for the construction of a combination brewery and distillery operation in Guysborough, something that is illustrated on the Glynnevan label. Right now they are bringing in spirits from other places, aging, blending, and bottling them in Guysborough, with the intent to make their own product once the facilities are ready. Their first product was Sea Fever rum, and Glynnevan, a project of Glynn and his son Evan, is their first whisky to hit the shelves.
Since they aren’t distilling this in Guysborough, we can only speculate as to the source of what’s in the bottle. The label says it was born in the west, and my Twitter friend Bruce Fraser suspects it is from Alberta Distillers Limited (ADL). I think he may be correct, but not for the reason he probably thinks. I’ve detected a note in both the nose and palate of some ADL offerings that I don’t find particularly enjoyable, something reminiscent of a solvent smell of some sort. I get that in Dark Horse, and I get it here, not in any kind of overwhelming way, but present nonetheless. ADL are known for their 100% rye whiskies, but I don’t get the typical rye notes I find in whiskies like Lot 40 or even Northern Harvest. Maybe it is something unique to their distilling process that transforms that somehow.
The flavor otherwise is quite pleasant, with some toffee, vanilla, but not overwhelming sweetness. Some water enhances the nose, bringing out more of the vanilla tones, and enhances the creamy toffee on the palate, while adding a hint of wood, perhaps slightly too old wood. ADL makes some solid whiskies, but there is something about most of their products I’ve tried that doesn’t quite work for me. Overall it is good, but sadly, not $45 worth of good, not when I can get Lot 40, Pike Creek or Northern Harvest for the same or less money.
What to make of all this? What I’ve done here is pretty unfair actually, comparing Northern Harvest, a product of a long-established, big distiller with all sorts of resources to draw upon, to two local startups. The prices of the local products reflect the lack of economies of scale and the need to source product from elsewhere, which adds considerably to their costs, and hence their prices. I have no doubt both will get better over time, and they are both making products that are quite acceptable right now. I’d encourage local whisky enthusiasts to give them a try. But if you are looking for a screaming deal on the price-quality value equation, the Northern Harvest is hard to beat right now. It has loads of flavor, lots of subtle complexities, and is dangerously smooth. Get it before the price goes up.