Monday, April 6, 2015
This New Canadian Whisky Contains an Unusual Ingredient: Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Bourbon
Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is a new product from Beam Suntory. It is an unusual whisky in several ways, and is further remarkable because it represents a coming-out of sorts for Beam's Alberta Distillers, which Beam has owned since the 1980s but rarely talks about.
And, to pay off the headline, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky is unusual because it contains 8 percent Old Grand-Dad Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Everything else in the bottle is made at the distillery in Alberta from Canadian-grown rye, except the one percent sherry component.
To tell you the truth, most of this is not unusual. By Canadian law, Canadian whisky may contain up to 9.09 percent of alcohol sources that are not Canadian whisky, which might be wine, brandy, rum, etc., just about anything as long as it contains alcohol. For Canadian whisky destined for the U.S. market, American straight whiskey may be some or all of that 9.09 percent component. And for using our whiskey as an ingredient in their whiskey when they sell it back to us, they get a tax break.
What is unusual in the case of Dark Batch is that Beam is talking about all this, including revealing that the imported component is, in fact, Old Grand-Dad bourbon.
Canadian whisky brands tend to promote image over the nuts-and-bolts of production, but the producers have finally accepted that a significant segment of the whiskey audience wants those details. They're trying to comply. Rye whisky made at Alberta Distillers, they tell us, is 91 percent of the blend in Dark Batch. Half of that is low proof pot still whiskey, aged for six years in new, charred oak barrels, just like American straight rye whiskey.
In fact, it's a poorly kept secret that this is the whiskey that became Whistlepig Straight Rye, and may or may not be some or all of what is in Whistlepig bottles today. We don't really know because Whistlepig doesn't talk very much about its production and isn't very reliable when it does.
But back to Dark Batch. The other half of the rye component is high proof column still whiskey, aged for 12 years in used bourbon barrels. All Canadian whiskies are a blend of flavorful low proof whiskey and more neutral high proof whiskey, and they never talk about the ratios, but you can be confident that fifty-fifty is unusual. That ratio is entirely up to the distiller, there is no law about it, but in most products the percentage of high proof spirits is much higher than 50 percent.
What's more, 53.5 percent of the spirit in the bottle was aged in new, charred oak barrels. That's virtually unheard of for Canadian whisky, most of which is aged in used bourbon barrels.
The standard profile of Canadian whiskey is a little bit of flavorful low proof whiskey cut with a large serving of nearly flavorless high proof whiskey, which gives the product a pleasant but mild taste. At least that's how it seems to a regular drinker of straight bourbon.
Therefore, Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky will be a surprise to both sets of consumers. It doesn't taste like a bourbon, but it is as flavorful as one. You might be surprised that it contains just one percent sherry, but that's because of how well the wine notes blend with the rich low-proof rye. The other distinctive component is the 12 years in a used barrel, which gives it the musty taste of old, dry oak. You may or may not find that flavor pleasant, but it's unmistakable.
With all the flexibility Canadian producers have within the definition of 'Canadian whisky,' you might expect them to give us some pretty wild rides, but they rarely do. Dark Batch hints at what's possible. You've never tasted anything quite like this before.
Beam's Alberta Distillers is located in the Canadian province of Alberta, naturally. It opened in 1946 and is one of the world’s few distilleries specially designed to distill spirits from an all-rye mash. It is the largest producer of 100 percent rye whiskey in North America.
Alberta Rye Dark Batch Whisky should be appearing in stores this month, for about $30 per 750ml bottle.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said the bourbon in Dark Batch is Jim Beam. We regret the error. Old Grand-Dad, also made by Beam Suntory, makes more sense since it contains about twice as much rye as Jim Beam.