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.


Erik Fish said...

It will be great to see more of AD's products south of the border. So far, the 12-year version of their 100% rye, marketed by Hood River Distillers in Oregon as the "1910" in their Pendleton line, is the only one that seems available and is on my shelf. It's just so unusual to have a Canadian whisky of which you know both the mashbill and the age. I'd like to be able to compare that with the various Alberta Premium expressions or the new 7-year-old Chairman's Select they are making for CC, but none of that stuff is sold here as of yet. I'm still waiting for a friend to make another trip north.

Craig Hochscheid said...

Alberta is the source of Lock, Stock & Barrel 13, no?

Chuck Cowdery said...

If it's from Canada and says 100% rye, it has to be ADL.

Erik Fish said...

Holy Kaboodle, I'd never even heard of the "Lock, Stock & Barrel 13" before, but one year older than the 1910 and 80 bucks more from what I found online? Don't think I'll be trying that any time soon. For that kind of money, I'd rather bite the bullet and finally spring for a bottle of Old Potrero.

Alex said...

Thanks for the great write-up! Some may argue that using sherry barrel aging is the same as adding 1% sherry, so why not take the shortcut, but at least Beam is being honest about exactly what they're doing.

Some fans of Canadian whisky try to explain away the 9.09% rule as ONLY relating to adding american whiskey for tax purposes, but it's clear the manufacturers are taking full advantage of the variety of things they can add within that 9.09%. And to me, sherry barrel aging is much more interesting (and more expensive) than just adding 1% sherry, so I will continue to be less happy about the concept of Canadian whisky that is not 100% rye.

beardedbeast said...

Isn't this the same stuff as Alberta Dark Horse?

Anonymous said...

Other than whistlepig and some craft brands, it seems like canadian whiskey companies are gearing up towards marketing at america. at whiskey live a few weeks ago canadian club had a booth which included a rye whiskey with a very trendy aggressive label and totally unremarkable flavor. This one sounds promising, however. lets hope it tastes better.

Anonymous said...

Looks like these guys are taking notes from the craft industry. Check out the products section of this pre-prohibition distillery that was recently revived:

Also, do we think dye is being added to the ALberta bottle? That color looks a bit too rich to be natural.

tanstaafl2 said...

Erik Fish said...
Holy Kaboodle, I'd never even heard of the "Lock, Stock & Barrel 13" before, but one year older than the 1910 and 80 bucks more from what I found online?

The Lock, Stock and Barrel is indeed expensive but it is pretty clearly (at least to me) a 100% rye whiskey over 100 proof from Alberta Distillers similar to Whistlepig. Pendleton 1910 is labeled as 80 proof and "Canadian" Rye Whiskey. I am not really sure I know what that means but I am not sure it is a 100% rye whiskey distilled to low proof in the same vein as Lock, Stock and Barrel (or Whistlepig) so I am not sure the two are directly comparable. Certainly doesn't taste like it is the same. Which might help explain why they can sell it for a lot less.

Erik Fish said...

Quote tanstaafl2:
" Pendleton 1910 is labeled as 80 proof and "Canadian" Rye Whiskey. I am not really sure I know what that means but I am not sure it is a 100% rye whiskey distilled to low proof in the same vein as Lock, Stock and Barrel (or Whistlepig) so I am not sure the two are directly comparable."

Well, the 1910 IS definitely a 100% rye product sourced from ADL, so there's no doubt about the content. As to whether the rather startling price difference is justifiable by ADL providing a more luxurious product for Whistlepig and L,S & B, I can't say, but I rather doubt it. It is correct that these are bottled at a higher proof; in fact, people here have been pestering HDL to get a higher-proof version of the 1910 on the market, so far without success.

Erik Fish said...

Correction to the comment I just submitted: HRD of course, not HDL, which I think I wrote.

Gary Gillman said...

Chuck, from July 1, 2009, the 9.09% rule no longer applies to Canadian whisky sold in Canada. One can add any amount of imported spirits or wine, for example, to Canadian whisky. The only restriction would flow from a separate part of the Canadian laws regulating this area which state that Canadian whisky must have the aroma and other character typically associated with Canadian whisky. In practice, I'd think it very difficult to apply that rule in practice, but theoretically in other words, if you added so much tequila to Canadian whisky such that it tasted like dilute tequila, arguably you have broken this rule, but again not one pertaining to 9.09%.

However, for exported Canadian whisky, the 9.09% is still relevant, in two ways: first, if more than 9.09% of the absolute alcohol in the bottle is non-Canadian whisky, e.g. bourbon, then if the age of the bourbon is lower than the age of the whisky it is added to, that age must be stated on the label. If the 9.09% is not exceeded, you can claim the age of the whisky it is added to even though it is younger.

Also, if the whisky is exported and the importer wants a certificate stating it is Canadian whisky, then the whisky cannot comprise more than 9.09% imported spirits.

I know there have been some changes recently to Canadian food and drug laws but subject to anything in them which modifies the position described above, that is the law as I understand it. Also, I always understood that using American wine or spirits in exported Canadian whisky, especially "orange wine", somehow benefited someone's tax position but I always though it was the importer who got the benefit (the American party buying) not the exporter (Canadian company selling, but there I am not 100% sure.


Gary Gillman said...

Here is the support:

This appears to be current law still and not affected by recent amendments to our food laws.

Therefore Chuck, if, say, you have a Canadian whisky aged 8 years to which enough 7 year old U.S. bourbon is added such that more than 9.09% of the package U.S. bourbon, i.e., "imported spirits", you can still export it to the U.S. provided, i) the age stated on the label is 7 years, ii) the product is not described as Canadian whisky or rye whisky or Canadian rye whisky in a certificate of origin issued here. Whether it can be called any of those things in the U.S. by the importer is a different matter, governed by American law and I don't know the answer to that. If the answer is, it can't be called any of those things unless it could if the product was sold in Canada, in my view it could be called Canadian whisky in the U.S. because there is nothing to stop it being called that as I said earlier. I don't think even adding 10% or even 20% bourbon (or even more perhaps up to 50%?) would result in the product not having the aroma and characteristics normally associated with Canadian whisky.

However in practice, I'd think most U.S. importers want the certificate to say the product is Canadian whisky or Canadian rye whisky, and if so the 9.09% rule viz imported spirits must be respected. And if the importer (or exporter) wants to claim (i.e., for the label) the age of the Canadian whisky and not any lower age of a flavouring spirit added, then not more than 9.09% of the absolute alcohol in the package must derive from that addition. Many Canadian whiskies have no age but some do so I'd think some whisky is coming into the U.S. where the 9.09% is exceeded in this respect - and even where an age is stated some people might be perfectly happy to see a whisky stated at 7 years not 8, for example.

One can see that where the same company, in effect, is importing as well as exporting - take the case where Suntory is doing this - the traditional concern to obtain a certificate attesting that the product is "Canadian whisky" or rye whisky or Canadian rye whisky is less acute especially if, once the stuff comes in, they can call it Canadian whisky anyway. I don't know if exportation works exactly in this way though, i.e., if Suntory, or other multi-nationals active in both countries, are doing the buying on the U.S. side vs. example an independent middleman. But if the companies are, through their respective affiliates in Canada and the U.S., doing the selling and the buying, I'd think the 9.09% rule is less significant than might first appear to be the case. This doesn't mean of course that such parties won't ensure that the whisky has a high Canadian-origin content, they may well do so as a matter of product integrity, but that is more, then, a matter within their own precincts rather than something deriving from a regulatory regime.

[Apologies if these thoughts are too long for the comments here, if so feel free not to publish them].


Chuck Cowdery said...

What about non-whiskey alcohols produced in Canada, such as wine? Does the 9.09% rule apply to those?

Gary Gillman said...

The age part of the regulation I mentioned applies to spirits, not just whisky.

The part dealing with whether you can call the resultant product Canadian whisky, rye whisky or Canadian rye whisky applies only to "whisky".

The latter part of the regulation deals with origin requirements for Canadian brandy.

Wine is not mentioned in this regulation except as something that can be added to whisky or spirits, i.e., as a flavouring. I would think - I haven't checked it - spirits is any potable distilled beverage, not just GNS.

It is possible another part of the law, dealing with the standards applicable to wine, limits the amount of spirits or foreign wine that can be added to wines identified as Canadian on the label, in fact I know that such rules exist in Ontario for the purpose of the VQA system (Vintners Quality Alliance) and how Ontario-grown wines are labelled which have, or not, foreign wines and possibly other things added to them. I just don't know at this time whether 9.09% or the concept of 1/11th is used as a benchmark when regulating such additions.


Anonymous said...

Mr Chuck,

Have they disclosed, or do you happen to know, what type of sherry; fino, oloroso, etc., has been added? Any idea when and where this practice began commercially? Canada? Scotland?

Finally, knowing Beam had added Spanish Brandy to create one of its recent Craft series bottlings, do they have a relationship with/ownership of a particular bodega?

Thanks, as always, for your insights!

Chuck Cowdery said...

When a Canadian distiller talks about adding 'port' or 'sherry' or some other wine or fortified wine, they are referring to a product they made, or bought from a producer who made it for this purpose, that has the properties of 'port' or 'sherry,' but isn't available for sale anywhere. Consider it shorthand for 'a sherry-like blending wine.'

Erik Fish said...

On occasion of acquiring a bottle of the Dark Batch, I ambled around the web a bit, and in case anyone is still reading this post, a few supplementary pieces of information:
It is, as someone else already hinted, indeed not a new product, but the US release of Alberta Dark Horse, which has been around in Canada for a bit. The term Dark Horse was in use by a small US distillery, so Beam decided to avoid any possible trademark issues and to re-name the stuff. You can find some interesting discussions about Dark Horse among Canadian whisky nerds; some purists wanted it labeled "liqueur" because it's contaminated with Bourbon and sherry.
Since someone asked, Beam's Dan Tullio referred to the Sherry in the blend as oloroso, for whatever that's worth.

polk6582 said...

I just came across this great article - thank you Chuck. There's so much confusion about Canadian Whisky regarding wine additions. Just how much can they add and still call it Canadian Whisky? I spoke with a few distillers and it seems that it depends on the source of the wine: If the manufacturer is using imported spirits to supplement the alcohol, up to 9.09% of the alcohol in the bottle may be from grape and OTS wine (if the bottle will be labeled as Canadian Whisky). If, however, they are using Canadian sources, up to 50% of the total ABV may be from grape and OTS wine (and it will be labeled as Canadian Whisky even for export to the US). For example, if a consumer picks up a bottle of Canadian Whisky which is 35% ABV (alcohol by volume), up to 17.5% of the alcohol in the bottle may be from grape wine (from Canadian sources).
Is this accurate? Seems like any given bottle can really contain a huge amount of wine! Thank you!

Chuck Cowdery said...

Please read the comments, particularly those by Gary Gillman and my responses to them, for answers to your questions.

Unknown said...

Canadian whiskey is usually a blend of 2 products, from the same distillery.

(A) A base whiskey, often distilled to over 90% ABV, which is what people in other countries usually call GNS (grain neutral spirits, like vodka) Then aged in barrels, sometimes already used ones, at over 80% ABV. The resulting product - if sold by itself - wouldn't legally qualify as whiskey in Scotland or Ireland; it'd be closer to grain neutral spirit.

Then it is blended with (B) flavouring whisky - distilled to a lower alcohol content - but how low? And barreled at what alcohol level?

In the US, straight whiskey may be distilled to no more than 80% ABV, and then it is barreled at no more than 62.5% ABV.

Seems like Canadian whiskey would be more like GNS, unless it mostly flavoring whiskey, or additives are used?
For many of their products, is this truly whiskey?

Unknown said...

Ok, so up to 9.09% of a Canadian whiskey could be American whiskey, so they get tax breaks. Still, that whiskey is just a blend. Fine. But am I reading the above comments correctly? They could be adding at least 9.09% wine? And they could add up to 9.09% of "flavors", sugars, colors, etc?

At that point it sounds like some Canadian whiskey could be closer to GNS plus flavors, sweeteners and colors, which wouldn't legally be allowed to be called anything like straight whiskey here in the USA (and even here, straight whiskey is allowed to have a small amount of additives)

How do we know what, then, is in our Canadian "whiskey"?

Chuck Cowdery said...

90% ABV off the still is considered whiskey everywhere in the world. Neutral spirit is 95% ABV or above. Canadian base whiskey is essentially the same as Scottish or Irish grain whiskey.