For the past couple months, Lady Friend and I had been discussing a road trip up to Vermont, and perhaps Canada. I’ve been mulling it over since about a year ago, when I learned of the existence of Alberta Premium, a 100% rye Canadian whisky. As a rye lover, I was intrigued as to what a 100% version would taste like, and began formulating a plan to blast up to Canada to score a bottle. Originally, it was to be a solo flight in Elsa, meine kleine Deutsch-Rennwagen. It’s roughly a 6 hour drive from Boston, and I had thought to spend the night in Montreal and drive back the next day as an easy weekend turnaround trip. Then Lady Friend, who loves to pretend to be a travel agent, discovered that the liquor stores in Quebec are controlled by the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ), a government-owned corporation for the distribution/sale of alcohol in Quebec. Naturally, the SAQ doesn’t carry Albert Premium. Curses.
They found it in the first liquor store they encountered.
My precious! Even though it’s inexpensive, and apparently widely available (except in Quebec), this little filly gets rave reviews. Jim Murray, a highly-regarded whiskey critic, loves the stuff, awarding it Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2006-2009 calling it
“one of the great, most wonderfully consistent whiskies of the world that is genuinely a Canadian rye and a must-have for those searching for the real thing.”
I am no great fan of Canadian whiskies, and consider them starter drams, like most Irish whiskies, due to their lighter taste. I snagged a free bottle of Canadian Club 6yo (along with a tshirt, rocks glass and ad proofs) for providing feedback when they rolled out their retro “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It” ad campaign. That’s the only Canadian I owned until picking up a bottle of the CC Reserve 10yo at the duty free shop on the way home from Montreal. I’ve had the usual fare: Seagram’s Seven, Crown Royal, and Canadian Mist, but didn’t really care for any of them. I prefer rye, and to a lesser degree, bourbon. Give me something with a bit of punch to the flavor.
Sidenote: Historically, Canadian whiskies have been referred to as “rye” due to the usage of rye grain as part of the malt. Many Canadians in fact contain little or no rye. This particularly irked me when visiting the Oak Room at the Copley Fairmont Plaza Hotel in Boston. I asked the bartender if he had any rye whiskey, and he started naming Canadians. Le sigh.
However, when asking the same question at Local 121 in Providence, RI, the bartender reached for an unopened bottle of Sazerac. Go there and ask for Dave… he was voted the best bartender by RI Monthly readers in 2010. A great guy and a fantastic cocktail bar with a history.
So after finally finding the bad boy of Canada, weighing in at 100% rye grain, there was only one thing to do: a taste test.
Ok, so maybe this battle isn’t very fair. I’m pitting the Canadian underdog against two of my favs, Rittenhouse 100 proof bottled-in-bond straight rye, which I wrote about earlier, and Pikesville Supreme straight rye, both of which are products of Heaven Hill Distillery. Yeah, I play favorites. However, since the Alberta is an inexpensive 100% rye, it needed fair opponents. Both the Rittenhouse and Pikesville are straight rye whiskies, both are punchy and flavorful, and both are excellent value brands, though the Rittenhouse has experienced a sharp price increase due to demand, at least in the Boston area. Alberta Premium is aged five years; Pikesville is four years old, and Rittenhouse is an unknown age, though the term “bottled-in-bond” means it must be at least four years old.
Just a splash of each whisk(e)y (it’s “whiskey” in the USA and “whisky” in Canada) neat in a shot glass.
Pikesville: Sweet, floral nose. Bitter, sharp, spicy taste with a touch of cereal sweetness.
Alberta: Sweet candy nose, maple syrup, butterscotch and caramel. Sharp rye taste with a bit of medicinal sour afterburn. Creamy and syrupy.
A small Manhattan (stirred, as a proper Manhattan should be), made with Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and two dashes of Fee Bros whiskey barrel-aged bitters. Omitting the cherry for this one.
Pikesville: A bit sour. The floral notes don’t stand up to the big bitters.
Alberta: Strangely, the sweet maple of the whiskey and the spicy cinnamon of the bitters create a ginger nose and flavor. Very unexpected, but a pleasant little trick. It almost tastes like flat, bitter ginger ale. Yum.
Rittenhouse: The way Rittenhouse melds with the whiskey barrel-aged bitters is amazing. Lots of cinnamon from the bitters, and the syrupy hint of cherry behind a good rye bite combine into a wonderful experience. Still my favorite.
There was going to be a third challenge with whiskey sours, but I got a bit buzzed, and caught up in photo editing for this post, and realized that work tomorrow morning was going to be unpleasant if I stayed up another couple of hours setting up shots, making drinks, editing raw files, processing, adding pshop tweaks and uploading them to this post. So I finished my various Manhattans and went to bed like a rockstar. Goodnight moon.
Summary: Ok. It’s pretty good. The 100% rye certainly makes a difference… you can TASTE rye spice, which gives the flavor a kick. However, the bite is very well-balance by the sugary, creamy sweetness that had Lady Friend and I both saying “maple syrup.” Other reviews have noted butterscotch, which I totally get, and toffee. The only downside would be a bit of a medicinal alcohol burn that puts the brakes on a nice flavor, until it evaporates leaving a coated, chewy mouthfeel. I find that alcoholic sting to be common among Canadian whiskies, but is usually hidden in the big flavors of bourbon and American rye. It just gives it a cheap, raw feeling, which makes sense given its 1970s blocky glass knobbed bottle and simplistic label. I’d love to give the 25yo version a try to taste the mellowing effect while hopefully keeping the sweet flavors. The ginger effect in a Manhattan was most unexpected, and very pleasant. I’ll certainly try that trick with future party guests.