They say three of anything is a trend. Well, by my count, we’re at five.
I’m talking about whiskeys with extra oak aging, particularly with the word “Black” added to the name.
Crown Royal Black is, as you may expect, an added-oak version of the venerable Crown Royal Canadian whisky. In this case, “black” is no joke. It may very well be the darkest color whiskey I’ve ever encountered, a deep hazelnut color in the glass. The spirit in a full bottle is nearly opaque.
This concerned me. Over-oaking is a serious risk in whiskey, and the worry of a ruined whisky was on the top of my mind. The good news is that Crown Royal Black isn’t too far gone. Yes, it is oaked to within an inch of its life, but Crown has taken it just to the edge — and brought it back again.
The body is sweet like standard Crown Royal, but laced with intense oily wood notes, cinnamon, black pepper, and dried figs. Surprisingly mild for 90 proof, that wood character even overpowers the alcohol out of the spirit.
Long and smoldering finish, like a campfire turning to ash. That, of course, has good and bad connotations. I expect CR Black may be too much whisky for many. Others will find it’s got a rustic, frontier character that also finds a bit of balance in its own odd way.
B+ / $32 / crownroyal.com
You got your spiced rum… well now you got your spiced whiskey, too!.
From Phillips Distilling in Minnesota comes Revel Stoke, a Canadian Whisky with “spice and other natural flavors” added. Relaunched after years of absence from the shelves (it was originally released in 2000 and was often written as “Revelstoke”), the cult classic (as the company refers to it) is just returning to the market this month.
If I served this to you and told you it was spiced rum, my hunch is that you’d never know the difference. Sweet but a little cloying, it offers big vanilla notes, with cinnamon and a little cherry spicing it up. The spice level is actually just about perfect, really.
What’s missing, though, is any sense of whiskey here. The spice and sweetness overshadows any of those corn or grain characters that give whiskey its nuance, and aside from the vanilla notes, even any woodiness from barrel aging is tough to get in this spirit. Worth a look if you’re a spiced rum fan on the hunt for something different.
B+ / $TBD / revelstokewhisky.com
Canadian Mist is known as a smooth, very simple, and, above all else, extremely cheap Canadian whisky. Now the company is trying to expand, broadening its product range and upgrading its image with more premium bottlings.
Canadian Mist Black Diamond is billed — alongside a gold-etched autograph from the distiller — as “a richer, more robust blended Canadian whisky.” Compared to standard Mist, it certainly is that, but frankly I think this is a step back.
In practice, Black Diamond gets its “robust” character from two things: The addition of what seems to be a lot more rye and corn in the mix, and an upgrade in proof level from 80 to 86 proof. Canadian Mist also says the sherry content is upgraded, but I found that altogether absent here.
Black Diamond’s 36-month age statement is the same as its predecessor, and three years just isn’t enough time in barrel for a mash like this. The taste is not especially rye-like but is rather overflowing with brutish corn notes, giving it a young, white dog character that is not altogether pleasant on its own. It’s a fine mixer and still a bargain at $15 a bottle, but I think the original Mist is, ironically, a more polished spirit.
C / $15 / canadianmist.com
Two new whiskies from our friends at Sazerac and their compatriots north of the border. Both limited edition bottlings with unique pedigrees, these Canadian spirits are just now hitting the market.
Caribou Crossing Single Barrel Canadian Whisky is a deceivingly light orange color, belying the amount of rich flavor it has inside. Big orange and citrus character dominate the spirit, with spiciness from the whiskey’s rye underpinnings cutting through and bringing an exotic touch to the spirit’s finish. Wood character is light, with sweet vanilla notes from barrel aging giving plenty of balance to the racier notes in the blend. It isn’t a big or overwhelming whiskey, by any stretch, but unlike so many Canadian whiskeys it is really nice and smooth on its own, in need of nothing more than an empty vessel (no mixers, ice, or water) to enjoy it fully. 80 proof. A- / $50
Royal Canadian Small Batch Canadian Whisky is less complex than Caribou Crossing, but it’s still a worthwhile whiskey. Redolent of maple syrup and mint, it’s got lots of grain-fueled rye character which adds a layer of spice atop this. Imperfectly balanced, the whiskey is more rustic in tone, though at only 80 proof hardly the rotgut stuff of the saloon era. B+ / $25
Don’t laugh. Canadian Mist may not be a top-shelf name in the Canadian whisky world, but the spirit’s been picking up some surprising awards, including a Double Gold Medal at the San Francisco Spirits Competition this year — the only Canadian to win one in 2009.
Not bad for whisky that costs 10 bucks a bottle.
It’s easy to see why Canadian Mist is so beloved by some drinkers: It’s smooth as silk, and really goes down easy. That’s not entirely a compliment, mind you: Canadian Mist isn’t what you’d call a flavorful or complex spirit. Though aged for “at least 36 months,” it’s mild to the point of being almost watery, and though it contains a fair bit of vanilla and spice character, these notes are more hinted at than being an essential part of the whisky.
It’s not at all unenjoyable, but it’s simply very plain. It is, however, easily a solid pick to reach for when mixing with Coke, ginger ale, or whatever else floats your boat.
B- / $10 / canadianmist.com
Celebrating 150 years of whiskymaking, Canadian Club recently put out a very limited edition 30-year-old bottling. With just 3000 bottles produced (there’s no mention of it on the Canadian Club website), finding it might be tough. But if you track it down, here’s what you should expect the experience to be like.
Bright amber in color, the nose is surprisingly light and only hints at wood. The first taste of the body reveals light wood notes but lots of flavor beyond that. Dried apple and banana, caramel and honey, and a good amount of spice from the rye component here. The whisky starts out hot but soon mellows — you really don’t need water with it — and its character grows the more you taste it.
There’s a touch of bitterness on the finish that tarnishes an otherwise very interesting and fairly well-balanced whisky, but it’s not quite on par with Crown Royal No. 16, which still stands as my top ultra-premium Canadian (and runs half the price).
A- / $200 / canadianclubwhisky.com
Got a fresh bottle of Pendleton and wanted to put it to a test a second time to see if maybe I was having a weird tastebud day that originally made Pendleton come across as so overwhelmingly sugary and sweet.
Bottom line: No, not really. This is Canadian whisky sweet enough to make the maple syrup industry start to get a little suspicious.
That said, I liked Pendleton a little better this time around, its smoky character a little more prominent now, and laced through with a touch of bitterness. Again, I’d have no problem dumping a shot of Pendleton into a Coke, but drinking it straight? Well… there’s just not enough mystery here. Much like standard-grade Crown Royal, this is perfectly serviceable Canadian whisky, but it still isn’t knocking my socks completely off.
Would probably upgrade to a full B if I re-rated today.
The top of the Canadian Club line, this limited-run Canadian whisky is made in small batches and aged a minimum of eight years in white oak barrels and finished in old Jerez sherry casks. Bottled at 82.6 proof into traditional and elegant bottles (complete with natural cork closure), it’s a long way from the Canadian Club you might be used to.
Like most Canadian Club expressions, this dark amber spirit hints at exotic spices, but the nose doesn’t offer many hints. The aroma is mostly of plain alcohol, with just a whiff of caramel.
Canadian Club Sherry Cask opens up considerably when you sip, offering pretty hefty flavors of sweet caramel, oak wood, and a touch of incense. Not very much sherry for my tastebuds, which is a bit surprising. At first I was a little overwhelmed with the Sherry Cask, as there’s a lot going on in this whiskey and it doesn’t always come together quite the way it should, finishing with quite a bit of roughness around the edges as the elements in play here struggle to come together. Continued sipping — sans water, it doesn’t need it — helps make sense of the thing. Nothing here will knock your socks off, but it’s still worth a try if you’re a fan of Canadian — especially if you can find it on the cheap (I’ve seen it advertised for as little as $24 a bottle, though $30 is more common).
B / $30 / canadianclubwhisky.com
Designed in all ways — from the name to the bottle to what’s inside — Snake River Stampede Canadian Whisky is a frontier-styled cowboy whiskey through and through. Aged eight years, though, this ain’t saloon rotgut but rather a surprisingly erudite whiskey that would be at home in a high-class bar as it would on the range.
A brassy gold color, this 80-proof spirit hails from Indio Spirits in Oregon (another Canadian whisky that’s primarily produced in the U.S. but named, oddly enough, after a real event that takes place not across the border but in Idaho) — stay tuned later this week for reviews of Indio’s artisan vodka line. As mentioned, it’s aged eight years, which puts a nice mellow caramel and honey touch atop the traditional rye notes in the bottle. The expected, racy rye spice, however, is considerably muted, which is a touch of a letdown.
The lightish flavors of Snake River ultimately give way to an alcoholic finish that feels a lot tougher than the 80 proof in the bottle. It fades quickly, but it’s a midly disappointing way to finish off what is otherwise a pretty solid whiskey at a very good price.
B+ / $27 / indiospirits.com
Two additional Crown Royal bottlings for your consideration. This classic Canadian whisky continues to expand its portfolio upward and onwards, with rarer and more expensive blends. (See also our review of Crown Royal Reserve.) Both of the below whiskys land at a perfectly accessible 80 proof.
Crown Royal Cask No. 16 – This is a very unusual whisky, a blend of 50 different whiskys that are then brought together to age in old cognac casks made from French oak. (The “16” comes from a stamp put on the casks to indicate their place of origin and authenticity.) Served neat, you get fruit notes and a good slug of vanilla. Very smooth, it’s a fine whisky. Crown Royal recommends it served on the rocks, but I preferred it at room temperature. The cold brought out some bitterness which I found disagreeable. A / $100
Crown Royal XR Extra Rare (pictured below) – A curious blend of bourbon and rye characters, this spicy number carries an initial punch of vanilla, then backs it up with strong rye grain notes. It’s creamy in body, but the finish fades quickly, leaving you with a modest, oaky note. It’s good enough, but I think the #16 is a better, more interesting, and better balanced whisky. For your $180, though, you will at least get a great story to tell: The XR was crafted from whatever rare whiskys that they managed to save when one of Crown Royal’s distilleries, Waterloo Distillery, burned down. So, yeah, that’s pretty rare. A- / $180