Drinking the Bottom Shelf Vol. 2: Canadian Whisky – Ellington, Black Velvet, LTD

bottom shelf

Good whiskey can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. This review continues our project of considering bargain bottles by looking at three inexpensive Canadian whiskies. (Cheap-ass American whiskey coverage can be found here.) Canadian whiskies are usually blends, as all three of these are.

Ellington Canadian Whisky

Note that the whisky reviewed here is the regular Ellington and not the Ellington Reserve, which lists itself as 8 years old. The age of this product is unstated, but to bear the label “Canadian Whisky,” all of the constituent whiskies must have been aged at least 3 years in oak barrels (usually used barrels). The whisky’s light-yellow color suggests that coloring has been added to achieve an enticing hue in a blend that spent very little time in the barrel. The nose is gentle and presents a mix of nail polish remover, peanuts, and a touch of rye spice. The palate however is surprisingly supple and reminds me of cheap vodka. But I think it is better than cheap vodka. Slight wood notes and a touch of sweetness serve to round out the alcohol’s bite. The finish includes a touch of pepper and a slight bitterness. Ellington could serve as a promising mixer, particularly for people who aren’t huge fans of whisky (or alcohol) but still want to drink.

80 proof.

C / $11

Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky 3 Years Old

Like Ellington, this young whisky has an older sibling, Black Velvet Reserve, which is also aged 8 years. This younger, less expensive expression is light-gold in color, suggesting, as with Ellington, that color was used to achieve a pleasant hue in a very young whisky. The nose is virtually  nonexistent. I’m not sure I have ever smelled a whiskey (or another 80 proof product) that exhibited so light a nose. A light medicinal scent can be discerned when swirled in a glass. The taste is more pronounced than the aroma suggests, opening with some bitterness, followed by notes of cheap vanilla extract. A touch of pepper follows, which is nice, and then an alcohol burn. The finish is rather short but surprisingly clean. No bitter aftertaste.

80 proof.

C / $9 / blackvelvetwhisky.com

Canadian LTD

On the bottle, Canadian LTD states that it is “Canadian Whisky with Natural Flavors,” which means that some of the product is made up of whiskies aged for at least 3 years and some of it is a mystery. Most of the remaining product is likely neutral grain spirits (aka vodka). On the nose, LTD is presents faint aromas of nail polish remover with a little vanilla and just a whiff of peanut. The palate is much more assertive, opening with some pepper and then presenting strong flavors of cheap vanilla extract, which leads me to wonder if it is made with some of the same whisky as Black Velvet. The finish is fairly short and is followed by an unpleasant, but not overpowering, medicinal bitterness.

80 proof.

C- / $9

Re-Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (2017)

crown royal rye

In 2015, I reviewed Crown Royal Northern Rye. I thought it was OK. I graded it a B.

Later that year Jim Murray named it his whisky of the year, and all hell broke loose. A $30 Canadian whisky is the best whisky of the year? Sales went through the roof. The price shot up. Everyone asked me about the little whisky that could.

That’s bothered me for the last two years. Was I wrong? Was I missing the plot on this one? I reached out to Crown Royal to see if I could get a fresh sample, in order to see if I could suss out what I missed.

To refresh your memory, this is a 90% rye, bottled with no age statement. Let’s give a brand new bottle a fresh look.

Well, much as I said previously, the nose is loaded with dried apple notes, cinnamon, and caramel. It’s apple pie in a glass at least aromatically. I can see how someone would like it, but the fruit is so blown out that it strikes one as a a flavored spirit.

The palate offers few surprises, though the caramel is stronger and notes of barrel char, and, now that I explore it more deeply, a character closer to baked pear than apple. Slightly gummy and fragrant with cinnamon, ginger, and allspice, it’s got sweetness pushed almost to the breaking point, with a lasting finish that is fragrant but gummy.

In the end: I still don’t understand the fuss. In fact, I like it even less now than I used to. And no, I’m not trying to be contrarian, mom.

90 proof.

B- / $45 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Lord Calvert Canadian Whisky

I have to say, I was only interested in Lord Calvert, a budget Canadian whisky imported by Luxco, because it is now available in a limited edition decanter that looks like a dog with a dead duck hanging out of its mouth. 4500 of these, made in partnership with Ducks Unlimited and all filled with Calvert, are available for $100.

Or you can get a regular old bottle of Lord Calvert (pictured at right), which is now celebrating its 50th anniversary, for $11. Your pick.

Either way, Lord Calvert is made from a mix of rye, corn, wheat, and barley, aged three years. (36 months, to be specific, according to the label.)

The nose is initially innocuous, a little heavy on raw alcohol notes but otherwise quiet with modestly sweet granary notes. Breathe deep though and that alcohol really starts to dominate, taking on a plastic-like hospital character.

The palate doesn’t exactly sing, and though it offers some unusual evergreen and eucalyptus notes, the primary focus is on cereal, which is dusted with notes of mushrooms, sour cherries, and green beans, with more overtones of rubbing alcohol. The finish is short and fairly hollow. It’s got a bit of a random collection of flavors, to be sure, but let me say this: It’s nothing I’d feel unusual about while pouring out of a decanter shaped like a hunting dog.

80 proof.

C- / $11 / lordcalvertwhisky.com

Understanding Different Types of Whiskey

Overwhelmed by the complex world of wines, beers, and spirits? You’re not alone. Today let’s look at one of the most common questions that we receive day in and day out: What the heck is the difference between all these different types of whiskeys? Today’s the day to find out. Join me in a brief tour of the whiskeys of the world, a primer of all things whisk(e)y.

The most noteworthy style of whiskey, or in this case spelled whisky, is Scotch. Scotch whisky comes from Scotland, and we could (and probably will) write another whole article on the complexities of the terroir of the country. Scotch is divided into two main styles: Single malt Scotch (like Macallan) is made entirely from malted barley and is produced at a single distillery, whereas blended Scotch (like Johnnie Walker) is made from a blend of malted barley and various others grains, which are distilled separately, sourced from all over the country. The taste of single malt Scotch can vary widely depending on the region in which it is made: Scotch from the briny Islay region can take on a smoky, iodine quality, akin to a campfire by the ocean, while Scotch from Speyside can be more sweet and sumptuous, with notes of vanilla, apricot, and honeysuckle.

Bourbon is American whiskey that is frequently produced in Kentucky, but which can legally be made anywhere in the U.S. The name bourbon has a strict legal definition, which dictates, among other rules, a base grain mixture of at least 51% corn and the use of unused, charred-oak barrels for aging. These requirements give bourbon a characteristic sweetness compared to Scotch, with notes of vanilla-covered cherry, woody oak, and butterscotch. Of course, just like Scotch, the taste of bourbon can vary quite a lot; compare sweet, vanilla-laden Maker’s Mark with burly, brambly Hudson Baby Bourbon. Jack Daniel’s is a bourbon as well, though it doesn’t say so on the bottle, preferring the term Tennessee Whiskey to give it a local identity.

The names of most other whiskeys aren’t as opaque as Scotch and bourbon. Canadian Whiskies like Pendleton are blends that usually contain more rye than bourbon does, giving them in general a spicier taste; think cloves, toffee, and chocolate. Irish Whiskey is, typically, distilled more times than a Scotch is, which removes more impurities and giving the whiskey its characteristic lightness and fruitiness: Green Spot is warming with a taste of honey and chocolate. Most Irish whiskeys are blends, though there are quite a few single malt Irish whiskeys out there. Japanese Whiskies can be as varied as Scotch; Toki is light and delicate, with notes of white flowers and melon, while Hakushu is bolder and smoky, like a good Islay Scotch. Some Japanese distillers also use unusual grains in their blends: Kikori uses rice to make its whisky.

At least one category of whiskey is known based not on the region in which it is made but the primary grain used to make it: Rye. This booming category of whiskey is made from 51% rye but can be wildly different from a stylistic perspective. A Kentucky-made rye like Rittenhouse will be pungent with baking spices, which a Canadian rye like Crown Royal Northern Harvest might find a more apple-heavy fruit note. Note that a whiskey, like the above Crown Royal example, can be both a Canadian Whisky and a rye, simultaneously.

Hopefully this brief overview of whiskey gives you a better idea of the various styles of spirits out there. There are plenty of other whiskey manufacturers in the world of course, in Australia, Germany, India, and elsewhere, but this should give you a solid base from which to build, and to start exploring the wonderful world of whiskey.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments!

Review: Crown Royal Vanilla Canadian Whisky

crown-royal-vanilla_bag-box

Crown Royal continues to experiment with flavored whiskies, its latest expression being a natural whisky fit: Vanilla. The product is described as “a blend of hand-selected Crown Royal whiskies infused with the rich flavor of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla.”

If you like vanilla and you like Canadian whisky, well, you’ll love Crown Royal Vanilla, which is a “best of both worlds” experience. Mind you, it’s nothing you’ll be writing postcards about, but rather a vanilla-heavy experience that borders on marshmallow-sweet (and -flavored) at times. The heavy sugariness of the experience isn’t a deal-breaker, and given the intention of this whisky to be used as a mixer, not a sipper, it’ll fit right in with cola or another simple combo. (See below for more cocktail ideas.) Light mixed berry notes add a touch of complexity on the back end, along with some simple milk chocolate character and just the lightest hint of woody barrel char — but by and large this is a showcase for sweet vanilla syrup from start to finish. That’s not a bad thing, I suppose. All told, this is nothing that will blow your mind, but there’s nothing not to like here, either.

70 proof.

B / $26 / crownroyal.com

Below please find some recipes that Crown Royal suggests, in partnership with Hella Company and Cocktail Courier (which will deliver all the ingredients you need to make both of these in one kit). They’re both quite pungent, so feel free to work with the proportions liberally.

Crown Vanilla and Hella Cola
1.5 oz. Crown Royal Vanilla
1 oz. Hella Cola cocktail syrup
3.5 oz. club soda
whole vanilla bean*

Mix in a highball glass filled with ice. Use vanilla bean as a stirrer and leave bean in glass as if a straw. Garnish with an unsqueezed lime wedge if desired.

* yes, they mean a pod, not a whole bean

Vanilla Old Fashioned
1.5 oz. Crown Royal Vanilla
0.5 oz Woods Boiled Cider
3 dashes Hella Orange Bitters

In a double rocks glass add all ingredients, then add ice to above the level of liquid. Stir for 10 seconds. Garnish with thick orange peel if desired.

Review: Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend

crown royal cornerstone blend

Crown Royal is embarking on a new collection of whisky releases called the Noble Collection. This will be a series of annual, limited releases (no time horizon has been announced), each designed to “showcase Crown Royal’s team of talented distillers and blenders and named for the whisky brand’s noble roots.” (Crown Royal reminds us that the brand originated as a gift for King George VI when he visited Canada in 1939.)

The first installment of the Noble Collection, Cornerstone Blend, is a blend of three whiskies, and Crown Royal has taken the interesting step of actually telling us a little bit about all three of them: a traditional Canadian rye, a rye made using Crown’s Coffey still, and a “bourbon-style Canadian whisky” that is matured in American oak. There’s no additional data on the three whiskies or their proportion in the blend, but that’s a nice start.

I take that back: It’s even better than that, because Crown Royal sent individual samples of all three of the component whiskies for us to check out as well as a sample of the finished blend. Before we move on to the review of the finished product, let’s take a quick look at the trio on their own to see what ingredients we’re working with. (Note: All three samples are cask strength, while the finished blend was brought down to 40.3% abv.)

The Cornerstone rye (111.4 proof) is quite gorgeous, a spicy, toffee-heavy whisky with a long finish of cloves and toasted wood. The Cornerstone Coffey rye (122.8 proof) has some similar characteristics, but is less polished and has a duller profile on the whole, with a heavy grainy character and some flabbiness on its finish. A lot of the character of the finished product clearly comes from this component, which is the least engaging of the trio. Finally, the Cornerstone “bourbon-style” whisky (136.4 proof) is engaging but is almost overloaded with sweetness, featuring butterscotch, cocoa powder, and ample barrel char.

Putting everything together, it’s a bit less than the sum of its parts. Crown Royal Cornerstone Blend is a bit of an odd whisky, punctuating a heavy barrel char character on the nose with briny notes, camphor, and some green olive notes. Sweetness is elusive at first, but shows its face on the restrained palate, which shows off notes of blonde wood, furniture polish, some raisins, and some rye-driven baking spices, including cloves and ginger. The finish is mild and short, in keeping with the greater experience: On the whole Cornerstone is dialed back, way back, a very model of restraint so effective that it’s difficult to get a proper handle on its essence. It’s not a bad whisky, but it comes across as a bit plain, almost to the point of boredom.

80.6 proof.

B- / $50 / crownroyal.com  [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]

Review: Collingwood Canadian Whisky (2016)

Collingwood_6hAfter a recent rebranding, we felt it was time to take a fresh look at the standard bottling of Collingwood Canadian Whisky, which we last reviewed on its original release in 2011. While the decanter has been updated to look a bit less like a perfume bottle (namely through the ditching of the plastic cover that went up top), Collingwood still looks the part of an exotic spirit. The recipe and aging regimen, which includes time in maplewood casks, haven’t changed.

That said, here’s some fresh commentary.

Much in line with my overall comments from 2011, this whisky is exotic to the extreme. The nose is heavy with maple syrup notes, alongside a smattering of vanilla and caramel notes. Notes of rum raisin and some chocolate emerge with time — the overall impression being akin to a flavored whisky.

The body is less overpowering, but plenty sweet with maple and vanilla sugar notes. Soothing and gentle, it offers a lemon honey character that’s enticing as it develops on the palate, with baking spices developing on the back end. This is a quiet whisky — much more so than my earlier review would lead you to believe — which wears its maple character on its sleeve.

Still, curious stuff — though I find I like it much less now than I did back in ’11.

80 proof.

B / $25 / collingwoodwhisky.com

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