The Alchemist tasting panel samples Canadian and American rye spirits
Our bartender tasting panel is never short of opinions, but no other spirit has ignited passion the way rye whisky did. Maybe because it’s our national spirit (sort of). Or maybe it’s just because bold flavours inspire bold statements.
Seven of Vancouver’s top bartenders gathered on a rainy afternoon at Homer Street Café for the tasting panel: Alex Black, bartender and mental health advocate; J-S Dupuis, beverage director of Wentworth Hospitality; Robyn Gray of the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Katie Ingram, bar manager at Elisa Steakhouse; Grant Sceney, Fairmont Pacific Rim; and, from Homer Street Café, Rob Scope and David Wolowidnyk.
They loved the sweet spice and rich, bold flavour of the rye. But they differed on whether Canadian or American is better, and whether it has to be 100 per cent rye or can be a blend of grains. And they admitted that as much as they love rye, it’s a hard sell to consumers, many of whom are unfamiliar with it and prefer the simple sweetness of bourbon.
The panel tasted 12 rye-based spirits. Here’s what they had to say.
Resurrection Spirits White Rye
$57, 45% ABV
The only white spirit in the tasting, this is a versatile, unaged product made from organic rye grain.
“I actually helped to make this one. The intent was to make an eau de vie, but with grain,” said Wolowidnyk, who until recently worked at the distillery. The spirit is rectified to 93 per cent ABV, so it has the “pure clean unadulterated flavour of rye.”
“I get a definite floral aspect,” Sceney said. Dupuis agreed: “floral and fruity.”
Cocktail: “You can go in a ton of directions with this one,” said Black. “I’ve used it to make off-shoots of the Manhattan and Martinez. It’s very chameleon-like.” And, because it has no oak character at all, Wolowidnyk said, “It’s great in barrel-aged creations.”
Resurrection Spirits Pale Rye
$57, 45% ABV
This is the same base spirit, but aged five months in American white oak ex-bourbon casks—not long enough to be called a whisky (that would require three years), but with some wood character.
“This one, you lose the floral in the nose, but the spice goes way up,” said Dupuis.
“I got honey on the nose,” Black added.
Cocktail: “It makes a killer Manhattan because of that spice,” Wolowidnyk said. Black added: “Something is telling me an Old Pal (rye, vermouth, Campari).”
Okanagan Spirits B.C. Rye Whisky
$60, 40% ABV
This craft rye from the Vernon-based distillery uses 51% Coldstream Valley rye, and 49 per cent locally malted B.C. barley, and is aged three years in American oak.
“It’s a legit rye, it’s a legit whisky,” Black said. “It’s a nice, light base spirit. I’d like to get more wood integration into it.” Sceney detected notes of apple crisp and granola, and said: “It’s good for someone just getting into whisky. A stepping-stone whisky.”
Cocktail: Thoughts turned to ginger. Sceney suggested a whisky mule (rye and ginger beer), while Dupuis said, “It’d be great in a Manitoba Martini. Lots of ice and ginger ale.”
Jack Daniels Tennessee Rye
$30.99, 45% ABV
The first new whisky from the Tennessee distillery since before Prohibition is made with 70 per cent rye, 18 per cent corn and 12 per cent malted barley.
“For some reason, I get peanut butter,” Gray said. Dupuis agreed: “It doesn’t smell like Jack Daniels. I get fresh-roasted banana and peanut butter. Toasted flavours, toasted coconut, toasted banana.” Black said: “I get something ashy on the palate. It does go through the Lynchburg process. I quite like it.”
Cocktail: “It would be great in tiki drinks,” Sceney said. “A banana Daiquiri.” “Banana Jackiri—I’m calling dibs on that,” Black suggested. “Rye Tai,” Scope added.
Bulleit Frontier Rye
$38.99, 45% ABV
A straight rye whisky (95 per cent rye, five per cent malted barley), first released in 2011.
This was one of the first American rye whiskies that showed up on back bars, and one all the bartenders were familiar with, yet not all that excited by. “It’s a basic bitch whisky,” Dupuis said. “It was an American rye that was not 50 bucks, so it was something people could get.”
“I find that there’s something on the palate that’s a little waxy, a little cloying,” Wolowidnyk said. “I kind of wish it was spicier. I think people who have fallen in love with the Bulleit bourbon have fallen into this.”
“I think the fact that it’s not a super spicy rye makes it easy to use in a cocktail,” said Sceney. Black agreed: “It breadcrumbs people from vodka to whisky. It helps to have a well-recognized label behind the bar.”
Cocktail: “I do a Sidecar variation. Or a Crusta,” said Ingram.
Alberta Premium Canadian Rye
$21.99, 40% ABV
The classic 100 per cent rye whisky from Alberta Distillers was for years whisky guru Jim Murray’s best in Canada. “One of the great, most wonderfully consistent whiskies of the world that is genuinely a Canadian rye,” he wrote.
The bartenders largely agreed. “I love this whisky,” Gray said. “I love it. I could drink this forever. It’s my go-to Manhattan whisky.” Wolowidnyk added: “If we were tasting blind, I would pick this out as a rye.”
It was also the whisky that started the big debate: “What does everyone define as a rye? Maybe we should have started with that,” Ingram said. “You have the spice character and the fruit character, but Canadian and American ryes are so different.”
“It should have the spice character of the grain,” said Wolowidnyk. “If you taste the character of the rye, it’s rye.”
“To me, rye falls into the whisky world the way gin falls in the cocktail world,” Black said. “It’s cocktail specific.”
“Bourbon has that sweet character, but rye has spice,” Scope said. “Canadian whisky is always sweeter.”
“Canadian whisky is meant to be sweet,” Dupuis agreed. “Bourbon is bourbon; single malt is single malt. Canadian rye is really Canadian whisky, while American rye is rye.”
Six years ago, I had this knee-jerk reaction that it had to be 100 per cent rye, but I stopped. Now it just has to be legit rye, even if it’s a blend.
They pointed out that rye is still a tough sell for many consumers, who don’t understand what it is, which is, in fact, often a blend. “Six years ago, I had this knee-jerk reaction that it had to be 100 per cent rye, but I stopped,” Gray said. “Now it just has to be legit rye, even if it’s a blend.”
Regardless, the popularity of rye is growing fast. As Wolowidnyk pointed out: “Between 2009 and 2015, the popularity of rye increased 500 per cent internationally.”
Cocktail: All agreed that this would work in most classic whisky cocktails. “It’s a good home bartender whisky,” Dupuis said. “And the price is hilarious,” Black added.
J.P. Wiser’s Triple Barrel Rye
$27.49, 43.4% ABV
This bold Ontario whisky is made with 62 per cent rye (the rest is wheat and corn), and matured in used Canadian whisky, first-fill bourbon and virgin oak casks.
“That’s tasty,” said Scope. Added Ingram: “I like the spice in the whisky, and the way it’s balanced with the sweetness.” The bartenders loved the robust spice and oak notes in this award-winning—and value-driven—whisky. “At $27 a bottle, it tastes like profit,” said Black. “Word,” said Gray.
Cocktail: Wolowidnyk suggested a mulled cider, while Dupuis said, “I’d definitely play with spice, apple, pumpkin spice anything.”
Sazerac Straight Rye Whisky
$54.99. 45% ABV
This whisky from Buffalo Trace traces its historic roots to the 1800s and the Sazerac Coffee House in New Orleans, although much about it is shrouded in mystery. It’s a popular brand with the bartenders for its big spice character.
“I like that American oak influence on the rye. I like the nose,” Ingram said. Black added: “It was a rye made to mimic brandy.”
Cocktails: “The Sazerac first and foremost,” Scope said. Aside from that, any cocktail that calls for rye. As Black said, “It’s the second most used rye whisky in cocktails.”
Knob Creek Straight Rye
$55, 50% ABV
Just 51 per cent rye, but the high proof and barrel aging give it bold flavour, especially of dried fruits like prunes, sultanas and raisins.
Ingram noted “a bit more barrel influence. Tannic structure from the wood. It’s balanced, big and rich. I like the way it dries out your mouth. It’s what I think of when I think of rye.”
Cocktail: Dupuis suggested an “Old Fashioned with very little sugar,” while Scope was thinking of a Vieux Carré.
Lot 40 Rye Whisky
$37.99, 43% ABV
A legendary Canadian whisky given new life by Hiram Walker master blender Don Livermore in Ontario. Despite its reputation for big flavours, some of the bartenders felt that it needed more spice character. But they all agreed that it was mellow and well made, big and bold the way real rye should be.
“Everything is well integrated. Its’s well balanced,” Ingram said. Added Scope: “It’s approachable because it has the sweetness up front like Cognac.’
Cocktail: “I would make a Scofflaw,” Ingram said. “Rye, dry vermouth, grenadine, lemon and orange bitters. Or a Manhattan variation.” Added Dupuis: “I’d just sip on it.”
Canadian Club 100% Rye
$23.99, 40% ABV
This one had the bartenders puzzled—all were familiar with the same product with the Chairman’s Select label, which is a favourite among the group for its bold flavour and its affordability, but this was just branded 100% rye. On checking with the distillery, CC says it’s the same product, but with a new label. However, the tasting panel felt it was slightly sweeter and less spicy than in the past, and not as well integrated.
“It’s just all over the place,” Black said. Added Dupuis: “On the nose, at the very end, you get that rye spice.”
Cocktail: The general consensus was that this is a good home bartender rye that would work in every style of whisky cocktail.
$25.99, 40% ABV
At the last minute, we felt it would be remiss to do a rye tasting without including this classic of Canadian whisky, even though Crown has very little actual rye in the mash.
But it was overshadowed by the big flavours of the last few whiskies, and came across as a very mild, sweet spirit. As Wolowidnyk quipped: “Did someone put coloured water in my glass?”
Cocktail: “Ginger ale and bitters,” Sceney said. “It’s perfect with it.”