Checking out Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, A Most Unusual Canadian Rye

As a cocktail wonk, I’m constantly expanding my spirits library, building an essential set of specimens representing the major spirits categories. My whisk(e)y collection has grown steadily, with dozens of bourbon, American rye, scotch, and Irish whiskey expressions. Inexplicably however, no bottles from Canada, our neighbor to the north and a whisky powerhouse on the world stage. I’ll confess that this was partially the result of my perception (widespread it seems) that Canadian whisky is composed of mostly spirits distilled to a very high alcohol percentage (thus stripping out most of the flavor), along with a bit of caramel and artificial flavoring

After seeing an announcement for the Seattle launch event of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch, along with a host of well-respected Seattle bartenders participating, I decided that it was time to educate myself; the evening turned out to be highly educational, as I discovered a dark, complex rye with an unusual story (more on this below). I was also fortunate to meet Dan Tullio, Canadian Whisky Master Ambassador at Beam Suntory (who reminds me of a young Tony Bennett), and came home with a bottle of the Dark Batch to review here.

Let’s start with the essentials about the Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch. It comes from Alberta Distillers Ltd., one of Canada’s largest distilleries, owned by Beam Suntory. The single sentence synopsis of Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch is that it’s a blend of 100 percent rye whisky from Canada, Old Grand Dad Bourbon from Kentucky, and Oloroso sherry from Spain. This is a very unusual configuration for a whisky in a spirits category that emphasizes single source, non-blended products–bourbon in particular

You might be wondering how the Dark Batch can be called Canadian Whisky if it includes U.S. and Spanish components. Canadian whisky labeling laws are quite a bit different and, in general, much less strict than U.S. whiskey labeling laws. Canada allows for up to 1/11th (or 9.09 percent) of a Canadian whisky’s contents to come from non-Canadian sources. The Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch (henceforth “Dark Batch”) takes full advantage of the 9.09 percent allowance:  Eight percent is Old Grand Dad bourbon, and one percent is sherry. (Not surprisingly, Old Grand Dad and the sherry supplier, which I’ll expand on later, are also owned by Beam Suntory

In a follow up phone interview with Dan Tullio, I learned a ton of backstory about the Alberta Distillers Ltd., Canadian whisky in general, and Beam Suntory’s decision to create a darker, more powerful Canadian rye than what we’ve been accustomed to.

Alberta Distillers Limited (henceforth “ADL” for brevity) started in 1946 in Calgary, distilling from hearty Canadian rye from Alberta and nearby provinces. The distillery was purchased by the National Distillers and Chemical Corporation in 1967, and later part of a group of spirits companies sold to James B. Beam Distilling (aka “Jim Beam”) in 1987. Beam eventually grew to become the fourth largest spirits company before its purchase by the Japanese Suntory Holdings in 2014, creating today’s Beam Suntory conglomerate.

Today, ADL is North America’s largest rye producer, with more than 450,000 barrels undergoing aging currently. The distillery’s pot stills create flavorful, lower proof distillate, while its column stills create lighter distillate with a higher alcohol percentage; the resulting pot and column distillates are aged and blended to create a particular target profile. Today the distillery is one of the few North American distilleries producing rye using a 100 percent rye mash bill, rather than a mix of corn, rye, and other grains. Their best known ADL product (in Canada at least) is Alberta Premium Rye with its distinctive cut-glass bottle. ADL exports a significant amount of their output for blending in other countries, especially the U.S. A bit of internet digging turns up that Vermont’s Whistle Pig Rye utilizes ADL rye in its bottlings.

When I asked Dan why Beam Suntory chose to make a rye outside the usual Canadian rye flavor profile, he offered that when mixologists are crafting new recipes, they want a base spirit whose flavor is readily apparent in the final cocktail. While Bourbon is great to drink by itself, its woodiness can get lost in a cocktail, while the spiciness of a strong rye can punch through. Continuing on, Dan says today’s whiskey revolution has produced drinkers who are looking for new, more robust flavor profiles. Rather than introduce yet another flavored whiskey (e.g. honey, cinnamon, etc.) with the ADL line, Beam Suntory chose to go the reformulation route – bumping up the percentage of pot still distillate, extending the wood aging, and so forth. (As an interesting aside, Dan said that lighter Canadian whisky is typically aged in already used oak barrels for the minimum legally allowed 36-months, to introduce as little wood aging flavors as possible

While the Dark Batch is new here in the U.S., the identical formulation has been available in Canada since the fall of 2013, under the name Alberta Premium Dark Horse. The “Dark Horse” is a reference to Majestic Prince, winner of the 1969 Kentucky Derby and Preakness and owned by Frank McMahon, co-founder of the distillery. When Beam Suntory decided to bring the Dark Horse to the U.S., they renamed it to avoid potential trademark entanglements with Michigan’s Dark Horse Brewing. One proposed alternative name included the word “stallion,”, which bumped into some other “interesting” trademark issues as well. So we are left with the somewhat bland moniker “Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch” in America. Can’t win ’em all, I suppose.

Because I’m more than a little wonky about what’s in my spirits, I grilled Dan about exactly what makes up the Dark Batch. In an unusual and heartily applauded choice, Beam Suntory is very up front about this whisky’s provenance. Dan says this is in part to prove the craft behind this product, helping it compete in a market focused on the explosion of new, small-batch craft spirits.

Approximately 45.5 percent of the Dark Batch comes from an all-rye mash bill distilled in small pot stills, then aged in new, charred oak barrels for six years. The use of “new oak” barrel is an American whisky labeling requirement; other countries will happily take once-used American oak barrels off the distiller’s hands and use them a few more times for aging scotch, rum, tequila, and so on. However, for the Dark Batch pot still component, ADL chose to go with new oak.

Another 45.5 percent comes from the same 100 percent rye mash bill, but column distilled to a higher ABV, then aged for 12 years in used oak barrels. Dan emphasized that in the high plains of Alberta, barrels undergoing aging experience large temperature swings on a daily basis, accelerating the effect of wood aging. Thus, a 12-year aged Canadian whisky is on the upper end of the aging scale, where closer to three years’ time is more common. The 50-50 ratio of pot to column still whiskies  in the Dark Batch bears highlighting: This is a much higher pot still ratio than found in your typical light Canadian rye, thus giving an extra flavor punch.

Eight percent of the Dark Batch comes from Old Grand Dad Bourbon, made at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, KY. Old Grand Dad is rye-heavy relative to the regular Jim Beam bourbon. When I pressed Dan for the percent of rye in the Old Grand Dad mash bill, he allowed that it was twice the amount found in Jim Beam. A little poking around on the internet turns up a consensus that the Old Grand Dad mash bill is around 63 percent corn, 27 percent rye, and 10 percent barley. As Old Grand Dad has three different expressions (114 proof, 100 proof, and 80 proof), I was curious which was used, and not surprisingly, it’s the low end of the line, 80 proof version, aged for four years.

The final and most newsworthy component of the Dark Batch is one percent sherry. When I asked what type, Dan initially told me Oloroso sherry; digging deeper, I learned it’s from John Harvey & Sons. While the name might not immediately register, you’ve probably heard of their marquee product: Harvey’s Bristol Cream,  a blend of several different types of sherry, including Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez. Aging spirits like scotch, bourbon, and rum in sherry casks has been all the rage for a while now, and in fact, I’ve heard murmurs that some distilleries order their sherry casks quite a bit “wetter” than you might expect. The Dark Batch doesn’t play that game – Beam Suntory is up front about including sherry in the mix. Dan says that sherry casks have a high degree of variability in how much sherry flavor they impart and that blending in a known quantity of sherry makes for a more consistent product. In the overall picture, you wouldn’t expect one percent sherry to impact the overall flavor profile much–more on this in a moment.

>With the preliminaries out of the way, let’s put the Dark Batch under the microscope. In the bottle at 90 proof, the Dark Batch is a tad bit darker than similarly aged straight ryes in my collection, not surprising since you’d expect dark red sherry to deepen the color. The nose is subtle–a bit of toffee/butterscotch is all I could consistently get. Taking a sip, it starts out round and lush, with just a touch of sweetness that’s not immediately recognizable as sherry. A few seconds later the rye springs to life, with an accompanying small amount of burn. The finish fades relatively quickly.

Although the Alberta Dark isn’t fully rye-based, at approximately 93 percent rye (remember, the Old Grand Dad has rye in its mash bill), it’s not unreasonable to put it head to head against straight ryes for comparative tasting; I chose Russell’s Reserve 6-year and Woodinville Whiskey’s 100% Rye. The Alberta Dark’s nose is consistently more subtle. Flavor-wise, the Dark Batch’s slightly sweet intro followed by a rye burst is an easier sell to folks curious about rye but not ready to be beat about the head and shoulders by rye in all its spicy glory.

While I wouldn’t hesitate to sip the Dark Batch, it really calls out to be used in spirit-forward cocktails. Beam Suntory’s marketing (tagline: “Rethink your rye”) features a Rorschach image, suggesting to mixologists to envision it in whatever ways they are inspired in their cocktails. At the Seattle launch event, top-notch local bartenders served signature drinks of their own devising, each quite different from the other.

Chris Goad at Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch launch, Seattle
Amanda Jensen at Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch launch, Seattle

For my own spin on a Dark Batch-based cocktail, I was inspired by the idea of the Manhattan (a classic rye cocktail if there is one) augmented with other flavor profiles. I love applejack as a base spirit, and maraschino liqueur always improves whisk(e)y drinks. Here’s what worked for me:

Majestic Prince

  • 1.5 oz Alberta Rye Whisky Dark Batch
  • 0.75 oz Apple brandy (e.g. Laird’s Bottled in Bond)
  • 0.5 oz Sweet vermouth (e.g. Carpano Antica Formula)
  • 0.125 oz Maraschino liqueur (e.g. Luxardo)
  • 3 dashes orange bitters (I used Bittercube)
Stir over ice, pour into chilled coupe or single old-fashioned glass. Express orange peel over, then drop in.
Majestic Prince

The Dark Batch doesn’t have any extremely close competition at the moment due to its unusual rye/bourbon/sherry makeup. The closest category in my opinion is mid-to-premium straight ryes such as Knob Creek and Russell’s Reserve.  At US $30, the Dark Batch is a competitive in that space, providing an easy-sipping rye, not overly challenging, and which works well in cocktails calling for a rye base.

A big thanks to Dan Tullio for all his time in sharing the Dark Batch story, providing me with a sample bottle, and arranging for a couple of Canadian Club sample bottles for further study and evaluation of Canadian Whisky.  I look forward to diving in and sharing more about the new crop of premium Canadian Whiskies in future posts.

 

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