Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye: World’s Best Whisky Of The Year 2021, But Opinions Are Divided
by Ken Gargett
Many years ago, in what now feels like another life, I was doing the backpacker thing and was in the middle of nowhere in Canada – I was being passed along by a series of very kind friends as I’d “enjoyed” a burst appendix, peritonitis and gangrene, none of which I’d recommend as traveling companions. Had it happened a year earlier when I was in the middle of nowhere in Africa, someone else would be writing this column.
Anyway, a friend took me off to Edmonton for a visit, which I believe at the time had the world’s largest shopping mall. Included was a giant indoor pond, which, if memory serves, had two working submarines. I remember this because my friend was very proud of the fact that this was apparently twice as many as the Canadian navy had. No idea if that was true but I always remembered it.
Anyway, they must have a few more now as a while back another friend visited me in Brisbane. He is an officer on one of Canada’s finest. And he is a mad keen cigar and whisky fan, so we tried a few exciting bottles. He kept raving about Canadian whisky and promised to send me a bottle. Always nice when someone is proud of their homeland, but I was thinking that this might be a bit like someone being proud of the Ethiopian wine industry. I soon discovered, not for the first time, that I still had lots to learn.
That is a little gentle teasing for our Canadian brethren – they have a thriving spirits industry, though we rarely see much other than the big players down under, Canadian Club being an obvious example. The lack of wider representation is a little surprising as there are apparently nearly 300 distilleries in Canada now, especially in a market where bourbon has made such inroads.
Anyway, a bottle turned up – it took about three months in transit so I am hoping if they ever go to war, Canada’s navy can move a bit faster.
It turned up surrounded by several packets of what we would call Cheezels. I think my friend thought this might throw customs off the scent. Given that it was a gift, which I believe he is entitled to send, it seemed overkill. And they definitely are not a good match for any whisky. The whisky was the Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye.
Anyway, I knew I had to take this seriously when word arrived that this rye was dubbed World Whiskey of the Year in the 2021 Jim Murray Whisky Bible, which is a very big deal. It was judged against 1,252 other whiskies and came out on top.
It turned out to be an even bigger deal when what might be termed controversy erupted in relation to Mr. Murray and his award. Seems he may have offended some with his descriptions, being less politically correct than some would wish. Indeed, downright sexist.
In the article calling him out, the author announced that she was proud to be woke (which, of course, these days is more than enough to divide a room no matter what the topic). It further seems that Mr. Murray was not in the least bit interested in soothing things with the woke crowd and let them know. This did not go down well, and I believe that the Alberta Distillery now avoids mention of what is a truly fine achievement.
Seems a shame (which is in no way intended to condone whatever Mr. Murray said). There has been considerable support throughout the industry for the comments drawing a line in the sand against sexist language in reviews. Rightly so.
And then it turns out that few whiskies have divided fans like this one. Some rave about it; others are distinctly unimpressed. That happens, but rarely so divisively as with a whisky that does so well.
A refresher on what exactly rye is
Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye comes in at a hefty 65.1 percent ABV. The second release was marginally higher (cask-strength whiskies obviously vary) at 66 percent.
Before we go further, a very brief refresher course on just what rye is.
Rye can be American or Canadian and just so things are not simple, because we would never want that, they have very different rules. American rye, similar to bourbon, has to be distilled from at least 51 percent rye grain. Canadian rye does not need to have so much as a grain of rye in it (this one from Alberta is one of the few that is 100 percent rye).
So why call it rye? Historically, Canadian whisky was largely made from rye.
Another difference is that rye/whisky from Canada must be aged in wooden barrels that do not exceed 700 liters for a period of at least three years. U.S. blended whiskies do not have this same requirement. They need to be aged in “charred new oak ‘vessels’,” so technically they don’t even have to be barrels. No minimum ageing unless it is for a “straight rye whiskey,” which requires a minimum of two years in barrel.
The product has to be at least 40 percent ABV. All Canadian whiskies must be mashed, distilled, and aged in Canada. Canada also apparently has something called the 9.09 percent rule (one has to imagine that some deskbound bureaucrat came up with that specific percentage, but sadly the more prosaic reason is one part to ten parts), which allows producers to add “one part non-Canadian whisky for every 10 parts Canadian whisky” as long as the result “possesses the aroma, taste, and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky.” Examples of what can be added include fortified wines and foreign whiskies.
Alberta Distillers is part of the Beam Suntory empire. Established in 1946 in Calgary, Alberta, it is one of the very few 100 percent rye grain distilleries still operating in North America. Alberta Distillers developed a specific strain of yeast for fermenting rye. The water comes from the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Alberta Distillers’ products do tend to be limited to Canada but some manage to free themselves. Some even probably do so without a serving of Cheezels.
Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye: some opposing opinions
The price for this rye is around $65 Canadian, but after its success plenty of less-than-scrupulous retailers jacked it up to take advantage of demand. It has been seen as high as $450. For me it’s very good value at its listed price; however don’t bother if elevated too much beyond that.
My friend tells me that until the Murray award most of it was gathering dust on bottle shop shelves. After the award, it was sold out in Canada within hours.
As I mentioned, this whisky has really divided reviewers, and so before we look at it some of the thoughts.
For the supporters, from Murray (not the offending pieces), “A succulence to the oils, balanced perfectly by ulmo and manuka honeys ensure for the most chewable Canadian mouthful possibly ever . . . constantly salivating, from the very first nanosecond . . . truly world-class whisky from possibly the world’s most underrated distillery. How can something be so immense yet equally delicate? For any whisky lover on the planet looking for a huge but nearly perfectly balanced experience, then here you go. And with rye at its most rampantly beautiful, this is something to truly worship.”
Others added, “If you are a fan of cask-strength releases, Alberta Premium hasn’t just created one of the best Canadian whiskies, it’s one the world’s leading drams.” “A joyous experience.”
For the contrary view: “There wasn’t much that impressed me right out of the gate . . . straightforward . . . the finish is uneventful . . . merely serviceable.” “Not an award winner in my opinion.”
And perhaps most scathingly of all, from a highly respected whisky site: “A slightly chemical taste and a burning sensation. . . chemical flavor hangs around in mildly unpleasant form through the finish, which radiates awkwardly around the mouth in an uncomfortably bitter and synthetic fashion . . . threatening to trigger the gag reflex . . . I struggled to finish a one-ounce pour of this, which is a dishonor I generally reserve for the most awful of whiskeys . . . like swallowing bitter medicine or accidentally tasting a household cleaning product,” before giving it an underwhelming 2/10.
So very different opinions on this whisky. One can only report on what one tastes. Personally, I’m a little surprised it ranked so highly with the Murray Bible. I think it is a very fine whisky and I thoroughly enjoyed it, but the very best? As to those denigrating it, one assumes that they are simply reviewing what is in their glass, which is all you can do. Quite why they were so unimpressed, I can’t explain.
For me, this is a whisky that would be enjoyed by fans of Islay malts (of which I am one). And a great match for a rich cigar, like a Partagás D4.
A coppery, burnt orange hue. The nose is spicy with honey, a hint of chocolate, dark berries, vanillin notes, and gentle oak. The palate is all richness and complexity. Spices, cinnamon, linger throughout, and a very long finish it is. Some reviewers claimed they could not see any alcoholic heat on the finish – I’d beg to differ.
There are notes of orange rind, stone fruit, butterscotch and a sort of caramel syrup. Candied apples and a slight citrussy note with a whiff of Christmas pudding. It manages to walk a fine line between offering some elegance while maintaining its boldness, though no one is ever going to think this is subtle.
All up, a really fine whisky. 96 for me. As I said, I’d struggle to give it best in the world, but it is hard to argue with those who saw it that way. Whatever one thinks, leaving aside those who were not happy, this is a great advertisement for what Canada can do with rye. Hopefully, we’ll see a lot more of it.
For more information, please visit www.albertadistillers.com.