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In the last several years, however, better Canadian whiskies have been arriving in the U.S., and it's starting to get more respect. That message doesn't seem to have reached many of the whisky enthusiasts who attended Chicago's WhiskyFest 2015 last Friday evening, though: while the first seminar my tasting companion and I attended was packed ("The Most Interesting Whisk(e)y Portfolio in the World," which admittedly had a better name), a talk by distiller Don Livermore on the rebirth of Canadian blending was only about a third full. Livermore is the master distiller for J.P. Wiser's, which has been making whisky in Canada for more than 150 years, but was introduced to the U.S. only in late 2013.
Not surprisingly, the tasting began and ended with Wiser's whiskies, though Livermore threw in a couple other Canadian whiskies from Corby, the distributor for Wiser's. We started with Wiser's Rye, which is quite smooth for a rye whisky, without much of the rye spice I'd expect (but not at all like vodka). I tasted raisin, oak, and some brighter fruit notes like cherry. Oddly, I liked the regular rye a lot better than the Wiser's 18-year-old, which smelled like straight alcohol and tasted astringent, with distinct notes of acetone. I was surprised to learn that this whisky is only 80 proof; it tastes much hotter, and the aging somehow does nothing to smooth it out.
The last two whiskies we tasted were both experiments of Livermore's that aren't available commercially, which is too bad because they're phenomenal. A 30-year rye smelled like green apple and had tons of bright fruit flavor—apple and peach—with some boozy spice. We finished with "Don's PhD," so named because Livermore holds a PhD in brewing and distilling from Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University that, he joked, isn't entirely necessary for a master blender (I don't have a lot of notes for that one, but I do remember it being good).
Some of the first whiskeys I tried in the evening also have a connection to Canada: though Whistlepig Distillery is located in Vermont, the alcohol for its signature ten-year, 100-percent-rye whiskey originally came from Alberta Distillers in Canada, and some still does. The new product they were sampling at WhiskyFest, however, is not from Canada but from MGP, the Indiana manufacturer that also supplies Templeton, Angel's Envy, Redemption, and Bulleit, among other distilleries (Whistlepig seems to have learned from Templeton's mistakes after last year's backlash; the brand rep told me where the whiskey was from before I asked). It's called the Old World Series. After getting nine-year-old whiskey (95 percent rye, 5 percent malt) from MGP, Whistlepig ages it for another three years and then finishes it in various wine casks: sauternes, Madeira, and port. The plan is eventually to blend the three, but for now they're releasing the results individually in limited quantities (it's available only in New York, Illinois, and California; the sauternes is out now and the others will be out in the next few weeks).
Some other favorites from the evening, listed in no particular order:
Koval Rye Cask Strength (not available commercially): Shockingly smooth for its 113 proof—quite sweet, not very spicy, and almost more like bourbon than rye.
Angel's Envy Rye: Aged in rum barrels, a very sweet, smooth rye with lots of molasses flavor along with ginger, cinnamon, and other baking spices. It doesn't have much rye spice, but I didn't mind.
Westland American Single Malt: This isn't the first time I've had the flagship product from Seattle's Westland Distillery, but its roasty, chocolatey flavor impresses me every time.
Old Potrero 18th-Century Style Spirit: Anchor Distilling's attempt to re-create the original grain whiskeys produced in the U.S.—a 100-percent-rye whiskey that's been aged in toasted (rather than charred) oak barrels—is toasty and very smooth, with tons of vanilla and a distinctly woody flavor.
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: I wrote about the Taiwanese distillery Kavalan after last year's WhiskyFest, but I was equally taken by their whiskies this year—particularly by this rich, spicy single malt aged in oloroso sherry casks, which has lots of dark, dried-fruit flavor.