I didn’t really start this 12 Drams of Christmas series as anything but an excuse to raid my spirits cabinet and compose some short (but much needed) blog entries. However, it’s also providing an incentive to crack open some interesting bottles I’ve picked up over time that I hadn’t previously got around to sampling.
Number three in the countdown (or is that countup?) is one such specimen: Wiser’s 18 Years Old (40%), picked up at Toronto airport duty free a couple of years back on one of my occasional business trips to Canada. Not readily available in the UK, I’d read enough of Wiser’s 18 to know I should pick one up if I saw one. Not only was it a bit of a bargain for an 18 year old whisky – by today’s standards at any rate – it also turns out to be a cracking dram.
For those of you unfamiliar with Canadian whisky, the general impression is of light, highly-rectified spirits made in huge column stills from a mash heavy in corn/maize and without the benefit of aging in charred barrels as in the USA. This near-neutral spirit is then “sexed up” with small amounts of lower-strength “flavouring whiskies” (which might include American bourbon), Historically, these have often used a large proportion of (the powerfully flavoured, spicy) rye. Because of this association, Canadian whisky is often described generically as “rye whisky”, even if nowadays it may not necessarily contain any.
These characteristics, allied to the industrial scale of most Canadian whisky production, the domination of two or three brands on the global stage (Canadian Club, Crown Royal, maybe Seagram’s), and the legal (under Canadian law) but not essential use of up to 9.09% of “additives”, including wines and other spirits, can lead to a perception of Canadian whisky as uninteresting, undesirable or even unpalatable.
Whiskies such as Wiser’s 18 challenge these notions, and highlight the true skill of Canadian whisky makers: the skill of the blender. For sure it’s light, for sure it’s made at an “industrial” plant (if by industrial we mean a massive distillery). But it’s also beautifully balanced and enveloping, the subtle sweetness countered by aromatic woody notes and all played out out against a background of honeysuckle and gentle cinnamon. It’s as if the lightness of the spirit allows the (clearly excellent quality) wood room to be itself. I’m quite taken with the square-necked bottle too.
Wiser’s 18 Years Old is one of a family of Wiser’s whiskies made at the Pernod Ricard-owned Hiram Walker distillery in Ottawa for Corby Distilleries of Toronto. If you only have one classic Canadian whisky in your collection, you could do worse than this. Buy it if you see it.