They warned me that rodeo horses can be dangerous and unpredictable, but as I watch these gentle creatures saunter around the corral behind the Pendleton arena it’s hard to see them as anything but oversized children’s ponies. Inside the arena, a voice on crackly speakers starts to rev up the capacity crowd in anticipation of the saddle bronc riders. Only when the audience seems excited enough will the riders appear. As the cheering reaches fever pitch the announcer breaks into auction cadence, a name flashes on the rasher board, and it’s sheer mayhem.
A brute of a horse bursts wildly onto the dirt track flailing both hind legs. Straddling the horse precariously, a rider holds the reins firmly in his left hand while his right desperately grasps thin air above his head. A dozen bucks later a horn sounds. Three cowboys close in on the demon equine as its rider lunges awkwardly for a gentler steed.
This pattern is repeated several times with half the riders falling heavily long before the horn signals the end of their ride. Twenty-five year old rider Tyler Corrington is up next and the crowd senses this is going to be different. He erupts into the ring on a monster bay. The horse bucks insanely, but somehow Corrington manages to stay astride. A blaring horn declares it over and suddenly this seemingly deranged mustang slows to a gentle lope. A veteran, this horse knows the ropes. Here’s one wise bucking bronco who understands it’s all a show. The Pendleton Round-Up, one of America’s best-known rodeos is underway.
"This horse knows the ropes. Here’s one wise bucking bronco who understands..."
“Let‘er Buck,” grins Mindy Davis, a bubbly blond in a white cowboy hat and black Pendleton whisky t-shirt. She is the original member of the Pendleton Posse and travels throughout the U.S. promoting Pendleton Canadian whisky, the official spirit of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA). It also happens to be one of the fastest-growing premium whisky brands in the U.S. Pendleton whisky is a sponsor or participant in more than 400 rodeos on the busy U.S. event schedule. Pendleton, Oregon, is home though, and each Pendleton whisky bottle prominently features the Pendleton Round-Up's famous bucking horse symbol and the slogan: "Let'er Buck.”
“Pendleton whisky was developed and named to honour the tradition of the Pendleton Round-Up,” explains Tia Bledsoe, director of marketing at Hood River Distillers Inc. “It’s one of the most prestigious rodeo events in the world. We are proud to sponsor the Pendleton Round-Up,” Bledsoe tells me, “and honoured to be a part of such an exciting and large tradition that truly was the inspiration behind Pendleton, ‘the cowboy whisky’."
Now hold on a second. This is the Wild West – the American Wild West that we know from all those old cowboy movies. But this official rodeo whisky is distilled in Canada? Why? Bledsoe offers an explanation: “It was less about American versus Canadian and more about consistency in the blend. Americans are looking for brands that share their core values. When they find a spirit which aligns with those values it's only natural that they would make it their call brand and keep it stocked in their home bar.”
It’s hard to taste a value but it’s easy to see market trends and Pendleton is surging. Like many of its competitors, Pendleton is involved in a north-south transaction.
They buy Canadian spirit and mature it in Canada, then blend it together with Mount Hood glacier water for sale in their home U.S. market.
Does the Canada/U.S. border make a difference? Apparently yes, on two counts: productions methods and popular taste. It’s cold in Canada and whisky matures more slowly there than in the U.S., not least because much of it rests in barrels that have already been used to make Bourbon. Although it can be astonishingly complex and subtle, Canadian whisky is still best known in the U.S. as a mixer – something to spice up a glass of ginger ale, or cola. In fact, so popular is Canadian whisky in America 70 per cent of all the whisky made in Canada is shipped to the U.S. for sale. Moreover, until Bourbon made its very recent (and much deserved) resurgence, Canadian whisky has for more than a century been the best-selling whisky of any style in the U.S.
"It’s hard to taste a value but it’s easy to see market trends and Pendleton is surging"
Many Canadian whisky brands are unavailable state-side and, similarly, brands of Canadian whisky that are big sellers in the U.S. often can’t be found anywhere in Canada. How can that be?
There is no rodeo whisky in Canada, perhaps for reasons of population and tradition. Canada has its rodeos, to be sure, but the Wild West image is really an American phenomenon. So, American firms such as Hood River Spirits, with Pendleton, Indio Spirits with its Snake River Stampede Canadian whisky, and Crosby Lake Spirits with Bison Ridge Special Reserve Canadian, have jumped in to address regional tastes in the U.S.
Perhaps the best example of an American firm making Canadian whisky to suit U.S. palates is Brown-Forman which owns and operates the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario. All of the whisky made at Canadian Mist is shipped to the U.S. for bottling and little returns to Canada.
They may have started out on the rodeo circuit, but Pendleton no-age whisky and the upscale Pendleton 1910 12 Years Old 100 per cent rye-grain whisky are now found in more than 40 states across the U.S.
Finally, they are now starting to trickle back into Canada.
In the old days cowboys came to Pendleton for the bars and the bordellos. Nowadays, they ride the broncs and sip Canadian whisky.
Join cowboys like Tyler Corrington and his friends at the Pendleton Round-Up from September 12 to 15 this year. Don’t forget the sunscreen – September in Pendleton can be hotter than a branding iron and dustier than tumbleweed on the old Oregon Trail. And remember to – Let’er Buck!
PendletonNo Age Statement 40% ABV
Hints of ripening fruit ride waves of searing pepper that crash on rich butterscotch shores. Bitter rye subdues the sweetness while spicy rye tantalises the palate.
Pendleton1910, 100% Rye Grain, 12 Years Old 40% ABV
An ever-changing complexity of maple fudge, lime juice, scorching hot pepper, and cool menthol tobacco evolves into fragrant red cedar. Voluptuous and so very alive.
Pendleton Director’s Reserve20 Years Old 40% ABV
Sweet, oaky wisps of smoke from an open campfire. Dusty aged saddle leather, and surging hot peppermint. Warm dark fruit in a rich, creamy rye. Heaven on the trail.
Bison Ridge Special Reserve8 Years Old 40% ABV
Buttery caramels harmonise with bracing bitters in an oaky, peppery, mouth-warming dram. Simple,
spicy, and straight forward yet weighty and robust.
Snake River Stampede8 Years Old 40% ABV
Peppery spices and velvet tannins wrapped in a silky smooth sweetness. Dusty dry rye grain, vaguely herbal tones, a mealiness, and the scent of newly split firewood.
Canadian Mist Black DiamondNo Age Statement 43% ABV
A big, fruity whisky with frizzling-hot chocolate-covered ginger, and sweet mash in sparkling Brio. Concord grapes, rosewater, creamy caramel and bitter orange follow.