Whisky & Culture

Canadian oak aged treasure

Join our man on the search for some liquid rarities
By Blair Phillips
Off the coast of Nova Scotia is a small island where six treasure hunters have lost their lives. It’s said that a seventh must kick the bucket before Oak Island reveals what it’s hiding. In 1795, teenage boys came across a marked unnatural depression in the ground. They started to dig and came across a platform of oak logs. The farther down they went, the more intricate the pit became.

Later they formed a treasure company, continued digging then sprung an intricate booby trap, flooding the tunnel. Eventually, they went broke and quit. Several followed this penniless trend. With rare Canadian Whisky submerging, these hard to find limited edition whiskies cause the same grief with whisky collectors. But the good news is, there are obtainable Canadian whisky riches that for true whisky lovers, are worth their weight in Oak Island gold.

Nova Scotia has a long history of spirits, mainly rum. On the upper east coast of the province is Guysborough County, a chunk of jagged coastline with sea channels that dart between islands. A pirate’s utopia. It’s also home of the Authentic Seacoast distillery. 30 years ago, owner and distiller, Glynn Williams was cycling up Nova Scotia’s eastern shore. He wasn’t pillaging but was vacationing when he came upon Guysborough harbour. Glynn fell in love with the area and opened a brewery, then a distillery.

Their premiere whisky release, Glynnevan Double Barreled Canadian Rye, gets its name from mashing together Williams’ first name with his son’s – Evan. The whisky in the blend is distilled in the western Prairies. Here, the base whisky is loaded onto a specialised tanker then sloshes across the country with other blending components.

At the distillery, these whiskies get a second barreling in Canadian Whisky and American Bourbon barrels. The casks age in a warehouse overlooking the Atlantic Ocean for pirates while soaking up the east coast sunrise for an additional two to three years. Then Glynn blends the individual whiskies for bottling.

Not all of this year’s Canadian whiskies get to bask in a tranquil setting. Take Crown Royal Bourbon Mash. Earlier this year, this whisky was released in the United States to punitive reviews. Writers jumped to the conclusion that Crown Royal had jumped on the Bourbon bandwagon. It sparked a frenzy. Round up the bottles and deport them. Then build a wall!

For a couple of years, Crown Royal has released the individual flavouring components that make the Crown Royal Deluxe blend. It started with Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel Rye where we got a taste of the coveted Coffey rye. Then came Northern Harvest rye. Now, Crown Royal has decided to make these releases official with this first release in the Blender’s Series. It’s an excellent time in whisky, where we are lucky to taste the individual components of famous blends. Look at Dewar’s Last Great Malts – Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Aultmore and other single malts; we now get to experience these whiskies instead of seeing them blended away readily.

That’s precisely what Crown Royal has done here. But a few Americans got their AR-15’s all jammed up when Bourbon Mash hit the shelves.

Even with everyone's heels dug in firmly, the discussion was very collaborative


Suddenly, everyone quoted Class 12 of the Code of Federal Regulations that states: “the word “Bourbon” shall not be used to describe any whisky or whisky-based distilled spirits not produced in the United States.”

Class 12 expands on this but while the Bourbon Mash label is clearly printed with 'Blended Canadian Whisky' and 'Product of Canada,' many feel using the word 'Bourbon' on a label is still a direct violation of the CFR. Glenfiddich 14 Year Old Bourbon Barrel Reserve? “Pass”. GlenRothes Bourbon Cask Reserve? “Pass”. Tomatin 8 Years Old Bourbon & Sherry Casks? “Pass”. Crown Royal Bourbon Mash? “Honey, get me my gun.”

Seagram has distilled this Bourbon-style mash whisky from Crown Royal’s infancy – back in a day when Bourbon was still picking up its teeth from prohibition’s knock out blow. A mash bill of 64 per cent corn, 31.5 per cent rye and 4.5 per cent malted barley is column distilled then aged in a combination new oak or once used Bourbon barrels for at least three years to make a delicious and complex blending component.

Crown Royal didn’t put up a fight and changed the label for the US market to Blender’s Mash. News broke, and whisky treasure hunters pounced. They scoured liquor store shelves snapping up bottles of Bourbon Mash thinking they're struck gold. The same thing happened when Northern Harvest Rye sold out and soared to $200 on the grey market, even though there was another batch on its way.

Unbeknownst to whisky treasure hunters, the label in Canada didn’t change, and Bourbon Mash is still an easy find. If you’re sitting on a case with early retirement plans, at least you have plenty of whisky to ease the disappointment.

If there is one group of united whisky fans, it’s the thousands that migrate to the Forty Creek distillery, one weekend each September, to buy a bottle of their limited edition whisky.

In March of 2018, Forty Creek held a contest to send five winners to the Grimsby Ontario distillery to taste whisky with master distiller, Bill Ashburn. With him, they selected the final blend for Forty Creek’s 12th limited release. “It was an amazing experience,” says Forty Creek’s brand ambassador, Chris Thompson. “Each of the fans stated their case for which whisky they preferred with extreme passion. Having fans that came from varied life experiences let us see our whiskies from many different perspectives.”

The crew couldn’t decide which blend would walk the plank. “Even with everyone’s heels dug in pretty firmly, the discussion was very collaborative,” explained Thompson. “Finally, it was suggested to go somewhere between two of the blends to get everyone on the same page. Listening to them, it was easy to see who liked what from each of the blends.”

Bill Ashburn ducked out returning with his arms full of whiskies specific to this project. Then delivered. “We were astonished he could nail down the changes and accurately deliver the flavours everyone was trying to achieve. And do it so quickly."

Unity is a blend of Canadian whiskies including a whisky aged with mocha wood staves. These are American white oak staves toasted to bring out the wood’s chocolate and earthy notes adding a creamy softness to the whisky. It was then blended with a 10-year-old corn whisky and a small amount of rare Portuguese-style Starboard wine aged 15 years in used Forty Creek barrels.

John Hall was a gifted fortified winemaker with a passion for port. I was lucky to try some of John’s private reserve before he retired. “In 1996 we fermented Villard Noir Grapes (a deep purple almost black French hybrid) to 6.6 % alcohol. We halted the fermentation by adding Wine Spirit to an alcohol of 20.0%,” says Thompson.

Elitists will demand a wall when they hear about this blending decision but will quickly change their minds at first taste. “Some of the most interesting food and drink that we have today are the result of Chef’s, winemakers, brew master’s, taking the road less travelled and experimenting,” defends Thompson. “Incorporation of cheap wine to increase profit is not something we would ever do. The wine is one of the most expensive and limited liquids we have in-house. It adds top notes to both the aroma and flavour that take Unity to another level.” It can’t be helped to notice that this whisky also unites the whiskies under Bill Ashburn’s watch with John Hall’s fortified winemaking craft.

There are rumours that the Oak Island treasure belonged to Captain Kidd or Blackbeard and could contain Shakespeare’s missing manuscripts. Marty and Rick Lagina lead the latest group to dig up the island, but there’s no way paper could have survived the flooded pit. Unless there is gold, these two treasure hunters may have drank themselves out of their five senses. Then again, the pirates did bury an oak platform. And where there’s oak, there’s whisky. Still, I suggest looking above ground for Glynnevan, Bourbon Mash or Unity before buying a prospector’s kit on Amazon.
Crown Royal
Crown Royal
FC Unity, Bottle Barrel Room
FC Unity, Bottle Barrel Room