While we wait a few months for the high-end Pikesville rye to debut locally, and a few years for homegrown rye to flow, help for our rye whiskey cravings has recently arrived from up north where a slumbering giant might finally be awakening. A rep from Canada's Alberta Distillers Ltd. was in town last week to promote its new Dark Batch Rye Whisky.
By giant, I mean both the capacious Canadian distilling industry as a whole and Alberta Distillers itself (the firm has 450,000 barrels of rye aging away). And by slumbering, I mean . . . well, have you taken a look at the Canuck section of the whiskey aisle lately? It's usually a dim, untrafficked corner dominated by frumpy, mild-mannered blends your grandparents quaffed while watching Jack Benny on the club basement Philco. Whiskey is exploding globally: Upstart American craft distillers are churning out all manner of juice, Ireland is aiming to double whiskey exports in five years' time, the Scots are releasing a plethora of new, no-age-statement products as a means to meet demand. Meanwhile, in the Great White North they seem content to keep catering to folks who think a "7 and 7" is the height of cocktail culture. (That would be a Seagram's 7 Crown Whisky and 7-Up for you youngsters.)
So, yeah, I was excited to meet master brand ambassador Dan Tullio at Blue Pit BBQ to learn of this new northern import. He was confident that Dark Batch would rattle the rye world and help reinvigorate Canada's image as a with-it whiskey maker. Dark Batch is actually based on the distiller's Dark Horse rye, available in the homeland for years. I've long heard that while the bulk of Canada's whiskey ends up in the States, they keep the really good and interesting for themselves. (Of course, some Canadian rye comes across the border to be tweaked and repackaged as top-shelf craft whiskey—I'm looking at you, Whistle Pig and a few others.)
Dark Batch is a very curious rye because, well, this: It is actually 8 percent Old Grand Dad Straight Bourbon and 1 percent oloroso sherry. The other 91 percent is Canadian rye—half of it pot-stilled and aged six years in new white oak barrels, the rest column stilled and aged 12 years in secondhand Jim Beam barrels. Confused? Well, Canadian labeling laws are much less restrictive than ours and so a bottle reading "Canadian Whisky" can actually contain up to 9.09 percent other alcohol from other places.
On the palate, a sweet toffeeness dominates at first, but rye spice soon punches through and makes its presence known. The long finish turns dry with a pleasant touch of heat (it is 90 proof). The sherry is more noticeable in the nose than in the mouth but it probably helps create the dark amber hue. Tasty stuff. While this blended, uh, "Franken-whiskey" won't be confused with a classic, Maryland-style rye, its complexity is a welcome addition to the rye arena. It's even more toothsome with its reasonable $30-a-bottle price. (Tullio says it really shines in cocktails but as we met in the early afternoon, I contented myself with just a neat dram.)
So move over Black Velvet, Canadian Club, Crown Royal, and the rest, the north-of-the-border whiskey shelf just got a lot more interesting.