Let’s talk about transparency in the Canadian whisky industry. Amongst the big producers, this term is used sparingly when critics are finding adjectives to describe them. There’s usually no mention of coloring or chill-filtration, whether their “rye” contains anything of the sort or what barrels are used to age their spirit. And that’s just the start.
With the massive influx of new craft distilleries from coast to coast, they are doing their part to change this trend. In many instances, they list some or all of this information either on their website and, preferably, the bottle as well. It is to these distillers that Canadians, and the world in general, should look to for greater transparency. Hopefully, as they gain a larger share of the domestic and international market, they can be our ambassadors of transparency, showing what their whisky is truly made of.
An East Coast distillery, Signal Hill, partially owned by legendary Canadian actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd, is helping to lead the charge on this transparency front. On their website at least, they tell you what grains go into the whisky (~90% Ontario corn and the rest malted barley) as well which kind of barrels are used in the maturation process (new white oak, ex-bourbon and barrels that used to hold Canadian whisky). It even says non-chill filtered on the bottle, which is a gutsy move for a mass-market 80 proof whisky. Less obvious is where this whisky was originally distilled or what its age is. A quick Google search (as well as listening to the “Lost in Dramslation” podcast episode where their national brand ambassador is featured) suggests that the whisky is between 3-5 years old and was sourced from Hiram Walker in Ontario. The whisky is blended and bottled in Newfoundland.
There. That wasn’t so hard was it…hint hint…Canadian Club…hint hint…Crown Royal?
Nose: This smells like your everyday 40% abv Canadian corn whisky in many respects. The big difference here is that the notes are darker. Sponge toffee instead of a light toffeed sweetness. Darker caramel instead of the light or artificial smelling kind. Certainly vanilla is in there as well. The different types of casks used to mature this are masking the corn sweetness, but after a while it wafts up in the form of some creamed corn. The spicing is gentle with a bit of cinnamon and clove. Although I’m getting notes from the various casks being used, I’m not getting much oak itself (if that makes sense). Maybe some water will coax it out.
Palate: OK. Here’s where the lack of chill filtration really makes a difference. The entry is quite oily from the very start. It’s not super mouth coating, but it’s way more so than mass produced Canadian whisky. What starts off as more of that cream corn, toffee sweetness rapidly evolves into something darker as this transitions into the development. I’ve had to take several sips to make sure my brain wasn’t tricking me, but I am definitely getting some dark molasses midway through the development, particularly when I smack my lips to let in some air. Combined with the clove, cinnamon and the emergence of dried ginger, this is drifting into ginger snap cookie territory for me. One would think the lack of rye and proof in this whisky would lead to no spice on the palate, but the new oak barrels start to make their mark towards the back end of the finish, leading to a mild spice kick.
Finish: The emergence of the oak at the end of the development carries over in to the medium finish. That is joined with a healthy dose of that ginger snap note and some sponge toffee. This finish is still way more sweet than bitter. It’s also just a tad drying.
With water added…
One criticism I have when sipping this one neat is that the nose and palate are kind of disjointed. With a few drops of water, they are now a little bit more cohesive. Yes, I am still getting caramel and toffee in abundance, but a bit more oak and some of that ginger molasses cookie note is starting to present itself. The entry is a little less oily now, but not overly so. I’m not getting that dark molasses note anymore. It’s more a warm ginger cake now and and the spicing is a tad stronger and comes on earlier in the development. The length of the finish has increased a bit and the baking spices, although still mild, last a lot longer.
To be honest, I was expecting a normal, run of the mill Canadian whisky when I first poured this into the glass, yet the folks at Signal Hill have left me pleasantly surprised. It seems that the careful choice of casking, even at only 80 proof, makes a big difference here. My personal opinion is that non-chill filtration also helps, especially in terms of the increased oiliness, especially during the development.
Signal Hill is pretty open about the fact that this is best used as a cocktail whisky, yet I would argue that this is also highly enjoyable on its own, both with or without water. Say hello to your new daily drinker!