It seems that I have a little mini moonshining theme going on these days. Although Dariusz Plazewski, founder of Bimber Distillery (subject of my last two reviews) and Shayna Hansen, co-founder of Edmonton’s Hansen Distillery, grew up in different times, under different circumstances, and nearly half a world away from each other, their deep family connections to moonshining are uncannily similar. Shayna’s family moonshining roots were established during a time that made the financial crash of the late 2000’s a mere blip by comparison.
The Great Depression, which lasted from 1929 to 1939, was a time of great economic hardship for many North Americans. Unemployment reached as high as 25%, and those who were able to find work often earned very low wages. Many people struggled to make ends meet and were forced to find creative ways to make money. For some, this meant turning to illegal activities such as moonshining.
Moonshining involves the production of alcoholic beverages in unauthorized locations, often in the woods or in remote areas where law enforcement is less likely to discover the operation. During the Great Depression, many people turned to moonshining as a way to make a living, or at least supplement their income. The demand for alcohol, especially inexpensive alcohol, was high during this time, and moonshiners were able to meet this demand by producing and selling their own homemade spirits.
Despite the risks, moonshining remained a popular activity during the Great Depression. In some areas, it was even considered a necessity, as many people could not afford to purchase alcohol from licensed retailers. In rural areas, where the availability of legal alcohol was often limited, moonshining was a way for people to access the beverages they wanted.
The government attempted to crack down on moonshining during this period, but these efforts were often unsuccessful. Moonshiners were able to evade law enforcement by operating in remote locations and using stealthy tactics to avoid detection. In addition, many people were sympathetic to the plight of the moonshiners and were willing to turn a blind eye to their activities.
The end of the Great Depression in 1939 marked the beginning of the end for the moonshining industry. With the economy improving and people having more disposable income, the demand for illegal alcohol decreased. Additionally, the government implemented stricter laws and increased enforcement efforts, making it more difficult for moonshiners to operate.
Today, moonshining is still illegal in Canada and the US, although it is not as prevalent as it was during the Great Depression. While it is no longer seen as a necessity for many people, it remains a popular activity for some who are attracted to the illicit nature of the enterprise and the DIY aspect of producing their own alcohol.
For Shayna’s family, and many families like her’s, what started as a necessity in order to survive, continued through the generations as a hobby and finally as a legal business in Hansen Distillery. Sometimes breaking the law has benifits. There. I said it.
Released nearly three years ago as Edmonton’s first home-grown whisky, Hansen Distillery’s Northern Eyes Rye is distilled using 100% rye grain that originated from Blue Acres Farm near Stettler, Alberta. Each bottle comes from a single, charred, new American oak barrel and is aged for a little over three years. It’s bottled at 43% and sitting in my glass, just waiting to be nosed!
Nose: The first thing that stands out to me is this very subtle smokiness, which is something that I get on some young whiskies that have spent their entire life in new American oak. There is definitely a dill note in here, but it’s not strong. Also present is this nice, slightly dusty hay shed character. This is one of those rare instances where I get both caramel and sponge toffee at the same time. It’s not a very citrusy rye. That note is just lingering in the background. After this sits in the glass for a while, I get lightly toasted rye bread with a scraping of honey. Besides the usual cinnamon, I’m not getting other baking spices on the nose, which is kind of surprising given that this is 100% rye.
Palate: The entry is this nice balance between sweet and sour. A little bit of orange, caramel and vanilla, all in equal measure. Honey starts to creep in at the start of the development, but only just a tad. What I do get in spades is this remarkable note of dried tobacco leaves that you should only get in much older ryes. I had to keep going back for more sips to make sure my mind wasn’t playing tricks on me, but it keeps coming back. It’s subtle to start and just keeps building. It’s not smacking you in the face, though. This bitterness introduces a lovely balance along with the sweet and sour from the entry. This unique profile distracts from the fact that this is quite mild on the heat and baking spices, that latter of which I would liked to have seen more of. Towards the end of the development, the caramel has clearly become sponge toffee.
Finish: The tobacco note really helps to lengthen this out more than is usual for a young rye. A little bit of black pepper starts to seep in at the beginning as well as a tiny amount of bitter dark chocolate. There is still a little bit of honey left from the entry to prevent this from becoming too sour and bitter.
With water added
Demerara sugar has pushed the toffee and caramel into the background on the nose. There’s a slight leather note in here now. Again, shocking for such a young whisky. There’s some menthol too. Honey is much more prevalent on the entry compared with no water added. It’s creamier too. That sweeter entry is really drowning out that tobacco note and that lack of spice is still there as well. The experience just isn’t as characterful now.
To say that this does not have a young rye profile is certainly an understatement. Although I would have liked to have seen more spice, I know that these notes are much stronger in their five year releases (having tried a small sample recently). That tobacco note was so surprising. If there was such a thing as a cigar blend rye, this would be it.