So here’s something I didn’t know until comparatively recently: the vast majority of Canadian whisky is rye whisky. Which is nice. I like a little rye. So you can imagine my excitement when the Pike Creek 10 Year Old popped up in the local supermarket. Not least because it gives us the chance to talk about barrels.
As any fule kno, all brown spirits are aged in oak barrels. As are all sherries and quite a few wines. The next thing that most people know is that, through the aging process, a certain amount of spirit is lost as alcohol evaporates from the barrels. This ranges from as little as 2% in Scotland to between 6–8% for rum in the Caribbean.
It’s known as the angels’ share.
(And here, since I’ve just mentioned rum, we need a little point of order: it has only ever been known as the angels’ share; it has never been known as the duppies’ share (or ghosts’ share, for that is what duppy means)—the Duppy Share Rum people can’t even get the grammar right. Furthermore, they are bottling an inferior product, sourced from two different islands, and wrapping it up in some marketing bullshit and hoping no one will notice. And it is as abominable as what we used to call “British wine” back in the day, a product vinified in the UK from grapes grown wherever, and named as such to distinguish it from English or Welsh wine, which has to be grown and made where it says it is.)
This matters if you’re making a whisky in Canada because your barrels are going to be exposed to a vast range of temperatures.
If you’re barrel aging in Scotland, you’re look at a spread of about 25–27°C in average temperatures from winter to summer. You can expect some solid but broadly infrequent minus degrees in the winter, maybe –5°C, and you know it’s not going to be insanely hot in the summer, the low 20s, or thereabouts.
In Corbyville, Ontario, home of Pike Creek, we’re looking at a much bigger temperature spread. You only need to think back to your school chemistry class to remember how heat acts as a catalyst in many reactions to realise that this temperature spread will inevitably affect the whisky in the barrel.
To see the effect of relative temperature on barrel aging in a comparable product, you need only look at the difference between a rum aged in the Caribbean and one aged in Europe. The latter will tend to be lighter in both colour and flavour.
In a Canadian whisky, then, we are seeing a stop-start process happening to the barrel aging reactions throughout the year. Which is interesting. What this does to flavour, I can’t tell you. But I intend to find out.
The other thing going on here is the “finishing”. In Pike Creek’s case, the whisky is aged for a second time in a barrel that contained rum.
Secondary finishing, double wooding, call it what you will, is not new. And it does some very exciting things to whisky. Balvenie Double Wood is finished in sherry cases, and is lovely stuff. Glenmorangie offer a wide range of different barrel finishes.
Pike Creek offers just the one. This one. In rum. Which is odd, because it used to be in port. I’ve never tried the port finished version, but having asking around it seems that people liked it.
Still, bye-bye port finish, hello rum finish. And enough of the rabbiting on about temperature, barrels and finishes, what does the damned stuff taste like?
There are some dark molasses on the nose, an aroma I’d associate with a dark rum, some hints of fruit, mainly dried plums, and some elusive hints of pepper and of rye’s tell-tale spice. All good things. But it is very caramelly, so much so that it’s reminiscent of those cheap spirits that used to be dyed brown with extra caramel to convince you that they were almost bearable. It’s very abrasive in the mouth, especially for a product with 10 years barrel age — this is about as smooth as Clint Eastwood’s chin in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. And the over-riding flavour is one of burnt butterscotch. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing. But I don’t. So I was rather relieved that it had no length to speak of in the mouth.
All in all, it tastes like a drink that is confused. The subtlety of the whisky is beaten into submission by the barrel’s previous owner, as though the rum elements want to take over the spirit, screaming “let me be rum!” But it isn’t. In fact, it ends up tasting of both and neither, a product far less than the sum of its parts.
I had high hopes for Pike Creek. Really I did. But as Belloq says to Marian, just after she’s been thrown down into the Well Of Souls to join Indy: “It was not to be, chérie…”