Review: Pike Creek 10 Year Old Whisky

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?

Disappointing.

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…”

In Praise of Well Liquor #2 Old Overholt Rye

Having rather put the boot into some of the darker aspects of the rye whiskey business, it’s time to show some love to the stuff. Because, when done right, it might just be my favourite thing in the world. That’s over and above even rum, upon which I was practically weaned.

The problem with rye is that it’s scarcity makes it comparatively expensive. Even the excellent entry level Jim Beam Rye costs between £20–30, depending on where you buy it. (Amazon sells it for £20, then it’s upwards from there.) Rittenhouse, also delicious, shows a larger price spread of £33-45, the higher levels being more than double what you’d pay for it in the States.

And that’s before we even start to consider Sazerac, the rye at the heart of New Orleans’s most famous cocktail, at an eye-watering £50 a bottle.

The key question, then, is: is it worth it?

Well…

Yes… Emphatically so.

Especially when you pony up for the Sazerac. With its hints of brown sugar lurking within the caramels imparted by its time in oak barrels, not to mention its cinnamon, allspice notes and slight whiff of a ripe grain field after a fresh fall of rain about it, it is superior stuff — a whiskey of real distinction.

Sazerac’s even a little pricey in the States. They simply don’t make very much of it. But the great survivor, Old Overholt, is made in larger volume.

Old Overholt is a fascinating product. Now produced by Jim Beam, it remains one of the few consistently produced American whiskeys, Prohibition notwithstanding.

It is one of those curious quirks of history. When the last of the Overholts, Henry Clay Frick (grandson of the founder, Abe) died in 1919, just before the 18th Amendment came into effect in 1920, he left the business to Andrew Mellon, who would become the Treasury Secretary in Warren Harding’s prohibition over-seeing administration. At which point the business was looked after by the Union Trust Co., who received something in the region of 2 million gallons of rye.

Whether or not such government connections helped Old Overholt remain distillers of “medicinal” whiskey, available on prescription under prohibition’s repeal in 1933, remains to be seen… What’s more interesting, historically, is that is the only rye whiskey still made to a traditional Monongahela recipe. It is the oldest consistent whiskey style in America.

In the States, it is also cheap. You should be paying about $15. Though not here, where you’re looking at about £30 for a litre. Of course.

But it is still worth it, and not just for the fact that you’re tasting an historical recipe and the favourite tipple of one Doc Holiday. It’s that it’s delicious. It’s clean and bright on the palate, without the sweetness that typifies its cousin, bourbon, and with pleasing notes of cloves and white pepper.

If you’re new to rye, Rittenhouse is perhaps the place to start. It’s friendlier than Old Overholt, which takes rye’s austerity of flavour very seriously. But, as with many of the taciturn persuasion, once it warms up to you, you’ll have found a stalwart friend.

If only there were more of it lurking in British bars.

American Whiskey’s Dirty Little Secret

It’s not just the craft gin market that’s exploded over the last few years, but the craft spirit market in general. In terms of brown liquor, that means American whiskey, of which in Britain alone, we drink a million litres a month. (And not all of that’s quaffed by me…)

You can develop and bring a white spirit like gin or vodka to market in a little over six months. But, if you want to tap into the American whiskey boom — and why wouldn’t you, it’s one of the fastest growing bits of action on the market — you haven’t just the distilling and marketing hurdles to clear, you have to age the damned stuff too. Which means you’re looking at about three years before you see a return on your investment.

A lot of people have been prepared to make that commitment. In 2000, there were just 24 craft distillers in the US. Today, that figure’s pushing 500. Even Rhode Island has two of them. It’s six and a half times smaller than Wales, and the Welsh only have three.

(I know, I know—it’s facts like these that you keep coming back for…)

But a lot of other people aren’t. Which brings us to bourbon’s and, more especially, rye’s dirty little secret: the Third Party Distiller.

This is how it works: we’re going to create a rye or bourbon brand. Let’s call it Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven. And we want to do it as cheaply as possible. So we’re not going to invest in a still, nor are we going to pay good money to employ a master distiller. We’re going to buy a bunch of raw spirit, but it in barrels and leave it in a temperature controlled warehouse until we can water it, bottle it and sling it out to the public. We’ll probably use some of the money we’ve saved to ensure that Colonel Smellysox’s Old Number Seven has a bottle and label designed to give it shelf presence. Then we sit back, and…

Cha-ching.

The biggest third party distiller is an outfit called MGP, based in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Using a massive distillery site previously owned by Seagram, they pump out barrels and barrels of spirit for a host of clients who don’t much like to advertise the fact. But the biggest clue to who’s who is a whiskey that says it’s older than the brand selling it.

Egregious offenders have included Whistle Pig Rye — “hand-bottled in Vermont”, factory distilled in Canada, retailing at almost £75 a bottle — Bulleit Rye, High West, George Dickle Rye, Angel’s Envy (which also now employs a master distiller, so they could be weaning themselves off the teet) and Redemption, among others.

Templeton Rye actually over-reached and were busted for misleading marketing.

Now, obviously, there’s nothing morally wrong with this. With a little of the old Marketing Linguist Two-Step, none of them are actively lying to the drinking public. But I’d argue that they are passively lying to us. At the very least, they are abdicating half the job of whiskey making. They have no decision to make about their water source. They have no control of their mash-bill. And these are two vital components in the whiskey’s final flavour.

In this, they remind me of people who come up to you and say something along the lines of: “You’re a writer? I’ve got a great idea for a movie. If I tell you the idea, then you can write it and we’ll split the money.” To which I would reply either, “The idea’s the easy bit, you numpty,” or, “Fuck off.”

Buying from third party distillers is cynical and disingenuous. And it will continue for as long as there is no reason for brands to tell us where the spirit in the bottle actually comes from.

In the mean time, if you’re looking for something that has been loved from beginning to end of its creation, make sure the bottle tells you where it was distilled.