Wiser’s Legacy Canadian Rye Whisky (45% alc./vol.)
July 16, 2010
John Philip Wiser, distiller. Born October 4, 1825, Trenton, New York; died April 30, 1911, Prescott, Ontario. Legacy: Wiser’s family of great Canadian whiskeys and now a brand new one.
The history of Canadian whisky is rich with characters, and in the lore, two stand head and shoulders above the rest: Hiram Walker and J. P. Wiser. Both were born in the United States, Walker to a New England family that still considered itself British, and Wiser to German parents. (Mea culpa: In Dave Broom’s World Atlas of Whisky I somehow managed to identify Wiser as being of Dutch descent; sorry Dave, it’s Deutsch, not Dutch).
Along with their fellow early distilling luminaries, Thomas Molson, Henry Corby, William Gooderham, James Worts, and Joseph Seagram, these two men developed the Canadian whisky recipe into what it is today. But whisky’s history is too easily forgotten; it gets left behind, lost in the language of corporate takeovers, mergers, profit maximizations, and efficiency schemes. So Canadian whisky buffs should take heart that J. P. Wiser’s successors have renewed interest in the founder’s legacy with the release of a new Wiser’s whisky. They call it ‘Legacy’, based on an original J. P. Wiser recipe that really showcases the rich but rugged rye flavours of an earlier time.
Wiser’s Legacy has only recently arrived in stores, and current LCBO inventory levels show there is not a lot to go around. Call me suspicious, but that could just be LCBO testing the market. Legacy is packaged in the same substantial, square, decanter-like bottle as Wiser’s 18 year old and it has the same laser-engraved wooden stopper. For a full review please come back to canadianwhisky.org in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime let me offer this brief introduction to see how it compares with a range of other Canadian whiskies.
Wiser’s Legacy is loaded with fresh-cut wood, sweet lemon, hot pepper, and really hot peppermint, along with the whole panoply of hard-to-define rye spices. Above all else, this is spicy rye whisky, reminiscent in its rye bread flavours and fragrances, of the much-vaunted Lot 40, which came from the same 12,000-litre copper pot still at the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor, Ontario.
While the complex rye notes hit you right off the bat in Lot 40, it takes a couple of moments for them to develop in the Legacy, and if nosed immediately after Lot 40, the Legacy shows hardly any rye notes at all. But there is more than rye here, for there is something about Legacy that also reminds you of another relative newcomer, the oh-so-expressive Wiser’s Small Batch.
Wiser’s fans will remember the Special Edition Wiser’s Reserve, which at 43% alc./vol. gave Canadian whisky connoisseurs hope that Wiser’s was listening to them. Wiser’s Reserve has been phased out over the past couple of years to be replaced by the similar, but bigger, spicier, almost candied Wiser’s Small Batch, with the alc./vol. now raised a smidgen more to 43.4%. Legacy, which is bottled at 45% alc./vol., shares an ‘enhanced’, quality found in the Small Batch, that is more than just the contribution of a couple of extra points proof. Legacy is also closer in colour to the reddish-amber Small Batch rather than the bright, oat straw colour of Reserve.
There is ample fresh-cut lumber in Wiser’s Legacy, but without the definition found in Wiser’s 18 year old. Legacy is also much hotter than the 18 year old, and shows a lot more of the rye baking spices—ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg.
But if the Legacy has candied elements, why not compare it with two other candied Canadian whiskies, Cask 16 from Crown Royal, and Alberta Distillers’ Tangle Ridge? Although ‘candied’ sounds good in tasting notes, Wiser’s Legacy and Crown Royal Cask 16 could not be more different. Both exhibit an almost syrupy sweetness, but tasted head to head, Cask 16 is all about fruit—ripe peaches, dried apricots and ripe red grapes, with hints of floral perfume. Wiser’s Legacy though, is more about spices and rye. Yes, there are apricots in Legacy, but its fruitiness is more reminiscent of dark or dried fruits—ripe purple plums and prunes.
Tangle Ridge too, is another whisky-world apart. Though very sweet and beautifully peppered, its dark fruitiness is just a tiny bit over the top as is the sweet, un-bourbon-like vanilla. A balancing bitter lemon helps pull Tangle Ridge back from the sweetness brink, while the citric notes in Legacy push a range of distinct flavours to the fore.
So if its distinctive sweetness is not similar to other Canadian whiskies’, perhaps the rye notes are, as we have already noted with Lot 40. Let’s try another head-to-head tasting, this time with the hard-rye stalwart, Canadian Club Reserve.
Again, compared with Legacy, this is a very different whisky, though they are both distilled at the Hiram Walker distillery in Windsor. They share the rye spiciness, the cloves, ginger, cinnamon and nutmeg, and both are peppery. In this pairing, though, the Legacy goes in the direction of dark fruit, rich rye grain, and heavy rye bread notes while the Canadian Club Reserve is more austere with some astringency, and a stoniness akin to wet slate. Reserve is mixing whisky, Legacy, a sipper.
Although Lot 40 is certainly the most distinctive rye-based whisky to come out of Canada in recent years, Alberta Premium is far and away the best known, in part because of prizes won by its delightful younger mixing version. But it is the 25-year-old Alberta Premium that really showcases the essence of great Canadian whisky.
Compared to the nutty Legacy, Alberta Premium 25 year old is dusty rye. Alberta Premium has aged gracefully in its 25 years, and next to it, Wiser’s Legacy seems a real swashbuckler. The clear but subtle oakiness, the balance, complexity, and the breadth of palate of Alberta Premium 25 year old contrast sharply with the hot, cloves-and-cinnamon spiciness of Wiser’s Legacy. There is an austere, astringent quality to the old timer while the more youthful Legacy is robust and, like the Wiser’s Small Batch, very expressive.
This is not the first time Wiser’s has issued a ‘legacy’ bottling. The equally delicious Wiser’s Red Letter was released in 2007 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of a young J.P. taking charge of Charles Payne’s Prescott, Ontario, distillery, eventually making it his own. Thus began the legacy that is captured in this new complex Canadian rye whisky.
Wiser’s Red Letter Rye was made from an original Wiser’s recipe as is the new Wiser’s Legacy. The original Red Letter was a best seller, but Wiser died before he was able to put the Legacy recipe into production. Next to today’s Legacy, the modern Red Letter holds up very well indeed. It has an almost bourbon-like quality, and is big and spicy, with an emphasis on pepper. Hints of cinnamon turn to sandalwood in the middle. The Red Letter is rich and full, retaining all its elegance. Legacy on the other hand is big and brash, not even remotely subtle. Next to Red Letter, Legacy is loaded with dark fruit and sweet baking spices.
Right now American whisky Blogistan is all a-twitter about a new bottled-in-America, Canadian rye whiskey called WhistlePig. It’s very good stuff, this WhistlePig, very good. Although Wiser’s Legacy, and WhistlePig, are both single-distillery whiskies, the American standards of identity define Legacy as a blend and WhistlePig as a straight rye. WhistlePig is much more perfumed than Legacy and is laced with vanilla. Tasted head to head, in a couple of words, Legacy is fruity rye, compared with WhistlePig’s bourbon-like vanilla, and Lot 40’s spicy rye.
When it comes to wine, I am not a fan of the big ‘fruit-forward’ trend in reds nor of ‘oaky’ chardonnays. It just makes them a little too much and a little too easy to ‘get’. No I prefer elegance, nuance, and complexity to audacious, in-your-face accessibility. But whisky can handle big flavours without losing its identity, and so it is with the heavily oaked Wiser’s 18, the bourbon-like WhistlePig, and the ‘rye-forward’ Wiser’s Legacy, and while we’re at it, Lot 40 too.
Since this is just an introduction to Wiser’s Legacy I’ll save the scoring for the upcoming review, but for now, I’d recommend it as excellent sipping whisky, following close on the heels of the seriously under-priced Lot 40, Wiser’s 18, and Alberta Premium 25 year old.
At $85.00 (since adjusted down to $50.00) it may take a special occasion for people to buy their first bottle of Legacy, and that may explain the conservative initial LCBO inventory. But this is very special whisky, and for the whisky connoisseur, a must-have that will quickly become a repeat buy.