Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve (43% alc./vol.)
January 5, 2012
Crisp, clean, Canadian oak. Musty corn, cardboard, gentle caramels and vanilla. Herbal, slightly spicy and quite peppery with a cleansing citric pith. Malty & Dry. ★★★★☆
In the 1990s, with little fanfare, a new Canadian whisky began appearing on American liquor store shelves. Packaged in a clear nondescript bottle with a black and white label that looked as if it may have been run off on a photocopier, it was not something you’d buy to impress an important client. The whisky itself was pale yellow, almost like a well-aged white wine. But the notation “Single Cask Canadian Whisky” on the label caught the eye of a few budding whisky connoisseurs. Word started to spread, and a legend was born. Of course, we are talking about Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve, a 13-year-old, unblended Canadian whisky from the 1990s.
Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve was Marilyn Smith’s tribute to her father, Fred Johnson, a Detroit industrialist, automotive pioneer, and adventurer. Smith’s partner, Bob Denton, had stumbled across a cache of well-aged corn whisky while buying carloads of bulk Canadian blended whisky for his independent Detroit-based spirits company. The distiller had originally made this whisky to be used in an older Canadian blend, but seeing Denton’s interest, the distillery manager advised that there was no reason it couldn’t be sold as is. Denton decided to bottle it for Smith, unblended, and one cask at a time.
Smith’s father was an intrepid sort. Born in Denmark in 1896, Fred Johnson came to America as a teenager in search of adventure. Success in the automotive industry gave him the opportunity and resources to start a small bush airline as a hobby. Johnson’s Great Northern Skyways specialized in flying Detroit auto executives up to the Blind River area of Ontario to hunt and fish.
As summer turned to autumn the Northern Ontario nights would grow longer and colder, so the pilots developed a habit of bringing along unmarked bottles of whisky to help them face the arctic chill. Well, that was the official reason anyway. These bottles, most likely purloined by acquaintances working at Hiram Walker’s distillery in Windsor, Ontario, were jokingly dubbed “The Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve.” Smith, remembering her dad fondly recounting clandestine conversations with the boys around a backwoods campfire, their bellies warmed by this seemingly-illicit tonic, revived the sobriquet in his memory.
Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve was sold in American liquor stores as a 13-year-old, single cask, 100% corn whisky, bottled at 43% alc./vol. The whisky was supplied by Potter’s ‘distillery’ in Kelowna, British Columbia. However, Potter’s did not actually distil whisky in Kelowna. Although they had a tiny eau-de-vie column, they did not have the capacity to make decent whisky. No, the legend of Potter’s is, in truth, just that – a legend. In reality, in those days Potter’s whisky operation was little more than a warehouse and the front office of a whisky brokerage firm.
In the early 1990s, the cult of whisky was in its infancy and nascent American whisky connoisseurs were just becoming aware of the concept of single cask bottlings. The timing could not have been better for Bush Pilot’s to enter this eager market. This was the first time connoisseurs had ever heard of Canadian whisky being sold this way and the word soon spread. The first to comment publically said he liked it, and soon Bush Pilot’s was much sought after among the cognoscenti.
To Smith and Denton, Bush Pilot’s was simply a sideline– a fun little diversion just as Johnson’s airline had been. But with consumer interest in unusual types of whisky picking up in America, the time and place could not have been better to launch such a thing, and its success seemed assured. That is, until someone with a lot of money behind them threw a spanner in the works. As it turned out, the very name Smith had chosen, to honour her father, would be the whisky’s undoing.
Someone at the St. Louis-based beer giant, Anheuser-Busch, took exception to the name “Bush Pilot’s,” claiming it was too easy to confuse with Busch beer. At first the charges seemed so ludicrous that Smith and Denton just forged ahead. But eventually, realizing that Anheuser-Busch was dead serious about forcing Bush Pilot’s off the market and had the money to do it, they acquiesced. With that decision, Bush Pilot’s soon disappeared from the shelves and a whisky that was a legend in its own time became the Canadian whisky aficionado’s Holy Grail.
There has been talk of a revival of Bush Pilot’s – under another name of course. A group of whisky-loving businessmen have worked hard, though as yet unsuccessfully, to trace the whisky back to its source(s) so they can bring out a more commercially acceptable version. However, “those details, by agreement, are locked away so as not to spoil the mystique,” said Bob Denton in a rare divulgence. He has long since grown tired of fielding questions about Bush Pilot’s. Well, here’s a newsflash: there is no guarantee that all the casks came from the same distillery (remember that Potter’s was only a brokerage, after all) but even if they did, rekindling the aura of Bush Pilot’s seems pretty unlikely. Bush Pilot’s was a romantic idea that once lost became larger than life. Bush Pilot’s was the mystique and at best, what anyone but Fred Johnson’s own daughter might launch, would be a soulless simulacrum.
Yes, similar casks can still be found in any number of distillery warehouses, but the whisky world has moved on. And so have those innocent, wondrous, romantic days of glorious discovery, undone by a bevy of cynical whisky bloggers who race to reveal the most esoteric details of every whisky ever made, without regard to whether they have actually taken the time to understand the whisky, or even to taste it. The simple pleasures of friends spontaneously discovering and sharing something new has been displaced by a dash to take all the wonder out of whisky, reducing it to cold hard pixels. Bush Pilot’s, which was as much an idea as a whisky, would have difficulty sustaining such sterile examination.
Besides, there are similar and even better whiskies than Bush Pilot’s on the market now. So let’s taste Bush Pilot’s and see how it compares with some other top-end Canadian whiskies.
Nose: Somewhat restrained. Dry, dusty, and austere with musty corn, cardboard, faint but building oaky notes, and dry grass. Traces of varnish and slight undertones of spirit tarry, but briefly, under vague caramels, vanilla, and the slightest fruitiness. Hints of baking spices mingle with herbal notes that will become minty on the palate.
Palate: Above all else, this whisky is about the crisp defining oakiness of well-aged high-abv spirit. But before arriving at the clean, dry, fresh-cut oak that comes to dominate the palate, Bush Pilot’s slowly develops in the glass. Patience is rewarded as an initial vague caramel/vanilla sweetness dissolves into a slightly bitter citric pith, followed by glowing hot pepper with just traces of baking spices. The pepper is fresh and vibrant and simply tingles on the tongue and roof of the mouth. The pleasing mustiness of well-aged corn whisky pervades the palate like a sharp cheddar would, but the whisky, although slightly oily, is not as creamy as you might expect from 100% corn. Spirit in the nose is echoed on the palate in sweet slightly fruity solvents and a tiny pinch of mint. This whisky is neither big nor bold as it had originally been intended to be beefed up with rye flavourings. However, the elegance of 13-year-old corn whisky doesn’t necessarily need that kind of enhancement.
Finish: Medium-longish. Zesty citric notes and pith clear away the sweetness, mustiness, and peachy fruit, leaving a glowing pepper that lasts and lasts, as does clean crisp oak, right to the distant end.
Empty Glass: The next morning’s empty glass is surprisingly sweet with caramel and vanilla, but only vaguely reminiscent of the fresh dry lumber that characterized the palate.
But what of possible Bush Pilot’s equivalents today? In 2010, Sazerac released a single cask Canadian whisky called Caribou Crossing, and that might seem to be the most logical place to start looking for a new Bush Pilot’s. But one whiff tells you that these are two very different whiskies indeed. Bush Pilot’s manifests clean woodiness and austere elegance. Caribou Crossing is rich and creamy, robust and much fruitier, with distinct hints of rye spices but less pepper. There is simply no comparison.
The old-style woodiness of Forty Creek Confederation Oak, is reminiscent of Bush Pilot’s, and indeed, nosed side by side, they are very much alike. Both noses are somewhat restrained, but Confederation Oak displays more vanilla, caramel, and ripe fruit. On the palate it is smooth and creamy, whereas Bush Pilot’s is pithy, crisp, and laced with pepper.
Danfield’s 21year old is another corn-rich sipper with a restrained and elegant nose similar to Bush Pilot’s. It’s a close match in the wood department, but Danfield’s is sweet with black fruits while Bush Pilot’s is musty. Overall, Danfield’s Reserve 21 year old is rounder and more balanced than Bush Pilot’s.
People sometimes wonder if Century Reserve 21 year old is the successor to Bush Pilot’s. Like Bush Pilot’s it is 100 percent corn whisky. To add circumstantial evidence, several years ago, Highwood Distillers, which makes Century Reserve, bought the Potter’s name and its remaining stocks of whisky. But Century Reserve 21 year old is a blend of corn whiskies whereas Bush Pilot’s was bottled without blending. There are similarities, but Century Reserve 21 year old is creamier, the nose shows a lot more oak than Bush Pilot’s, and it has a citric fruitiness. The palate, however, is not as peppery as Bush Pilot’s is. By comparison, Bush Pilot’s is like chewing on an old oak log.
However, Highwood also makes a 15-year-old version of Century Reserve, and here we finally get the closest yet to Bush Pilot’s, in a blended corn whisky. Century Reserve 15 year old has the elegance of Bush Pilot’s. It has the same vague oakiness. But it is the hints of fruit in Century Reserve 15 that prevent a perfect match on the nose. Century Reserve 15 is more expressive, but with the same citric pith and lots of glowing hot pepper. It tastes as you might imagine Bush Pilot’s would with some corn flavouring blended in. Perhaps a straight 15 year old from Highwood is the closest we’ll get to an exact match.
Since old Canadian oakiness seems to be the signature of Bush Pilot’s, it may be revealing to compare an old Canadian blend in one final head to head. Gooderham and Worts Canadian Centennial 15 year old, from the late 1960s and early ‘70s is clean oak personified. To begin, the noses are very similar indeed, although Gooderham and Worts Centennial benefits from the complexity that blending brings, and as a result is slightly brighter. Centennial has the same crisp oakiness as Bush Pilot’s, but balances that against a range of other flavours including sweet black fruit, orange Halloween kisses, celery, more herbs, and Bovril. The whisky just seems bigger.
Bush Pilot’s was an inspiring discovery but, it must be said, was not the work of art that some would suggest. The chance product of a more innocent time, it provided an “aha” moment that fueled the blossoming whisky lover’s imagination. To reproduce its flavour would not be difficult, but before doing so one would have to ask why whisky drinkers would want the clone of something that, in retrospect, could not live up to its own mythology, especially when other, better whiskies already fill the shelves of liquor stores.
Often sells on e-Bay in the $125 range.
Highly recommended, Collectible. ★★★★☆