Bush Pilot's Private Reserve Canadian Whisky photo

Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve (43% alc./vol.)

January 5, 2012

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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 The distiller had originally made this whisky to be used in an older Canadian blend, but seeing Denton’s interest, the distillery manager advised that there was no reason it couldn’t be sold as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. ★★★★☆

These are a few of the 20 bottles of Bush Pilot's that Laura Badger has for sale. I don't know Laura and I have no involvement in the sale, but since this is such a rare find I told her i would post her pictures here. You can contact her through the comments section below. Please reply to her comment and do not start a new thread. Thanks.


Comments

54 Responses to “Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve (43% alc./vol.)”

  1. This is just such a wonderfully written post. Thanks. I really enjoyed it over a coffee this morning. I love the way it interweaves the back story with the tasting. Something to aim at.

    • Davin:

      Hi Nonjatta,
      Thank you very much. I really do appreciate your thoughtfulness in letting me know you enjoyed it. Coming from the creator of nonjatta and the author of Drinking Japan, that’s very high praise.
      Davin

      • Bob Denton:

        I too appreciate the write up. There was little amusing point you didn’t have in it.

        When AB attorneys called me to tell me I was infringing on their trademark, I laughed at them, vocally, and hung up. I then wrote a press release with an attached photo of a bottle Bushpilot’s next to a can of Bush. The press release started out with “Can you tell the difference between these two products? Anheuser-Busch is willing to go to court to prove you can’t.” I put it on the PR wire and it hit something ninety papers. Yes, I pissed them off. What else could I do against a company that stole its own name?

  2. George Jetson:

    Davin,

    Yet another fantastic CW article on, as you well know, one of my favorite topics. It must have taken some willpower not to speculate on the supposed connection to the Okanagan CC distillery in Kelowna. I must admit that my bias about BPPR, is more about the mystique and my independent discovery of it in the 90′s, than it is about its majestic taste.

    I really liked the way you winnowed away the flavor profile against contemporary and historic references. I was lucky enough to squirrel away several bottles of the original CC Classic 12 in the decanter bottle most likely containing Okanagan distillate from the US west coast. Even though the other adjuncts are blended in there, I can still convince myself that there is a backbone of maize that marks BPPR.

    Again, great job on the epistle to BPPR.

    • Davin:

      George,
      Comments like yours and nonjatta’s really motivate me to keep working away at this website. I know you are a heavyweight among Canadian whisky connoisseurs, and long have been. Thank you.
      Davin

  3. bill g:

    a wonderful whisky which by chance i started drinking in the early 90s;never thinking it might ‘disappear’! often think of being offered a case of tissue wrapped bottles and turning it down! anyway searched through the years and found 6 bottles on ebay which i purchased as they were offered. have enjoyed 2 of them and plan on rationing the remaining 4 over my life…..they are NOT often offered on ebay.these are the only ones i saw over 10 some years of searching.worth way way more than 125$/bottle.i suspect my 4 are probably the last in existence!

    • Davin:

      Hi Bill,
      Oh, to have a tissue-wrapped case today! In any event you join a number of us who have been squirreling them away over the years as they came up for sale. And I recently saw two more bottles sell on e-Bay, so there are still a few people out there willing to part with them.
      Davin

  4. bill g:

    i think i got those 2!anyway i’m going to try to obtain some wiser’s red letter to try….keeping my eyes open for bush pilot!best wishes from northbrook. bill////what an enjoyable site;very enjoyable.

    • Davin:

      Well, that’s great news. It means there’s still more Bush Pilot’s for sale out there. I poured some for my friend, just after Christmas, and she went out and bought two on e-Bay right away. So with your two that means 4 that we know of that have sold since Christmas on e-Bay.

      Red Letter is well worth the price also. It’s gone here in Ontario, but there may be a few bottles kicking around in some of the other provinces.

  5. JWC:

    i recently found and purchased 10 bottles during one of my dusty hunts for bourbon. i’m looking forward to trying this almost mythical canadian whisky.

  6. Gerald Hunter:

    Great posting! Bush Pilot’s is an enigmatic delight. I bought a bottle on Jim Murray’s advice when it first appeared. Later, while in New York City in 2001, I found a dozen more in a small liquor store. Needless to say, my socks and underwear were left behind while all those bottles graced my luggage. I still have 8 bottles left.

  7. Zippy:

    I picked up a bottle of Bush Pilot Private Reserve in the early 90′s. I opened it in 2009 for my 50th Birthday. It definetly has a distinct taste that is almost second to none. It is now 2011, and I am savouring every last drop (bottle is still over 1/2 full). It is only opened for special occasions!

  8. [...] Pilot's Whisky document.write(''); Anybody tried this? A whisky just for pilots. http://www.canadianwhisky.org/review…3-alc-vol.html __________________ [...]

  9. GARY MCCARTAN:

    I’VE GOT 4 BOTTLES STILL UNOPENED,AND WOULD LIKE TO SELL
    THEM.LOOKS LIKE THEY MIGHT BE WORTH SOMETHING BUT HAVEN’T
    FOUND A VALUE YET.I,VE REALLY ENJOYED THE SEVERAL WE’VE OPENED BUT PRIMARLY GAVE THEM TO PILOT FRIENDS AS GIFTS.IF ANYONE IS INTRESTED OR HAS AN IDEA I COULD RETIRE
    SELLING THESE PLEASE POST HERE

  10. Mike Lockington:

    Have you got an idea what the cost is for these bottles? Also, where about are you located? Thanks.

  11. al:

    I am interested in acquiring some of this stuff too, please reply anyone interested in parting with a bottle

    • Davin:

      Hi Al,

      Good luck. It still comes up from time to time, but less and less frequently.

      Davin

  12. Michael:

    I would like to buy some as well

  13. paddockjudge:

    Davin,
    thank you for sharing these wonderful stories with whisky enthusiasts.
    Is there a book available?
    You certainly have an abundance of material which would easily make for a great read.
    How about a Whisky reality show?

    This is a great place to be during the quiet solitude of a Boxing Day morning – very enjoyable.

    • Davin:

      Hi,
      Thanks for your kind words.
      Yes, I have written a book about Canadian whisky. It is scheduled to be released in May 2012.

  14. Jesse Wood:

    One of my friends (who happens to be the ‘bourbon expert’ in our whisk(e)y group found a couple of bottles of this at a liquor store down here in Houston a couple of weeks ago. And it’s a store I’ve been into a few times, but totally missed these! Granted, he found them on the bottom shelf, hidden behind other stuff (he was on his hands and knees looking for old, forgotten bottles of bourbon amongst the dust and plastic bottles). If I had only known…

    Now I have to keep going to his house and pester him to open a bottle so I can finally try this treasure.

    • Davin:

      I keep hearing stories like this and I must admit they make my mouth water.

  15. Laura Badger:

    I have a few bottles. Any offers??

  16. Brian Swalley:

    I just a bottle sitting in the basement of the tavern my family owns. I was thinking about putting it on eBay but decided to post it here for offers first. If you are interested please email me at bswalley@dbq.edu. I currently live in nw Illinois.

    • Brian Swalley:

      If you would like to see pictures I will email them to you upon request.

  17. Davin:

    Laura, and Brian.

    Bush Pilot’s is very much much sought after and I appreciate you telling my readers about your bottles. IF you promise to tell me when they are sold out and if you send me a photo of your bottles I will post it at the end of the article as long as you still have bottles for sale. Once they are gone please let me know so I can take the picture down.

    This if for Bush Pilot’s only and I absolutely will not get involved in the sale nor will I make any guarantee about the bottles, nor comment on any individual bottle, nor enter into any correspondence with buyers. However, I take your offers in good faith and am happy to connect would-be buyers with you.

    • Laura Badger:

      Tell me how to send you the pics.

  18. Jim Hoehn:

    I have one 750 ml bottle of the BPPR that I bought in the early 90′s. The tax stamp shows 1979 and the bottle shows batch A-018. I have only seen tax stamps of 1981 or 1982 batches online. This one will stay sealed until someone else owns it and breaks the seal. It’s a great conversation piece for me as a pilot, but my taste for whiskey has scaled way back in the last 20 years, and this bottle needs to go where it can be fully appreciated.

  19. J Klemme:

    I’m curious if anyone has any left. Heard great things and would love to try a bottle. Please email me if so

  20. Karie:

    Would love to find another bottle for my dad. It’s his favorite. If anyone has any left, please notify me by email

  21. Patrick:

    Does anyone have a bottle left?

  22. Donna L Barrow:

    My father was a collector of fine wine, Port and Spirits. In cataloging his estate I have come across 4 bottles so far, may or may not be more. Any offers? Will be taking pics today and will have them available should there be interest. Was so tempted to open one, after reading the article I am so glad I didn’t!

  23. William Morean:

    Laura,
    Do you really have 20 bottles of Bush Pilot’s for sale?

    Bill

  24. Shelley Simpson:

    Just wondering if anyone has a bottle left of BPPR? I’d love to find a bottle for my Dad for a Xmas gift!:)

    Shelley

  25. Emily Aronson:

    Dear Laura: Do you have any Bush Pilot for sale?
    Thank you,
    Emily A.

  26. Rory:

    Laura,

    I’m interested in purchasing if there are bottles left. The picture is still up so that tells me that there is some left.

    Thanks,
    Rory

  27. jack:

    wondering if you have any bottles left im interested in buying

    thanks jack

  28. Kevin:

    I would be interested in purchasing a bottle if any are available. My grandfather was a bush pilot in Alaska, and always had a bottle of this nearby. He has since passed and I would love to have one.

    Kevin

  29. Greg:

    I have a bottle of Bush Pilot, Special Reserve.It also has a Cask #. Would like to sell, but need a good offer.

  30. Greg:

    Gov. Seal 1979.

  31. ted:

    wondering if any bush pilot private reserve is available out there e-mail kingsx4119@aol.com

  32. Bob Beckett:

    I have one bottle 1982 seal unbroken, perfect condition, hand lettered A-046, would consider good offer.

    Bob

    • Bob Denton:

      That is from the third case of BPPR. I have the last five cases, 60 bottles, that are not for sale, yet.

  33. Bill Garrett:

    I have three unopened bottles. 1982 tax stamps. Best whisky ever made in my view. 2500$ \ bottle. Probably the last 3 on earth … Billydgarrett@aol.com

    • Davin:

      Thanks Bill,
      Sorry to have to tell you this but there are still hundreds of bottles around. I get e-mails quite often. I’d suggest $100 to 200 as a more realistic value. And you are correct, it is good whisky.

      • Bill Garrett:

        I would certainly like to buy a couple cases at 150 $/ bottle Where can I accomplish that? eBay no longer sells liquor … I look forward to your reply. I have over the past several years contacted numerous merchants from dan Francisco to New York. >Results zero

        • Davin:

          You are right, it is mostly gone from the stores but I often get e-mails from people with a few bottles to sell. I have plenty myself so not looking for any more even at $100.

  34. Michael:

    Hello,
    Just wondering if anyone knows where I could get my hands on a bottle, or if anyone is selling one or two. Really enjoy whisky and being a pilot it would mean a lot…
    Thanks so much and look forward to hearing back from someone!

    Michael
    Best way to get ahold of me is at moikward@gmail.com

  35. Phil:

    I was with my father a couple of weeks ago who is dying of cancer, was looking thru his stash and asked him where is that whiskey you used to drink BUSH PILOT he replied with a smile ya i said , can’t get it anymore he said. I’ve tried he said.I would love to prove him wrong and have him a couple of bottles for probably one of his last possible gatherings labor day weekend ’14 a friends and family pig roast.please reach me @ critter3939@yahoo.com

    Thank you so very much PHIL

  36. Chubby:

    I have one bottle with the seal intact. The seal reads 1982 and the cask number is 4-066

  37. lou:

    Chubby, how much are you looking for that bottle?

  38. Varjak:

    I just stumbled across this thread via the thread on Alberta Premium Dark Horse (also very interesting).

    Here’s my Bush Pilot story. I read about this whiskey in Malt Advocate (now Whisky Advocate). They also have a store guide in the back, listing the stores that carried 50 or more whiskies. I called EVERY store listed on the East Coast and found one in Connecticut that had 6 bottles left. Drove out with a friend and bought them all (for about $150 total I think). I gave three away to friends and relatives (one to an actual Canadian pilot, although not a Bush Pilot). Kept three. I’ve only drunk one and have two left (different casks). I think the reviews are a bit severe. It’s better, rounder than most of the Canadian whiskey I’ve had. A lot has to do with the ABV. When this came out, almost every single Canadian Whiskey was 40% and the 3% difference is noticeable. I haven’t tried all the others mentioned in the review though.

  39. Christina:

    Wife of Phil above looking for a bottle of bush pilot for a last trip to see his father. Chubby, if you have the bottle pls contact me 904-305-2358.


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