Collingwood (40% alc/vol.) Canadian Whisky Review
October 15, 2011
Dark fruits, Concord grapes, roses and spring flowers with a rich and creamy mouthfeel. Split cherry firewood with earthy rye and tingling hot pepper. Floral & Fragrant. ★★★★
The crystal waters of Nottawasaga Bay are among the purest in the world. Although the bay is wide – so wide that looking across, water meets sky at a landless horizon – a map tells us that Nottawasaga Bay is just a bump, an indentation at the foot of Ontario’s giant Georgian Bay. In turn, Georgian Bay forms but an arm of gargantuan Lake Huron, third in size among the Great Lakes. Together the five Great Lakes hold 6 quadrillion gallons of water. What does a number like that actually mean? In simple terms, it’s about one-fifth of all the fresh water on earth. Each year some of this water – originally melt water from glaciers that departed some ten thousand years ago – trickles a thousand miles downstream to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s estimated that for each of these ten thousand years about 1% of the remaining water has made this journey to the sea, a journey that includes a dramatic 100-foot plunge over Niagara Falls. And as this water flows out to help rejuvenate the ocean it is itself replenished by rain and snowfall and the thousands of pristine fishing creeks that feed from the Canadian Shield into The Great Lakes.
Why tell you this? Simple. Whisky, some would say, is all about the water, and the water that becomes Collingwood Canadian Whisky is drawn from Nottawasaga Bay.
Collingwood Canadian Whisky? If, from the name you guessed that this new whisky is distilled in Brown-Forman’s Canadian Mist Distillery in Collingwood, Ontario, you’d be right. Like Canadian Mist, Collingwood is triple distilled in the copper-rich columns and doubler at the forty-some-year-old distillery. Then, as for Canadian Mist, the spirit is aged on site in white oak barrels from Brown-Forman cooperage in Kentucky. But that’s the end of the similarities. When the nascent Collingwood whisky is finally mature it is blended according to an entirely new recipe. Then there’s another twist: After the whisky has been matured and blended, and is seemingly ready to go, staves of toasted maple wood are added to the stainless steel marrying vat to further mellow the whisky. Unusual? Yes. A first for Canadian whisky? It most certainly is.
From two spirit streams at Canadian Mist distillery any number of whiskies can be matured and blended. A base whisky, distilled from a mash of locally grown Ontario corn and malted western barley, shows hints of chocolate among its cereal flavours when it first comes off the still. But after spending at least three years in ex-bourbon wood, it develops the mild, silky smooth signature of this distillery. The other spirit, from a mash that is rich in rye, is brawny, brash and anything but smooth until the white oak barrel has had time to polish off the edges. These are blended together after three years ageing to make Canadian Mist, one of America’s best selling mixing whiskies.
But what would happen, Brown-Forman master distiller Chris Morris, and Canadian Mist master distiller Harold Ferguson asked themselves, if we aged this whisky a little bit longer? It was to be the start of something truly unique in Canadian whisky. Making great whisky takes time and altogether from conception to finished product, Collingwood was more than three years in development. However, it’s release, shortly after the success of another Morris creation, a maple-finished Woodford Reserve bourbon, has created some confusion as to genesis of the idea for Collingwood. The folks at Brown-Forman, which owns both Woodford Reserve and Canadian Mist distillery insist that Collingwood was more than three years in the making. Call it a happy coincidence.
But why a maple wood finish? Well what could be more ‘Canadian’ than maple? Maple is the quintessential symbol of Canada; its leaf is on our flag and its distinctively flavoured syrup on our pancakes. Maple charcoal has long been used to make Tennessee whisky. What better place than Collingwood to introduce maple wood mellowing to the Brown-Forman lineup? And who better than Ferguson (who has since retired) to do it? Having guided Canadian Mist for forty years he knew exactly what the distillery and its spirits were capable of producing.
And so Brown-Forman Cooperage in Louisville, Kentucky set to making a batch of 100% sugar maple barrels which they toasted, not charred, then disassembled and shipped as staves to Collingwood, Ontario. There they were submerged in the vat containing the fully mature blended whisky that would eventually become Collingwood. You can almost see them floating, toasty side down, like the flor cap on a maturing fino sherry.
Neither Morris nor Ferguson is saying exactly how long this toasted maple stayed in the vats, other than to reveal that it was not more than a year. But once the maple wood mellowing had produced its desired effect, the whisky was loaded into one of Mist’s dedicated fleet and trucked to Louisville, Kentucky for the final step – bottling.
Nose: Very expressive, though not overly complex, with dried dark fruits, spring flowers, fragrant roses, sweet peaches, pink lemonade, dark cherries, yellow banana candy, dry split cherry wood, fruity-sweet pipe tobacco, and some hints of earthy rye. A deep whiff can detect just suggestions of spirit, so yes, it’s “sippin’ whisky,” but you can mix it just as well.
Collingwood is much more demonstrative than Canadian Mist; in fact the two are nothing alike. Mist has more cereal notes and is sharper, while Collingwood is rounder, heartier, and ever more fragrant. While Collingwood is fruity whisky, the recently-released Canadian Mist Black Diamond is even fruitier on the nose. Black Diamond has more aromas of butterscotch, but by comparison, seems almost grassy.
Company promotional material tells us: “You don’t need a crown to rule,” comparing Collingwood to Canada’s best selling whisky. But the comparison ends with the challenge, for Collingwood’s nose is much bigger than that of Crown Royal, but without Crown’s bourbon notes, vanilla, or frankly, its elegance. They are entirely different whiskies. In fact, on the nose, there is no whisky that resembles Collingwood, and yet it is so decidedly Canadian whisky.
Palate: Juicy, luscious, and rich with a toffee-like mouthfeel. Earthy rye comes right to the fore, as does hot and tingly chili pepper on a bed of ripe black cherries, cooked peaches, and sun-baked purple wine grapes. There is a sweetness to the palate, but it is not so much imbued with caramel as it is with fruit sugars and pancake syrup (though not maple syrup), and a hint of vanilla. The roses, so distinct on the nose, abandon the palate altogether, or are pushed aside by the fruit. Eventually, pepper, with only hints of rye spices, comes to dominate the palate. The whisky has a certain muscular meatiness to it with hints of something like peach pits tugging just gently at the sides of the mouth. Citric notes, more zesty than pithy, help keep Collingwood’s lusty body in balance.
Finish: A long, lingering peppery glow.
Empty Glass: Cherries, Concord grapes, the vaguest chili pepper and sweet cinnamon, hard candy. Sweet, rich and robust.
The result of thousands of years of slow melt, the ice-age waters of Nottawasaga Bay still contain a hint of their origin. Although now mixed with snow-melt and precipitation, traces of this glacial past remain. When you taste your first Collingwood, remember that a little bit of what you are drinking began as glacial melt some 10,000 years ago, and has rested since in the largest solera* system in the world – The Great Lakes. Savour it.
Collingwood was released in February 2011 in just 4 U.S. states: Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas. More markets will be added later in the year and plans are firmly in the works to bring Collingwood home to Ontario by late spring or early summer. Sign me up for a case! The suggested price at American liquor stores is $26.99
Highly recommended. ★★★★
*So what exactly is solera?
Particularly with sherry, but occasionally with other beverages as well, vats or barrels of the finished liquor are only partially emptied for bottling. Then, immature liquor is added and allowed to mature with the remnants of the previous batch. This goes on for batch after batch and is called a “solera” system. Thus the bottled liquor is a mix of liquids of many ages. The solera process originated in Spain where they often have stacks of barrels cascading one into another, adding new sherry to the top barrels while draining mature sherry out of the bottom ones for bottling. Thus some of the original sherry remains in every bottling. Similarly, as water flows out of the Great Lakes it is replaced by fresh precipitation in a millennia-old solera-like equilibrium.