The Curious (Canadian) Case of the 9.09% RuleJune 15th, 2015
A new Canadian whisky recently introduced across America is raising a few purist’s eyebrows. Meanwhile, at home, Alberta Rye Dark Batch has become a favorite cocktail rye with Canadian bartenders. The controversy? Dark Batch is made by adding about 8% bourbon and 1% sherry to mature whisky distilled from 100% rye grain. And though Canada’s 9.09% rule allows this, it has some whisky enthusiasts scratching their heads.
We may wonder why Canadian regulations permit distillers to add foreign spirits to Canadian whisky. I know I did. While researching my book I interviewed over a dozen retired whisky makers and though none was really certain, they all pointed vaguely to whisky baron Sam Bronfman.
They told me Bronfman wanted to compete with American whisky producers who included as much as 80% inexpensive grain neutral spirits (GNS) in their blended whisky. Meanwhile, Canadian regulations required that all components of Canadian whisky be aged for at least 3 years. This, of course, increased the cost of production.
The legend – and I am loathe to cite any whisky legend as fact – says it was Bronfman who negotiated a deal with American tax officials to receive significant tax breaks if he included spirits from struggling U.S. producers in his Canadian whisky. He then convinced Canadian officials to permit up to one part of non-whisky spirits be added to ten parts of Canadian whisky. The spirits he added still had to be at least two years old, so they were more expensive than neutral spirits, but the tax advantages made up for that.
Not all Canadian whisky makers liked this idea. The former long-time distillery manager of Schenley distillery told me he never allowed any spirits of any kind on site except those he made. His whisky was 100% distilled by Schenley in its Valleyfield distillery.
Another told me she routinely used the 9.09% rule for whisky bound for the U.S. However, she took umbrage and pretended to spit on the floor when I asked her if she also included it in whisky that would be sold in Canada. Moreover, she told me, while the rule made financial sense for high-volume mixing whisky, for lower-volume sippers it provided no advantage.
So what does all this have to do with Alberta Rye Dark Batch? Well, just this. Dark Batch is a premium whisky that uses the 9.09% rule to its limit, not just for the U.S. market, but in Canada as well. Remember, Dark Batch includes 8% real American bourbon and 1% oloroso sherry.
When the whisky was launched in Canada, master ambassador Dan Tullio wondered out loud how he would explain this to the whisky cognoscenti. “Just tell them the truth,” said brand manager Rob Tucker, “and let the flavor do the rest.” Dan wasn’t so sure, and I was certain it would bomb.
However, bartenders across Canada disagreed with us. An unofficial poll shows it has become the favorite mixing rye in about three of four barrooms. It also is a bartenders’ favorite for their own creations.
For example, according to Joel Carleton, who tends the bar at Fox & Fiddle in downtown Winnipeg and coordinates the Manitoba Bartenders Guild, “I choose this rye for the robust spicy profile and rich flavors. It embodies rye whiskies the best, and represents a diverse aroma and palate combo that allows me to mix with it more effectively.”
In an infographic that accompanied its release, Beam Suntory explained that Dark Batch was made from 91% rye. Of this 91%, about half was distilled to low ABV in a pot still and aged 6 years in new barrels. The rest was distilled to higher ABV and aged 12 years in used barrels. So technically it meets the U.S. 51% rule. Or does it? And even more, should or could it? Canadian whisky is made using Canadian processes and under Canadian regulations, so U.S. rules are irrelevant, just as they are to single malt scotch or Irish whiskey.
Tucker had warned Tullio not to get into explaining percentages of percentages because it was too confusing. But Whisky Advocate readers are keen on this; we want to know. Let’s look at that 51%, then.
First we need to know that the more flavorful the rye grain, the less alcohol it contributes to a mash. More protein equals more flavor, but also proportionally less starch, so less alcohol. Good Canadian rye grain, properly fermented to completion, will yield a fermented mash of about 6% alcohol. On the other hand, when corn is fermented to completion it yields 14, 15, even 16% alcohol. So, when all is said and done, a mash of 51% rye and 49% corn will produce more than twice as much corn alcohol as rye alcohol.
But in Canada we don’t generally use mash bills. Rather, the individual grains are fermented and matured separately before blending. So, a whisky made from 51% mature rye spirit and 49% corn spirit will contain about equal amounts of rye and corn alcohol. At 91% rye spirit, Dark Batch leans very heavily on this spice-rich grain. But if rye brings intense spice, fruit and floral notes to the whisky equation, corn balances that with a luscious, mouth-coating body. And oloroso sherry? It enhances those fruity, floral notes, polishing the roughest edges off the rye.
Yes, the corn whisky came from Kentucky and the sherry from Spain, so if you’re a whisky geek who eschews “additives” and demands that everything comes from the same distillery, you may take umbrage. But if you taste Dark Batch blind in a line-up, you might be surprised. For, as we have seen in here Canada, you just might enjoy the tingly dance it does on your tongue. Until you get that chance…you might want to suspend judgment.