By Richard Thomas
Among even casual U.S. whiskey fans, the role of Indiana’s MGP Distillery as the principal supplier of America’s stock whiskey is widely known. Indeed, the 95% rye, 5% malted barley Rye whiskey made at MGP has become so prevalent (in brands such as Bulleit, George Dickel, Redemption, Templeton, James E. Pepper and more) on bar and store shelves that some observers bemoan that consumers now assume that all Ryes should taste like MGP’s version.
Less well known is another major source for Rye, this one across the northern border in the Canadian province of Alberta. Found in Canada’s third-largest city, Calgary, Alberta Distillers has supplied stocks of aged 100% rye whiskeys to a handful of American brands.
MGP In The Great White North
Alberta Distillers opened in 1946, making it the oldest distillery in Western Canada. The distillery is currently owned by Beam Suntory, and makes vodka as well as whisky.
Like Americans and unlike the Irish and Scots, the Canadian whisky industry relies on a handful of grains, including corn, wheat, malted barley and rye. However, a major distinction between the Canadians and American is that where the Americans put these grains together in a common mash bill and cook, ferment and distill them together, the Canadians make whiskies relying on a single grain, and then blend these one-grain whiskies together.
It’s useful to think of these mono-grain whiskies as colors in a painter’s pallet, made with a specific purpose in mind, and with the blender bringing them together to achieve a desired result. MGP’s 95% rye stock is actually a very similar whiskey, since it was originally developed by the now defunct Seagram’s to use as a flavoring component in other whiskeys. Seagram’s was, of course, a Canadian company.
As a result, a company like Alberta Distillers is sitting on a substantial supply of 100% rye. Another similarity to MGP is how the plant principally supplies stock to other brands, with most of the whisky it makes leaving in tankers rather than bottles. Although Alberta Premium 100% Rye Whisky, Alberta Springs, Alberta Premium Dark Horse, Tangle Ridge and Windsor Canadian Whiskies are all made in Calgary by Alberta Distillers, most of what they make does not end up being used for these brands.
The best known American brand sourced through Alberta Distillers is WhistlePig. Some of the Vermont bottler-turned-distiller’s releases have instead come from MGP and their ubiquitous 95% rye whiskey, but the WhistlePig’s flagship 10 Year Old, 100 proof 100% Rye is an Alberta Distillers product.
Another very similar whiskey is bottled by Sonoma County’s 35 Maple Street, Masterson’s Rye. Just like WhistlePig, it is also a 10 year old based on Alberta Distillers 100% rye stock. The main differences are that Masterson’s is bottled at 90 proof, and WhistlePig’s stocks of Alberta whisky are at least partly aged on the WhistlePig farm in Vermont. Climate is an important factor in maturation, and spending just a few years in another location can make a noticeable different in the flavor.
Jefferson’s 10 Year Old Rye is also very likely sourced from Alberta. The bottled bears the appropriate labeling denoting Jefferson’s as a Canadian import, and while the source has never been formally confirmed, Calgary really is the only source in North America for aged 100% rye whisky.
The Lock, Stock & Barrel 13 and 16 year old whiskeys are also Alberta Distillers 100% rye whiskies. Hochstadter’s vatted Rye whiskey is a blend of whiskeys from a variety of sources, including Alberta. Both of these are products of New York’s Cooper Spirits. Another company making blends that use Alberta’s stock rye is Bender’s Whiskey in California.
As we’ve seen, Alberta Distillers has a prominent place among the Rye whiskeys available to American consumers. Indeed, these whiskeys are very prominent among the premium Ryes above the $60 price point. These Alberta-based brands might not occupy as much shelf space as the MGP-based Ryes, but they definitely occupy a substantial and high profile niche.