Canada’s contribution to the whisky world is often an unsung hero. Scottish and Irish whiskies always get a lot of press, while recent years have seen a rise in whisky from unlikely spots around the world: India, South America, Japan. It’s easy to overlook the whisky we make, quite literally, in our backyard, but a few surprising gems lurk among all those familiar domestic bottles—and one of the best ones is made in Calgary.
Whisky is usually made from corn, wheat, barley or a blend of these cereal grains. Scottish and Irish whiskies are usually distilled from barley, while the United States’ bourbon is mainly made from corn. Canadian whisky is distinctive for its use of rye, a crop that thrives in our cold northern climate and contributes a distinctive spicy, bitter edge to whisky.
The use of rye became so synonymous with Canadian whisky that it is often simply referred to in shorthand as “rye.” This is actually somewhat of misnomer, however, as most Canadian whiskies are actually made from a blend of grains; corn is usually predominant and rye often plays a very minor role.
But within an old-fashioned, cut-glass bottle with a plain black label—the design of which hasn’t changed in decades—resides one of the world’s best whiskies, and one of very few 100-percent rye whiskies left in the world: Alberta Premium.
You’re not alone if that fact seems unbelievable: Alberta Premium is a ubiquitous presence lurking in liquor cabinets across the country, easily overlooked for the fact that absolutely nothing about its branding or price (around $20 for a 750-mL bottle) indicates that it’s a great whisky.
But great it is: leading whisky expert Jim Murray has consistently rated Alberta Premium very highly in his annual Whisky Bible. He usually scores it around 95 points, and he also named it the best Canadian whisky in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Alberta Premium is produced by Alberta Distillers Limited in a massive, unremarkable factory in a Calgary industrial park. The distillery also produces whiskies under the Alberta Springs, Tangle Ridge and Windsor Canadian brands, as well as the Alberta Pure and Banff Ice vodkas. It also exports a slew of other products to dozens of countries around the world.
Ignore (or admire) the outmoded bottle and revel in the fact that we have such a great whisky available for such a great price, and that it’s local, too—not only is Alberta Premium distilled in Calgary, it is also made from rye grown on the Canadian prairies. And contrary to its tragically popular use as a highball mixed with Coca-Cola or ginger ale, Alberta Premium is a great addition to your home bar, as it makes a surprisingly good basis for many cocktails. V
“Spring is in the Air” Cocktail
Recipe courtesy of Ramon Miranda, head barman at Corso 32 and co-owner of Color de Vino.
1½ oz Alberta Premium rye
¾ oz St Germain Elderflower Liqueur
¾ oz lemon juice
½ oz Cocchi Americano Bianco
Combine all ingredients in shaker with ice.
Shake and strain over rocks.
Garnish with a twist of lemon peel.