In 2020, the ground beneath the whisk(e)y industry shook over the fact that not Scotch, nor a bourbon, nor even a Japanese whisky earned top honors at one of the biggest whiskey awards.
It was a Canadian rye.
Out of the thousands of bottles tasted through for the annual awards, Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye was crowned the very best.
For fans of the category, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. Excellent rye has been made in the country for close to a century. Look at Alberta’s landscape: Low, flat plains of golden crop fill the province, save for on the West side, where mountains reach the sky and glaciers trickle icy, pure water down to the plains. Tell me a better place to make whisky.
Now, Alberta Distillers Limited (owned by Beam Suntory) are rolling out a dedicated high-rye brand: Reifel Rye.
The flagship bottle is aged in charred white oak and former bourbon barrels, and in true high rye characters. It’s beautifully structured, with a perfect mingling of spice and stone fruit, with a hint of banana bread and soft leather. It’s light on its feet, lacking the bolder oiliness of its Southern cousins.
The name is a nod to George H. Reifel, the man and master distiller who laid the groundwork for Alberta Distillers 75 years ago. Alberta Distillers owners Frank McMahon and Max Bell were having huge problems distilling rye, so they brought in Reifel; a brewmeister who had spend years distilling in Japan.
He can also be credited with cracking the rye whisky code — ADL was one of the first distilleries in the world to create a 100% rye whisky.
Said rye has been their bread and butter for 75 years, until they upped the ante in 2019 with the release of their own cask strength rye. It was a big move for them — ADL has had a hand in several award-winning bottles south of the border, including Masterson’s and Whistlepig, but this was their first real premium product under their own label.
The bottle sent critics and whisk(e)y into a frenzy. It took home high honors at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Canadian Whisky Awards, (plus other awards that will go unnamed). That pivot to premium from the behemoth distillery marked a greater focus not just on really good rye, but really good rye under the ADL name.
“The astonishingly rich flavors of Reifel Rye demonstrate why Albert Distillers Limited is the world’s leading producer of 100% rye grain whisky,” says Canadian whisky expert Davin de Kergommeaux. “Canadian distillers know how difficult rye grain is to work with, and how much whisky lovers revere the spicy flavors of rye done right.”
Distillery Manager George Teichroeb (who conveniently shares the first name of ADL’s whisky godfather Reifel) finds “the launch of Reifel Rye holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. Not only is the liquid incredible from being aged in New White Oak charred barrels and ex-bourbon barrels, but the heritage and story of the Reifel family gave us an opportunity to honor 3 generations who helped craft rye whisky in the west and pave the way for Alberta Distillers Ltd. We are unbelievably proud of this project and hope the rest of Canada is too.”
While large in scale — ADL has over half a million barrels aging— there are threads of craft that flow through the distillery. For one, they still dump their bottles by hand – two men carefully lead the barrels down the conveyer belt and hammer in the bungs by hand. Proprietary enzymes are grown in an onsite lab by staff microbiologist Shannon Thomas — they give ADL’s rye that purity and lightness, among other defining characteristics. 92% of the grains are brought in from Alberta farms, and the remaining from just over the border in neighboring provinces. Then factor in the ideal climate: 3,2000 feet above sea level, surrounded by fresh mountain air, and bordering fields of grain, and you’re set up for some good whisky.
Bottles retail for $50 Canadian (approximately $36 USD). For now, the release is limited to Canada (as most good Canadian whiskies are) with rumblings of US expansion down the road.