I've flown to Louisville and spent hours driving to Maker's Mark and then Buffalo Trace. I've flown into Islay in a storm to visit Laphroaig and Ardbeg, flown to the Orkney Islands to visit Highland Park and made my daughter spend her school break driving from the east coast of Scotland to the Isle of Skye in winter to visit Talisker.
But I lived in Calgary for five years and not only never visited Alberta Distillers, I only vaguely knew where in the city it was (it turns out I lived eight kilometres away).
To be fair, they weren't open for tours back then (they're still not, as far as I can tell) and for the longest time, they weren't the best in crafting stories around their products. What they were good at? Making truly superlative rye whisky, and then charging a pittance for it.
And I'll go out on a limb here—I know of no distilled spirit of any hue in the world that offers a better price-to-quality ratio than the $22 one pays for Alberta Premium. It's miles better than American ryes that cost triple or more. And given its mash of spicy rye, it's also one of the very best brown spirits for making cocktails—at any price. It's a flipping national treasure.
For years, it prospered in relative acclaim-obscurity. Beam (now Beam Suntory) bought the company back in the '80s, but they were likewise happy to keep the factory—located less than four kilometres from the Saddledome, by the way—churning along, cranking out product enjoyed by legions of Canadians who didn't source their sprits best on prestige or awards, but on taste and price.
But you can't keep a good whisky down.
It started when the aforementioned American brands (the ones that don't make their own spirits, but source them from actual distilleries) like Whistlepig and Mastersons started to buy stock from Alberta Distillers, think up new brands and marketing slogans and sell bottles for upwards of $100 under their own labels. Then the critics came and started lavishing praise on them.
Most distilleries would do the logical business move and start increasing prices and clamp down on the sale of the rye to American profiteers. Not Alberta Distillers—Premium is still $22, and as far as I can tell, they still sell some barrels of their glorious spirit to those anxious to take the shortcut to being a rye brand.
But one thing they have done is start to ramp up their own line of more premium spirits. First up were the ultra-exclusive bottles of 30-year-old Alberta Premium released several years back. They were $175 (a 30-year-old bottle of the Macallan will set you back somewhere well north of $5,000), and mine is one of my most prized possessions in part because of the spirit inside and in part because the bottle looks almost identical to a regular Alberta Premium bottle with "30 Years Old" rather discretely listed on the label. That's Paul Newman-level cool.
The last few months saw the release of two new very special bottles: a beautiful 20 year old ($90) and a bold Cask Strength ($65). Both are wonderful products—the 20 year old a masterclass in the effects of age on the feisty character of rye and the cask-strength a lesson is letting its raw power loose.
If you see either of them, you should buy a case. Really. But you're unlikely to find the Cask Strength in the near future, because it was named the Best Whisky in the World last month by Jim Murray's Whisky Bible, the most important award in all of spirits (you may recall Canadian Club's Northern Harvest Rye—not in the ballpark of the Cask Strength—won this award a few years back and immediately disappeared from shelves in a frenzy of speculation). And here's where Alberta Distillers (and parent company Bean Suntory) again show that it is the classiest organization in all of whiskydom.
Most companies would launch a PR blitz trumpeting the award that would make sure even eight year olds knew about the award. But this is the year author Jim Murray has finally been called out for a long, demonstrable track record of overtly sexist language in his books. I won't recite the (really) numerous offending passages here, not recount any of the anecdotes about alleged inappropriate behaviour, but trust me, this isn't a cancel culture mob focussing in on a single slip-up. So rather than trumpet an award that's worth millions in free advertising, Alberta Premium is simply letting the spirit and its fans speak for itself and not using the honour in its marketing. Pretty amazing.
So, while you're not likely to see a bottle of Cask Strength for a few months (you can buy the 20 year old in a few spots) keep an eye out for it. And in the interim, shell out a $20 and a Toonie for Alberta Premium—it's the best the West has to offer.