Ask most people what they want in a whiskey and they will probably tell you something along the lines of “smooth and delicious”. Velvety in texture, even. That seems to be exactly the market that Black Velvet is going after, designed from the ground up to be an inexpensive and inoffensive liquor imported from America’s big floppy hat (aka Canada). But is this delicious, velvety goodness or just another mediocre imposter hiding behind branding?
In 1857, brothers Walter and Alfred Gilbey returned from the Crimean War to their home in Hertfordshire, England. They decided to open a wine and spirits importing business, starting by importing South African wines, which quickly gained popularity and became profitable for the pair. The company expanded in 1872 to include spirits, opening a gin distillery and selling their flagship Gilbey’s Gin far and wide.
The gin was introduced to Canada in 1906 and was so successful that the brothers opened the W&A Gilbey Distillery in Toronto, Canada to support their blossoming new market. They were joined by veteran local distillers Crosbie Hicks and John S. (Jack) Napier (notably not The Joker) who developed a line of Canadian whiskies that were all named after different colors of velvet. They had originally gone with names such as “Black Label”, but fearing legal action from Johnnie Walker they changed the name to reference ‘velvet’ instead of ‘label’.
The distillery would change hands numerous times over the years, starting with a sale in 1962 to a company that would eventually become Diageo. Most recently the brand was acquired in 2019 by Heaven Hill, who continue to manufacture and distribute the spirit to this day.
If you read Heaven Hill’s press release from when they acquired the product, the focus of their story wasn’t on the quality — instead, it leads off with the fact that the process is completely automated and only requires two employees to operate. In other words, they touted how cheap to manufacture it was, not how good it was.
As you’d expect from a whiskey, the base ingredient for this spirit is grain. The majority of those grains are corn, as inspired by the original pre-prohibition Jack Napier recipe, but alludes to other components as well (without specifically listing them). Canadian whiskey typically uses a large proportion of rye grains in the mash bill, so that’s expected here despite not being actually disclosed.
Those grains are milled, cooked, and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid that is then processed through a series of four column stills. Most distilleries would only use a single column still for their distillation operations when it comes to whiskey — in fact, multiple column stills are typically only seen in vodka and other “neutral” spirit production, as it tends to strip out a lot of the actual flavor of the spirit.
Once distilled, the spirit is then blended together immediately with a batch of pre-made Canadian rye whiskey that had been aged for between two and six years for flavoring. This mixture is then placed into previously used bourbon barrels for three years before being extracted and sent for bottling.
Reading between the lines here, it sounds like this is primarily a relatively neutral corn based raw alcohol that is flavored with rye whiskey that someone else made, then placed into old bourbon barrels to try and pick up some flavor.
This is about what I was expecting for a whiskey in this price range. It seems well executed… but the components are cheap and forgettable.
The bottle is a plastic container that is somewhat flask shaped. There’s a wide, mostly flat front and back to the body of the bottle with rounded sides that angles inwards towards the short neck and cap. The bottle sports an “easy pour” spout that tries to keep you from pouring too fast and is capped off with a black plastic screw-on top.
Slapped on that bottle is a fairly clean and straightforward label, with charcoal grey background, red accents, and gold lettering for the brand information. Of all the bottom shelf bottles I’ve seen, this is one of the better examples, with a little more modern take on the design than usual.
This certainly looks the part of a Canadian whiskey, with the golden colored liquid and the correct viscosity. Then again, we know that this was flavored with at least some rye whiskey (and probably some other stuff, exported Canadian whiskey is notoriously adulterated)… so that can’t all be chalked up to the barrel aging process.
At first whiff, this seems mild and inoffensive. I was expecting a bit more raw alcohol coming off the glass given the production process, but it isn’t nearly as industrial smelling as I had expected. I’m getting a little bit of caramel, some toffee, and a hint of vanilla, and that’s it. Usually I’ll get some green apple on a rye whiskey, but I get 0% of that in this aroma.
Initially, the flavor here is pretty good. Again, we have a mild and inoffensive flavor profile, sticking close to the sweet caramel and vanilla that you’d see in a Werther’s Original and with all the appropriate smoothness. There isn’t much development in that flavor until the end, where it does pick up a bit of industrial alcohol bitterness and taste on the finish. It isn’t enough to ruin the taste, but the blandness of everything else in here doesn’t really help to hide it either.
The problem with mild and smooth whiskeys is that they don’t usually hold up well if you try them any way other than neat. There just isn’t enough power or complexity to stand up to the other components in the glass, and you just usually end up with disappointment instead.
That’s exactly what has happened here. The whiskey is still smooth and inoffensive, but also tastes like pure raw caramel. (Maybe with a little bit of charring on it, coming from that industrial alcohol component.) There just is absolutely nothing else in the glass, and I feel like I’m falling asleep more from boredom than I am from intoxication.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
This is the point at which I considered cutting the review short.
To show a bit of how the sausage is made: a good review will either be entertainingly good with vibrant descriptions of delicious flavors, or entertainingly bad as y’all watch my misery of having to suffer through a sub-par spirit and enjoy the associated schadenfreude.
But this spirit is the worst of all possible scenarios: it’s boring. There are practically no flavors left coming through, except for a tiny hint of caramel that tries to play with the angostura bitters. It doesn’t really work, though, and as a result this just tastes like a glass of vodka with some bitters in it. The whiskey doesn’t actually bring anything to the table, for better or worse.
The reason I use a mule for a cocktail in these tests isn’t because it’s an easy and enjoyable drink, but instead because the ingredients in here are extremely difficult for a whiskey to work with. It needs to be properly balanced on its own yet complex and interesting enough in this cocktail to make a difference and provide balance to the loud and obnoxious ginger beer and lime juice.
Done well, a Kentucky mule is delicious. Done poorly, it’s entertaining. Done in a mediocre fashion… is just a Moscow Mule. And that’s what we have here today.
All the whiskey is really doing is providing some alcohol content. There’s nothing interesting or remarkable about the flavors it brings to the table, and definitely none of the trademark Canadian black pepper rye that you might expect. Just flat, smooth, alcohol.
In my opinion, this committed the cardinal sin of whiskey: it was boring. Especially in an industry and product line where blending and added flavors are encouraged if not required, the fact that this is just so forgettable and completely unsuited for cocktails is a real disappointment.
I didn’t get anything interesting or complex here, and I definitely didn’t identify any of the usual Canadian rye whiskey notes in the aroma or the flavor. All I got was standard blended whiskey notes.
Which, to be honest, for $12 a bottle isn’t terrible. I don’t even feel like it was a complete waste of my money, since it cost so little of it. But at the same time, I don’t think it would be something I’d get again. In this category and at this price point, I feel like Canadian Club is a much better option that you should go check out first. (Just don’t drink it neat.)
|Black Velvet Blended Canadian Whisky|
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: 3 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $11.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 2/5
A boring, forgettable whiskey… but it is as smooth as velvet on the rocks.