There are many things that I’d consider to be “Canada’s Finest”. Poutine. Tim Horton’s. The 1997 film Cube. Keanu Reeves. But I’m not sure if this bottom shelf bottle of Seagram’s VO Canadian Whiskey qualifies for the “Canada’s Finest” that it’s boasting.
The Seagram company started as a Canadian distillery called the Waterloo Distillery in 1857, with a man named Joseph E. Seagram joining as a business partner in 1869. He eventually became the sole owner in 1883, changing the name on the facility to Joseph E. Seagram & Sons and grew that business to become one of the biggest spirits companies in Canada.
This VO edition of Canadian whiskey is actually one of the older lines to be produced by Seagram’s. According to company history, in 1919 Seagram’s son Thomas asked the head blender at the company to make him something special to celebrate his upcoming wedding to Dorothy Pearson. After tasting the blend, Joseph insisted that it become a regular product and be released to the public for sale. The “VO” on the label therefore isn’t an age statement like you’d see on a cognac — it stands for “Very Own”, denoting this as being originally intended as a family blend.
During prohibition in the United States, the owners of the company reportedly participated in bootlegging operations to bring their product into the US, and as a result paid $1.5 million in fines in 1930 (significantly less than the $60 million the US government asked for). The company was purchased by the Distillers Company Limited in 1924, a Canadian spirits company founded by Russian immigrant Samuel Bronfman who decided to keep the Seagram’s name for the new larger operation.
Post-prohibition, once again able to do business unimpeded in the United States, the Seagram corporation decided to create a couple new brands of whiskey to satiate the American market. The two most recognizable brands they developed were Seagram’s 5 Crown and Seagram’s 7 Crown.
Why were they named that? Well, that remains a mystery. There are a number of apocryphal stories, but nothing that I’d pin my reputation on.
Production of both spirits declined sharply during World War II, and by the end the war had claimed another casualty: the less popular 5 Crown variety of Seagram’s whiskey was no longer produced. However, the 7 Crown version survived and would eventually go on to be one of the most successful whiskies of the 1970s, being the first product to sell 300 million cases in 1983.
The company wouldn’t last, however. In the early 2000’s, the various divisions of the company were carved out and sold to larger beverage manufacturers. The mixers division was sold to Coca Cola who still produces them under the Seagram’s name. The classic 7 Crown whiskey was transferred over to the UK based Diageo. And their VO brand was sold to Sazerac, who continue to import and distribute the Canadian whiskey.
There’s very little about the contents of this bottle that we can tell for sure. It’s mostly a mystery, like a Scooby-Doo villain of the week that just needs some meddling kids and their goofy dog to unmask it.
What we do know for sure is that this is a Canadian whiskey (it says so right on the bottle).
Canadian whiskey is typically made from either corn (like its American counterpart) or, more famously, from rye grain. These grains are milled into a powder and then cooked and fermented to create a mildly alcoholic liquid. That liquid is then distilled (most likely in a column or “continuous” still) to selectively capture the flavors that the distiller wants and to concentrate the alcohol content in the liquid.
After distillation, for Canadian whiskies, they need to spend a minimum of three years in some form of a wood cask. It’s much closer to the Scottish tradition in that sense, compared to the more American tradition of using a brand new charred barrel for each distillation run.
Where things get interesting and a bit unknowable is in the blending and bottling. In Canada, blended and flavored spirits are much more accepted and expected. Blended whiskey intended for export (like this one) can legally include up to 9.09% of any spirit or even wine. The only restriction is that the finished product needs to taste like a characteristically Canadian whiskey… which is like saying you can add up to 9% of gasoline to a glass of water as long as it still looks like a glass of water.
Once finished, the whiskey is shipped to Louisville, Kentucky for bottling and shipping.
We’ve seen this same design time and again, especially from bottles on the lower end of the price spectrum. It’s a bottle vaguely wine bottle shaped, with a cylindrical body and straight walls, rounded shoulder, and a medium length neck. The glass in the bottle is smoked and tinted to prevent any light from getting through, something usually done for Scottish spirits to prevent oxidation and light from damaging the contents. The bottle is capped off with a plastic screw-on top.
The label feels like something right out of the 1970’s with the gold colored ink and ornate font used for the Seagram’s name. It’s tacky and gaudy in the same way as Donald Trump’s penthouse apartment, and honestly not something I’d like to keep on display on my liquor shelf.
This is a little darker in color than I had been expecting, actually. I know three years is a long time in a barrel for an American whiskey, but with the cooler Canadian climate I was anticipating something more pale and hay colored. Instead, this is a bright gold colored liquid with a bit of an amber orange tint.
Speaking of orange, there’s some good citrus and fruit in the aroma coming off this glass. I’m getting some orange zest, banana, pineapple, and buttered rye bread — an interesting mix of components, but it does make me think that this is likely a proper rye-based Canadian whiskey after all.
Taking a sip, the first impression is of a well rounded and smooth apple flavor combined with some baking spices and cinnamon. As the flavor develops, there’s some sweetness that starts to make an appearance; specifically, it tastes like brown sugar and vanilla and is giving a distinctly autumnal profile. Think: fresh baked cookies, baked apple, that kind of thing.
But then the bitterness arrives.
I don’t mean to make a massive deal about it, but this was such a good flavor profile right until the end. There’s this bitterness that slams your palate just as the flavors start to dissipate, tasting like a chalky combination of Tums and Sour Patch Kids. It isn’t enough to start recoiling in horror, but it absolutely feels like I need a chaser of some sort.
Good news first: that chalky texture and bitterness is significantly reduced here. With the addition of some ice, those specific components aren’t quite as pronounced as before, and unless you are really looking for them you might get away with never experiencing them at all.
The problem is, like all blended spirits, the complexity and the flavors in this glass just aren’t what they were when taken neat. At this point, all that’s left is some apple and a bit of buttered rye bread. The flavors aren’t very well saturated, and there’s no depth or real character here… but at least it isn’t unpleasant to drink anymore.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
Well, this is a first.
Normally, the addition of some bitters adds some flavor and complexity to a spirit and turns it into a proper cocktail without completely overpowering everything else. In my years of reviewing whiskey, I’ve never had a moderate shot of angostura bitters completely replace the flavors in a cocktail, but here we are.
At this point, you could probably replace the whiskey with straight vodka and get the same result. The only thing that I can find remaining from the whiskey is a touch of chalky texture and a tiny level of bitterness in the background, behind the floral and herbal components of the bitters. There’s no vanilla, no brown sugar, not even a hint of apple to save the day.
I’m going to give this cocktail a little bit of credit, but I think it is earned in a completely unintentional way.
The first thing I look for in a mule is that the flavors are balancing nicely. The ginger beer and lime juice in this cocktail tend to be very bright and acidic, so a bourbon or a whiskey needs a good bit of sugar or sweetness to balance that. In this case, I think there’s some balance happening, but that comes thanks to the chalky texture of the whiskey and not from anything that the distiller might consider a “good thing”. It adds a muting component, toning down the lime juice and ginger beer and leaving behind something that, while drinkable, doesn’t have any of the flavors of a whiskey that I’d want to see.
That benefit is partially negated on the finish, as some of that bitterness has returned and leaves a bad impression behind. There’s plenty of bitterness in the ginger beer and lime juice alone, and the added hit from the whiskey just makes things… sub-optimal. Not anything I’d say is actively bad, but just not the most pleasant I’ve had.
At the upper end of the price spectrum, what we’re looking for are the finer details. Unique flavors, good combinations, well saturated elements, that kind of stuff. Things that really differentiate the good from the great.
At the lower end of the spectrum, all we’re looking for is a whiskey without faults (unpleasant characteristics, things like bitterness or a chalky texture). As long as you can give me a whiskey that has some kind of a good flavor and doesn’t have any faults, we’re solid — I’ll give you a good review.
In this case, this is a whiskey with some obvious faults. Take away for a second the boilerplate flavor profile and the lack of saturation… the fact that it has some bitterness and a chalky texture is enough to keep me from recommending it to anyone. It isn’t as unpleasant as others I’ve tried, so it gets at least one star, but it doesn’t move up the ranks any from there.
If you want a great tasting whiskey in this price range, get a bottle of Evan Williams Black Label. If you specifically want a Canadian whiskey, that’s what Canadian Club seems to be for. But there isn’t a scenario where I’d consider recommending this specific bottle over those others.
|Seagram VO Canadian Whiskey|
Classification: Blended Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $15.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 1/5
Chalky and bitter, without much else to recommend it.