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Alberta Premium Dark Horse

Review: Alberta Premium Dark Horse Canadian Whisky (83/100)
a review by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Posted on September 07, 2012 (Re-scored September 2016)

Frank McMahon, the founder of the distillery which bears the name Alberta Distillers Limited was passionate about horse racing. In fact he owned one of the greatest thoroughbreds of all time, Majestic Prince. Alberta jockey, Johnny Longden, trained this horse and the thoroughbred went on to win not just the Preakness, but also the Kentucky Derby. In fact, it was only by the slimmest of margins (just by a nose) that Majestic Prince lost out on the Triple Crown at the 1969 Belmont Stakes.

Alberta Premium® Dark Horse Whisky was inspired by Majestic Prince and by the continued pursuit of excellence of the horse’s owner and distillery’s founder, Frank McMahon.

The Alberta Premium Dark Horse Whisky promises to build upon the success of the Alberta Premium® brand which has won accolades for being one of the best rye whiskies in the entire world. In fact, Jim Murray, one of the world’s most renowned whisky critics, not only thinks the Alberta Premium Canadian Whisky is good, he thinks it is great! For years he has extolled the virtues of the Alberta Premium in his Whisky Bible naming it the best Canadian Whisky in 2006, 2007, and 2009. (The year that is missing, 2008 was the year that Alberta Premium 25 Year Old won the award.)

According to my contacts at BeamSuntory, Alberta Distillers Limited has raised the bar with their Dark Horse Whisky because they believe that Canadian whisky connoisseurs are ready for a bolder, richer tasting premium whisky. The Alberta Premium Dark Horse Whisky is designed to meet this challenge with a distinct new flavor profile which is to represent a bold new experience for the Canadian rye whisky drinker.

This deluxe Canadian whisky builds upon its rye base with an added touch of sherry and bourbon flavour. The whisky is aged in heavily charred American white oak barrels, and represents a blend of 12-year-old rye, and 6-year-old small pot rye. It is bottled at a higher than normal 45 % alcohol by volume, and is being launched as a premium Canadian sipping whisky designed to deliver, (quoting from the information sheets here):

“high barrel aging extractives and a richer colour and flavour profile.”

In the Bottle 4.5/5

Pictured to the left is a nice bottle shot of the Alberta Premium® Dark Horse. It is a short squat bottle that reminds me of the old style root beer bottles I used to see when I was a kid. According to the media materials I was sent, the bottle is supposed to be reminiscent of the bottles which contain small batch bourbon (in my opinion they missed that mark just a little).

I should point out that the whisky is not labeled as a 100 % rye whisky blend like other Alberta Premium® products are. Although the whisky is presented as a blend of 6-year-old rye, and 12-year-old small pot rye, there may be other constituents in the blend.

In the Glass 8.5/10

The whisky in the glass presents a very dark mahogany colour in the glass with obvious tinctures of red. The nose is complex and engaging, presenting the sharp spicy smells of rye alongside aromatic breezes full of black cherries and fieldberries (strawberry, saskatoons, and black currants). The air above the glass is sharp with oak and rye spices leading out (represented by ginger, cinnamon, and hints of cardamom). Caramelized brown sugars, a freshly bitten Turkish Delight candy bar, and bits of black licorice all find their way into those breezes which also has a distinctive bourbon taint.

As you can see, there is lot going on in the air above my glass, as the sharper rye scents seem to be competing for my attention with the ripe fruits and berries.

In the Mouth 49/60

The Alberta Premium Dark Horse is presented as a whisky built upon a base of rye with a touch of sherry and bourbon flavour. My impression is that this base of rye behaves as if it wants to dominate the whisky pushing spicy flavours through and heating the mouth with oak spice, ginger and white pepper. Not to be outdone, the fruity sherry-like flavours burst on the palate and fill the mouth with ripe cherries, black berries and dry fruit. Somewhere in between these two competing impressions is a softer bourbon influence which perhaps becomes somewhat lost in the shuffle. The added push of the 45 % alcohol strength of the whisky doesn’t seem to improve the situation as the resulting alcohol heat is uncomfortable rather than welcome. (I was hoping for more balance between the competing aspects of the whisky.)

In spite of all of this, I find myself excited by the Dark Horse, and the bold contrast in flavours it displays. My excitement is not based upon the sipping potential of the whisky, rather I am excited by the potential I see for mixology. Those hot rye spices, the rich flavours of fruit and berries, and the high push of the alcohol should all work very well in cocktails.

In the Throat 12.5/15

The finish is sharp and peppery. Flavours of ginger, white pepper, cloves and cinnamon all grab at the tonsils, and they are given added vigor by the high alcohol push. After the heat passes, I taste field berries, tart apple, and dried apricots and dates. The dichotomy is interesting, but perhaps there is a little too much initial heat for the whisky to be sipped comfortably.

The Afterburn 8.5/10

The Alberta Premium® Dark Horse is a very interesting whisky. It is full of contrast and contradiction. As indicated above, my excitement for the whisky is based upon my estimation that the Dark Horse will be a great cocktail whisky. I realize that this isn’t necessarily the distiller’s intention, then again, my predilection for mixing cocktails with good whisky (and rum) often goes against the grains of convention.

(Note: As more information has come to light, I have learned that the “added touch” of bourbon flavour is a whopping 8 to 8.5 % by volume addition of corn whiskey to the blend, and the “added touch” of sherry flavour is about 0.5 % by volume addition of sherry. These percentages stretch the definition of “added touch” and this knowledge which came to me after the review was written serves to illuminate some of my comments in the review especially with respect to balance.)

You may read some of my other Whisky Reviews (click the link) if you wish to have some comparative reviews.


Suggested Recipe

The Dark Horse Cocktail

1 1/4 oz Alberta Premium® Dark Horse
3/4 oz Knob Creek Kentucky Bourbon
a dash of Green Chartreuse
1/2 teaspoon simple sugar
2 drops Angostura bitters
1 drop Fees Cocktail bitters
Lemon peel

Chill an old-fashioned glass
Add the Dark Horse Whiskey and the Knob Creek Bourbon
Also add the sugar. the Green Chartreuse and the bitters
squeeze the lemon peel over the cocktail
If desired, garnish with the remainder of the lemon peel

Enjoy Responsibly!


As always you may interpret the scores I provide as follows.

0-25 A spirit with a rating this low would actually kill you.
26-49 Depending upon your fortitude you might actually survive this.
50 -59 You are safe to drink this…but you shouldn’t.
60-69 Substandard swill which you may offer to people you do not want to see again.
70-74 Now we have a fair mixing rum or whisky. Accept this but make sure it is mixed into a cocktail.
75-79 You may begin to serve this to friends, again probably still cocktail territory.
80-84 We begin to enjoy this spirit neat or on the rocks. (I will still primarily mix cocktails)
85-89 Excellent for sipping or for mixing!
90-94 Definitely a primary sipping spirit, in fact you may want to hoard this for yourself.
95-97.5 The Cream of the Crop
98+ I haven’t met this bottle yet…but I want to.

Very loosely we may put my scores into terms that you may be more familiar with on a Gold, Silver, and Bronze medal scale as follows:

70 – 79.5 Bronze Medal (Recommended only as a mixer)
80 – 89.5 Silver Medal (Recommended for sipping and or a high quality mixer)
90 – 95 Gold Medal (Highly recommended for sipping and for sublime cocktails.)

11 Responses to “Alberta Premium Dark Horse”

  1. David said

    I think a “dollop” is less than a tenth, but semantics are a pain. My understanding was that if it was made in Alberta and called “rye” it is %100 rye. I say understanding but it’s more in the nature of an assumption. This stuff does make a delicious Manhattan, it must be said. What about lobbying AP to distribute “…. the base rye whisky bottled at 45 % aby without the added corn whisky and sherry”? Ditch the colour too.

    • Semantics are a pain, I agree.

      By the way, there is no requirement for a whisky in Alberta to be 100 % rye mash to be called “rye whisky”. As long as the whisky has the traditional Rye” flavour profile it may be legally labelled as “rye whisky”.

      I agree that the Alberta Premium Dark Horse does not have the traditional rye flavour profile, but then again it is not labeled as rye whisky, it is labeled Canadian Whisky.

  2. David said

    “a whopping 8 to 8.5 % by volume addition of corn whiskey”

    how do you come by this information?

    I was suspicious to see “Canadian Whisky” on the label but could obtain no information from my retailer, the LCBO. Ignorance is not always bliss. If I want corn liquor I’ll have a bourbon, thanks.

    “wish I could have tasted the base rye whisky bottled at 45 %” what you said!

    • Hi David

      Davin de Kergommeaux of Canadian Whisky related this information in the comments section of his review apparently getting the information straight from Beam Global the Brand Owner. Just to be clear, it is not necessarily true that the Corn Whisky in the blend is American Corn Whisky. Almost all Canadian Whisky is predominantly corn based and that 8 to 8.5 % corn whisky in the blend was likely produced and aged in Canada, and at only 8.5 % this would be a lower amount Corn in the blend than most labeled rye whiskies in Canada or the US. (The .5 % sherry is probably also produced in Canada.)

      My issue is not with the addition of Corn Whisky to the Blend (this is after all a blended whisky), nor is it with the addition of o.5 % sherry. My issue was with the promotional information sent to me that indicated just a “touch” of Bourbon and Sherry Flavour. In my mind these percentages amount to far more than a “touch”.

  3. L G Hundertmark said

    I do not understand your Canadian laws. You take a Canadian Rye and put som part of bourbon made in an other country in it …. and it is still Canadian … and you dillute with fluids of fruit that are not whisky at all ……. and you still call it whisky. To me the thing in the bottle is neither Canadian nor whisky.

    • You are quite right… you do not understand Canadian Law nor Canadian Whisky. And it seems you do not understand whisky practices from the rest of the world either.

      For one thing, there is nobody in Canada dumping fruit juice into their whisky although blending with up to 9 % by volume with other spirits to add depth and character is allowed. But did you know that those ‘flavouring’ spirits must be aged according to the same stringent standards as our whisky. This minimum standard of aging is three years, and it is the most stringent standard of aging in the world for any country’s whisky.

      Did you also know that American Whiskey allows up to 49 % of the volume to be comprised of neutral Spirits? And that this neutral spirit does not even have to be a grain spirit. And their Whiskey does not need to be aged for longer than a day; yet, they can still call it “whiskey”.

      And then there is Scottish Whisky. They too flavour their whisky (yes even the vaunted Single Malts) by adding bourbon or sherry or other exotic wines to their whisky. The Scots do it at the beginning of the aging process when they place their fresh distilled spirit into wet casks. And then they can further this flavouring process when they “ace’ their almost finished whisky into other wet casks which may contain any type of spirit at all that was in the cask previously. Nothing in the Scottish Whisky regulations forbids the addition of wine or bourbon into the casks prior to filling it with whisky. In fact these spirits are routinely added as a means of keeping the cask from drying out prior to the addition of the whisky. How much can they add? Guess what, there is no regulation, it is left to the best practice of each distiller. And nothing in the Scottish Whisky regulations forbids the practice of multiple “acing” which in theory could introduce as much flavour from other spirits as any blender desires. (The Bruichladdich 1989 Black Art is just such a bottling. Master Blender, Jim McEwan, used 1989 Vintage whisky stocks and a secret combination of wine finishing casks to create this unusual Vintage Single Malt Whisky.)

      Hopefully this helps your understanding of not only Canadian Whisky (the best selling in the world by the way), but also your understanding of two of the other top selling whiskies as well.

  4. David T. Smith said

    I agree with you that this whisky is lacking the harmony one would expect, at times I found the dark fruits annoying. Not that its bad but I think that they have failed at the goal in making this a whisky for connoisseurs and you may be right it could be better for some good mixes. I still drink my bottle regularly and think your score is similar to my experience.

  5. A said

    Glad to see your review of this already, just found it for like $22 and was surprised by the quality.
    I absolutely love the bottle, just had friends over and they really like the elusive dark horse on the label. Everyone thought the whiskey was great and it was smooth enough for me to enjoy straight, most will prefer to mix of course, at 45%.

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