The Insider Story of the Evolving Lot No 40 Canadian Rye Whisky

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TL;DR The original 1998 Lot No 40 was aged in reused American barrels, 95% unmalted rye, and 5% malted rye. When the brand was released in 2012, it was aged primarily in new barrels. In 2013, the recipe was changed to remove malted rye from the product, and instead the current release is 100% Unmalted Rye. Future releases of Lot No 40 (2020sh) will focus on specific rye grain (Brasetto Rye) further enhancing the flavour.

Lot No 40 Rye is, by far, Canada’s most award winning whisky. It’s won plenty of praise in Canada, as well as the United States and world wide. What’s not as well known, however, is the evolution of flavour that’s been achieved by the constant stride to perfect this whisky.

To understand Lot No 40, one must first understand the Canadian Whisky industry. Hiram-Walker Distillery makes a ton of high-proof corn whisky distilled to 94.5%. That means the spirit, while based on corn, has almost no corn characteristics. This stripped down spirit is (generally) aged in re-used barrels for several years. It imparts spicy oak notes from the wood, but because these barrels have been reused, those rich oak-caramel notes found in American whiskies (especially bourbon) are purposefully absent for a smoother profile. The caramel notes are less evolved, more obvious, and lack the spice found from new oak in American whisky.

Rye, though, is a big part of Canadian Whisky. Hiram-Walker has mastered the distillation of 100% rye mashbill (big distilleries in the US generally only go as high as 95% Rye, with 5% Malted Barley). This rye is distilled to a lower ABV, and either column distilled twice or distilled through a column and a pot still. Depending on the direction the rye goes, the flavours change. Twice column distilled rye is more ethanol forward. Pot distilled rye has more of the traditional floral notes we associate with rye. Both are delicious, but serve a different flavouring purpose. Both are aged in either new or used oak, providing for four combinations of flavour: Twice column distilled new oak, twice column distilled reused oak, column and then pot distilled new oak, column and pot distilled reused oak.

This rye-forward whisky is then blended with the high-proof corn whisky mentioned earlier. While the corn-whisky imparts mostly oak-based notes from the barrels, the rye adds the peppery spice whisky drinkers love. This is why rye is considered the flavouring agent in Canadian whiskies, and likewise, many American bourbons depend on high levels of rye for a spicier feel on the palate. It’s not uncommon for Canadian Whisky to have 90% corn, and 10% rye, as a blend of the final product. Because each ingredient is distilled and aged separately, the rye comes through far more concentrated as compared to American whisky where every ingredient is mashed together from the start.

Lot No 40 represents this flavoring agent in Canadian Whisky for Pernod-Richard brands (J.P. Wiser’s, etc..). It’s source is all rye, without malted barley or corn. The move to bottle this rye in 1998 was a bold move for Canadian Whisky, but unfortunately, the marketplace wasn’t ready for it. The product flopped.

**The Original 1998 Lot No 40** featured a traditional Canadian mash of rye and malted rye, aged in reused barrels. In that specific way, it was the most iconic Hiram-Walker traditional Canadian rye whisky because it contained no new/virgin oak barrel aging.

**2012 released Lot No 40** made one specific change, and that was the use of new American oak barrels instead of reused barrels. This was the era where American whisky had just outsold Canadian whisky in the United States. American whisky, primarily bourbons and ryes, are matured in new oak barrels. The familiar caramel notes became a preference among whisky drinkers, and this new Lot No 40 release went in this direction. It won an incredible amount of awards starting in 2012.

**In 2013, the process of making rye was modernized** with the use of industrial enzymes during fermentation. This was a big step. In previous years, the enzymes necessary to break down rye starch into sugars (for yeast to feed on) was done through malting a small percentage of the rye. That’s also the reason why most bourbons are made with a small amount of malted barley. Instead of using malted rye, Hiram-Walker switched to commercial enzymes added to the mash during fermentation. The starting recipe became 100% unmalted rye. This made a cleaner taste to Lot No 40.

When visiting Hiram-Walker, Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore, walked me through the difference between malted rye and unmalted rye. There’s no doubt that the malted rye I tried had an unpleasant funk to it. Pure 100% unmalted rye, when broken down with an industry enzyme process,  was fruity, spicy, and clean. It was, by far, the cleaner product.

When it comes to Lot No 40, the new cleaner rye seems to impart fewer oily fatty notes compared to the 2012. The rye flavour comes through in a wonderfully high pitch. Cleaner isn’t always better with whisky enthusiasts, though, and there are definitely those that prefer the 2012 recipe with 5% malted rye. 

Dr. Don Livermore is looking for the purest product, with the most consistent flavour profile. The new recipe with 100% unmalted rye provides just that. A new generation of whisky drinkers will have this as their gold standard, and it’s a wonderful gold standard to uphold, but Dr. Don Livermore and Hiram-Walker are not stopping here.

To perfect the recipe further, future bottles of Lot No 40 will contain a specific rye grain. ** Brasetto Rye**, to be used years down the line for Lot No 40, is the future of the whisky. As Dr. Don Livermore explains it, the current rye gives them consistency challenges. By focusing on one grain type selected specifically to make a better rye, future releases of Lot No 40 will achieve even better results.

While it’s not ready for prime-time yet, it’ll need a few more years maturing in new oak barrels, this rye is truly the next level of flavor. It’s clean, fruity, spicy, but it’s a bit more chill. It’s the best way I can describe it. The current rye found in Lot No 40 wants all the attention. Brasetto rye will allow more space for flavouring notes from barrel maturation to show through. It’s subtle, but it’s wonderful, and it demonstrates the commitment by the team to continue to evolve Lot No 40.

**Lot No 40 is the best highly available rye you can buy at its price point.** I can’t stress this point enough. Whether you’re in the US or Canada, Lot No 40 is ahead of Rittenhouse Rye and other ryes at that price point.

The other interesting point to make is, American distilleries are going to have a hard time competing with what Dr. Don Livermore is able to do in Canada. Canadian Whisky doesn’t need to be made in just new oak, there’s all the flexibility offered on mashbill and the blending process, and distilling in a column first and a pot still second is a winning formula at Hiram-Walker distillery for its higher-end whiskies. It’s entirely possible (there’s no indication this will be the case) that Dr. Don Livermore will choose to use re-used oak in the next formulation to tone down the oaky notes, and that’s perfectly acceptable in Canada.

The ability to play with new and old oak, and without restriction to the starting grain, greatly opens up the Canadian Whisky world to innovation that can’t be achieved under the US designation of Bourbon and Straight Rye. Countering that point, the general category of American whisky has all the freedom in the world to compete in this space, but it’s currently not the focus of most distilleries when it comes to the higher-end market.

Most rewarding in the conversation with Dr. Don Livermore was the openness to the changes made in Lot No 40. They’re constantly tinkering with he flavour profile. That the newest rendition is more of a mainstream product doesn’t bother me, because we see the commitment from Corby’s to go in new directions like the Northern Border Collection. That the company is open about their process is a big step for the Canadian industry, that previously remained closed off to revealing the secrets of the trade.