The year was 1913, and Joseph E. Seagram was busily working on a special project in his Waterloo, Ontario distillery. To celebrate his son’s wedding, Seagram was developing a special blend of his finest whiskies for him. And thus, the V.O. legend was born. Let’s hope the folks at Diageo, who now own the V.O. brand, remember that date and release a special centenary edition for us in 2013.
Seagram’s Waterloo distillery was eventually closed in 1992, a victim of industry consolidations. Since then V.O. has been produced at Diageo’s distillery in Valleyfield, Quebec, with some spirit components coming from other plants. Although flavourful and multi-faceted, V.O. is best served as a mixing whisky, its spirity whiffs and ginger notes complement a dry ginger ale.
Nose: Closed at first, then slowly opening into mild rye notes with a hint of spirit. Fresh farmyard smells, earthiness, cigarette ashes, suggestions of dry grain, and a vaguely floral essence give it an organic feel. Then a slight sweetness and ripe fruitiness develop into hints of cream sherry, followed by more mild floral notes. Soon some woody notes arrive, not obvious, but noticeable, with cedar and newly-cut lumber. This is not an overly expressive whisky. Yes, V.O. certainly has plenty of aromas – wood, sweet rye spices, dry grass, and vague notes of pickles, but although they are varied they could never be described as prominent.
Palate: Starts hot with pepper and alcohol. An appealing bitterness lingers under the full gamut of classic rye notes, including earthiness, freshwater plants, hints of pickles, a flash of flowers, and lots of baking spices – cardamom, nutmeg, ginger, and then some ginger ale. But there is a contradiction in that it is alternately dry at moments, then sweet and creamy. The slight caramel-like sweetness never cloys, but nicely frames shades of bourbon-like vanilla pod. The hot pepper develops into a real burn. Although it has the spirity notes of a classic mixing whisky, the body has a pleasing weight. And though there are ripe fruits, it never becomes overly fruity. If it sounds like there is a lot going on here, there really isn’t. There are lots of flavour suggestions, but it’s really not very complex. The zestiness feels good – almost tannic in its astringency and there is a rewarding underlying woodiness. Vague hints of apple juice are the first really well-defined flavour and are followed by some sweet citric notes. Pleasing.
Finish: Medium to short. Peppery with some heat, and sweet with a citric bitter zest that fades fairly quickly to nothingness.
Empty Glass: Barkeep’s Sunday morning, tidying up after Saturday night at the local bar. Very faint hints of beer, a slight sourness, and cigarette ashes then grain, mild caramel, a bit of wood, dry grass, hints of vanilla, and a slight dustiness.
There’s a long history of whisky knowledge being blended with a mix of lore, tradition, and myth, not to mention commercial hype. Writing in 1809, American distiller Samuel M’Harry said the industry was filled with as many myths as untruths. And the meaning of the letters V.O. is one such example. Although evidence to date is not definitive, some claim V.O. means Very Old, while others insist on Very Own.