This was a week of ‘Kief’ for me. Twice I found myself in the slightly surreal situation of seeing Canadian actor, musician, and whisky enthusiast Kiefer Sutherland. First watching him play live at Underbelly Boulevard Theatre, performing tracks from his yet-to-be-released album ‘Grey’ ahead of a UK tour with his Americana country rock band The Drill. Then for a chat at The Gibson Garage London on Eastcastle Street. 

He’s in town not only for the music but because he has a whisky to promote. The actor, renowned for roles like Jack Bauer in 24 and David in The Lost Boys, is one of the co-founders of Red Bank Whisky

It’s a Canadian whisky, a blend of rye, corn and wheat whiskies, and a brand he collaborated on with friend Gary Briggs, ex-Diageo director Shawn Hiscott and entrepreneur Rob Steele. It was launched in Canada in 2022 before expanding to the UK this spring. 

Kiefer Sutherland playing live at Underbelly Boulevard Theatre

Kiefer Sutherland playing live at Underbelly Boulevard Theatre

Early whisky days and founding Red Bank whisky

For Sutherland, the love of whisky goes back much further than Red Bank, however. He grew up knowing whisky as it was what his parents drank, namely J&B Rare. That was his first dram too, a memory he recalls vividly. 

“When I was 15 I was cast in a play and the next youngest person in the cast was 32 years old. I was terribly lonely. I couldn’t just go to the local high school to make friends. One night he took pity on me and he took me to the bar. I ordered a Coke and was told I needed to order a proper drink. My parents drank J&B, this was the early 80s so it was still the biggest whisky in the world then, and so that’s what I ordered”. 

Throughout his life, he developed a love for single malts the “Glenfiddichs and Glenlivets of the world” as he called them, but always found himself gravitating back to the refined and welcoming nature of a good blend (including a fondness for the old vintage jugs of Usquaebach Scotch whisky). This kind of profile would later prove pivotal in the creation of his own whisky, an idea first mooted when drinking with friends.

“I thought it was going to be one of those things we talked about for years while drinking and never get done,” Sutherland remarks. In fact, there were just six years between those early conversations and Red Bank becoming a product. The entrepreneurship of the likes of Steele and Hiscott was vital, as was the impact of master blender Michel Marcil. His contributions sparked an even deeper appreciation of whisky for Sutherland. “I honestly wanted to do a project with three really great friends. As we started, the chemistry, the science and the art of how to make whisky just amazed me and intrigued me”.

Kiefer Sutherland and a bottle of Red Bank Whisky

The man himself – Kiefer Sutherland.

Creating Red Bank whisky

Sutherland knew a couple of things for sure going into the process. He was passionate it was going to be a Canadian whisky. When the notion of him being involved in the spirits game was mooted, Tequila was unsurprisingly pitched. “I didn’t have any interest in that. My whole deal was that I wouldn’t go forward with unless it was something I could be proud of, and as a Canadian brand, something Canada could be proud of, and I think that we’ve accomplished that”.

He speaks so fondly of Canada, a country that became home for himself, his mother and his sister at an important time in their lives after his parents split (you may have heard of Canadian actors and activists Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas). “It’s an incredible place. It’s so big and diverse and it takes all 35 million Canadians to make it work”. Born in London in 1966, Sutherland moved to California and later to Toronto and he comes across as a man with a deep love for the places that have shaped him. It’s no mistake the UK followed Canada as Red Bank’s next stop in my opinion.

Particularly as, stylistically, his love of Scotch influenced the creation of this whisky. “So much Canadian whisky speaks to a flavour profile of the southern United States, with a high-rye content, but you don’t have to make Canadian whisky that way”. He communicated to master blender Marcil what he loved about whisky and the creator did the rest, blending samples from rye, corn, and Canadian wheat and presenting the team with six to choose from. “There were six of us tasting and five of us picked the whisky that’s in the bottle in front of you. The sixth person wasn’t invited back to any tastings,” Sutherland laughs.

Red Bank Whisky master blender Michel Marcil

Red Bank Whisky master blender Michel Marcil

Canadian whisky and David Niven

The Red Bank name is a reference to the location in Nova Scotia on the eastern seaboard where Marcil has his distillery as the team wanted to capture an essence of Canada in the branding. The very Canadianess of Red Bank does help it stand out in an ever-crowded market of new whisky releases. Despite its illustrious history, there hasn’t been much love given to the Canadian whisky category in recent years (aside from our own Dr Whisky ensuring his beloved homeland is well-represented at all times. Keep fighting the good fight, Sam).

It’s not lost on me, nor will it be for most whisky fans, that if you walk into the average bar you’re not going to be greeted with much in the way of choices of Canadian whisky. As Sutherland himself points out, it’s rare to see anything other than Canadian Club or Crown Royal. The name that he brings to this project might just give Canadian whisky a welcome boost. But it’s also worth stressing that Sutherland is, I think rightly, happy that this is not simply a whisky made to imitate the classic Canadian style.

You can tell Sutherland is genuinely proud of Red Bank, several times delighting in how smooth and inviting the whisky is. When I asked him a particularly hard-hitting question – “If Red Bank was a character from a film or TV series who would it be?”* – he replied instantly with… David Niven. Bond.

“It’s an elegant whisky so I think someone sophisticated, David Niven. I’m thinking of him at the Oscars when the streaker ran on stage** and how cool he was in that moment to give that line – ‘Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off his clothes and showing his shortcomings?’ That’s how I like to think of it [Red Bank], as a sophisticated whisky. The David Niven of whisky. I’m not sure how he’d feel about the comparison”.

Red Bank Whisky: just another celebrity spirit?

Of course, I have to make my own mind up about the whisky. I tried to approach this interview and review as I do any, leaving any preconceptions at the door and focusing on the facts: the production process, the liquid inside the bottle etc. But when you’re writing about a whisky like this, you can’t help but be aware of who you’re talking to as well as the way people think of ‘celebrity’ brands. 

A certain section of the whisky world, and the wider spirits world, cringe at the sight of them. They lack the authenticity and tradition of old Scotch whisky distilleries. They’re just in it for the money, leveraging their brand to create a product that’s all marketing over substance. They lack the expertise. They lack the genuine passion. The only people who their drinks appeal to are the ones shallow enough to care about whose name is on the bottle rather than the liquid inside. Right?

Well, without getting to know the drink – how it was made, the motivations behind it, the connection the celebrities themselves have to it dismissing it off-hand seems as reductive and glib as embracing a brand just because a famous face is attached. If I suddenly became a huge celebrity next week, I know exactly what I’m doing with all that extra dough: creating a whisky brand. To whom would I have to prove my whisky-loving credentials? 

When I asked Sutherland for a specific favourite whisky memory, he didn’t want to narrow it down to one moment. Instead, he spoke about the many times he’s felt a sense of companionship and connection when raising a glass in good company and the power whisky has to bring people together. It’s obvious he genuinely loves and respects whisky. The guy wrote a song called Not Enough Whiskey back in 2016, for God’s sake. It was his first single. 

A glass and bottle of Red Bank Whisky

Red Bank Whisky

Red Bank Whisky review

But all that becomes immaterial when it finally boils down to what’s in the bottle. Red Bank claimed gold this year at the world-renowned San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Kudos. My first encounter with it was in cocktails at the launch event on Monday night. I have to say, it shone in all of them, including as a Boilermaker pairing. There was no doubt these were whisky cocktails but it absorbed the other flavours in there beautifully too. The Paper Plane was the highlight for me.

Sutherland, however, sips it neat. Incidentally, the first person (dead or alive) that came to mind with whom Sutherland would share a dram of Red Bank is Benjamin Franklin. “It’s so funny who first popped into my mind, probably because I’ve been researching him, but Benjamin Franklin. He was such an intelligent guy… I would have to say him or my dad”.

I’m taking my Red Bank neat myself (solo, because that’s the job, and it would be weird to call up Ben Franklin and ask if he wants a dram) while I’m writing this and it’s an entirely pleasing task. The word ‘approachable’ is sometimes used in whisky reviews to damn something with faint praise, but I don’t subscribe to that. It’s a drink we’re meant to enjoy. Approachability is a very good trait and one that I don’t think is simple to achieve. 

Red Bank Whisky has it in spades. It’s very easy drinking, it has a balance of flavours (the rye spice is pitched well I think, adding some richer complexity but without harshing the wheat’s creamy, mellowing effect), and I think it would be a perfect whisky for somebody’s first dram. It has the appeal of a blended Scotch and isn’t just an imitation of other Canadian whiskies, so they’ve hit a mark there. I can see people finding it “thin” and wanting more weight to it, for which I’d suggest an edition bottled above 45% ABV might be the remedy. I also don’t think its price is silly in the current market, although I always want everything to be cheaper, times are hard. 

Red Bank Whisky tasting note

Nose: Silky layers of caramel and toasted grain lead to oak char and a touch of rye spice.

Palate: Soft notes of buttery caramel and flapjack, toasty cereal, a touch of caraway and pepper in the distance.

Finish: Rich oak lingers with toffee popcorn and peppercorns.

You can buy Red Bank Whisky from Master of Malt now. 

*I leave no stone unturned.

**A reference to the 1974 Academy Award ceremony when a 33-year-old man named Robert Opal ran across the stage naked while Niven was presenting. There’s an asterisk I never thought I’d write.

Image credit for the picture of Kiefer Sutherland and a bottle of Red Bank Whisky goes to Zak Kassar.