Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve Whiskey

Bush Pilot’s was the best whiskey I ever tasted. It then suddenly and completely disappeared from stores in America around 1998.

I later found a bottle in 2000 on the menu at Skates on the Bay and I begged them, no pleaded, to sell the whole thing to me. They of course refused (claiming regulations) but I don’t think they realised at the time they may have been one of the last known places to have an accessible bottle.

Fortunately I don’t think anyone else realised either because I often went back and always found a bottle of Bush Pilot’s waiting for me. The day it finally was emptied I held a little farewell on the pier. Unfortunately they refused to sell me their empty bottle. It was the laws, again they said, that prevented it.

So then I was left to wonder how such an amazingly smooth 13-year-old corn whisky with hints of oak and vanilla could disappear. I called in friends and family in the search. Distributors, distillers, caterers, all came up empty-handed. One caterer swore he could find anything. But no Bush Pilot’s was found and I gave up hope.

Finally I have answers for Bush Pilot’s demise from CanadianWhiskey.org.

Someone at the St. Louis-based beer giant, Anheuser-Busch, took exception to the name “Bush Pilot’s,” claiming it was too easy to confuse with Busch beer. At first the charges seemed so ludicrous that Smith and Denton just forged ahead. But eventually, realizing that Anheuser-Busch was dead serious about forcing Bush Pilot’s off the market and had the money to do it, they acquiesced. With that decision, Bush Pilot’s soon disappeared from the shelves and a whisky that was a legend in its own time became the Canadian whisky aficionado’s Holy Grail.

What they mean is a big-box corporation was ready to spend a huge amount of money to prove that Americans are unable to distinguish a plant from an airplane.

The big-box probably would not have won the case (pun not intended) on merits but that didn’t matter since they could just threaten the small whiskey brand into financial oblivion from legal fees alone. Such a sad story, it begs the question whether Bushmills, a distillery traced to the 1600s, should force Anheuser-Busch to change its name?

Alas, now the world is without one of the most innovative and best whiskies ever sold. Another sad example of American regulation of food gone awry (pun not intended).

Actual story behind the name:

Marilyn Smith created Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve (BPPR) as a tribute to Fred Johnson, her adventurous industrialist father who started an airline for trips into the Canadian bush. Johnson was a Danish immigrant to America in the late 1800s who worked his way up from nothing to holding numerous patents and running a sizable empire of manufacturing tech firms. His fortunes boomed from the industry demands of WWII, creating Progressive Welder and then Detroit’s “secret concept car builder Creative Industries“.

Just after WWII ended Johnson started a Great Northern Skyways as a hobby (See Creative Industries of Detroit: The Untold Story of Detroit’s Secret Concept Car Builder by Leon Dixon).

It flew from Detroit to remote resorts Johnson built near Ontario’s Blind River for hunting and fishing. Smith recalled her father telling stories of backwoods campfire drinking out of plain bottles of whisky the pilots would bring with them, which became the inspiration for re-creating a whiskey in his honor. A CBC interview from 1963 provides some first-person bush pilot perspective on what life was like.

No radio, no weather reports, and maps were sketchy…just topographical features.

Bob Denton, Smith’s partner, ran an independent spirits company in Michigan and in 1982 he was purchasing bulk Canadian blended whisky when he discovered a cache of well-aged corn whisky at Potter’s distillery in Kelowna, British Columbia. The distiller had produced it to sell to an old Canadian blend yet Denton convinced them he should buy it instead. Denton then bottled it unblended and single batch for Smith’s tribute to her father. In 1994 it was marketed as BPPR by Milton Samuels Advertising, becoming one of the rare whiskeys straight out-of-the-barrel to be bottled at barrel strength.

8 thoughts on “Bush Pilot’s Private Reserve Whiskey”

  1. i have three /yes 3/ unopened bottles. i plan to ration them over my remaining lifespan. an interesting side story….the last remaining bottle i purchased made its way to within 5 milesof being delivered by ups…..and they broke it in transit!

  2. Davi, great post. I am not a whiskey connoisseur, but, I have recently begun drinking scotch whiskey a little more frequently. Never had Bush Pilot’s but I have compared a few. I was told McCallum’s 18 yr old is really smooth. Finally got to try some, and it was good. But, I also recently was given some Deanston Virgin Oak to try, and I am now a believer. Royal Crowne, not bad. Jameson, not bad. Deanston, in my opinion, the best. Not easy to find, but, the price, out of this world – where I live, $30 a bottle. Compared to the McCallum’s: better.

  3. I just bought a house from a very wealthy man in Texas and found a case of Bush Pilot Private Reserve in a storage area . Never heard of it before today, Should we drink or sell. Offers?

  4. About half an hour ago, on my way home from work, I stopped at a family owned liquor store to pick up a 6-pack of beer. On my way to the counter, I was stunned to see a bottle of Bush Pilot sitting on the top shelf of the Canadian Whisky section. Behind it were two more. I carried one of them to the counter and the counter guy says, “You’re probably the first person to pick up one of those in 20 years”. He said he had been working there for 23 years, and those bottle had been there from before he started. I asked him to scan the bottle and the price came up $49. I asked him what it would be for all three and he gave me $5 off each bottle. As I type this, I’m sipping Bush Pilot on ice for the first time in 13 years. Its a good and rare day.

  5. I have five unopened bottles of Bush Pilot’s. Found them in a liquor store in Greenwich Village back in 2000. Packed them in my suitcase, left my underwear and socks in the hotel room, and have all five bottles safely stored away.

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