Brown spirits are again ruling the spirits roost. And whisk(e)y is the king of the castle. Here’s just a wee dram of what’s new in the global whisk(e)y game.
Here at Home
“It’s an exciting time for the Canadian whisky market. There is such a great tradition, as well as some amazing innovation surrounding Canadian whisky, and this book is the ideal companion.”
The book in question is the second edition of Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert. And the quote is from a person you probably wouldn’t associate with our national spirit, namely national hockey deity Wayne Gretzky. Should you be wondering what business a sports hero has in commenting on a whisky book, it’s worth remembering that the Great One has an Ontario-produced whisky that bears his name — made by an Ontario-based distillery that also bears his name.
The fact that Gretzky now owns a Canadian distillery, and the fact that de Kergommeaux’s award-winning whisky guide is in its second edition, both attest to the resurgence in popularity of Canadian whisky. Always a distilling nation, Canada’s signature spirit seems to have had a more loyal following south of the border than here at home.
As the waves of Lake Ontario lapped against the shoreline and lamb slowly cooked over open fires on the pebbly beach outside Prince Edward County’s swank but cozy Drake Devonshire hotel, four exciting new Canadian whiskies were being unveiled before media, bartenders and kids with blogs (okay, okay … sorry … influencers). Actually, these weren’t really “new” whiskies, but rather new expressions of whiskies that were launched over a decade ago. Launched, I might add, to a largely unreceptive market.
Dubbed the Canadian Whisky Guild by Corby, a Canadian marketer of spirits and imported wines, the range included Lot 40, Pike Creek and Gooderham & Worts. All were brilliantly crafted Canadian spirits. But all were way ahead of their time when first released. They flew under the radar of all but the most attuned whisky lovers before unceremoniously slinking off the shelves. Well, what a difference a decade makes. Relaunched as the Northern Border Collection (and now including J.P. Wiser’s 18 Year Old, as well as some tweaks to the original three), these proudly Canadian spirits have been racking up medals and winning converts. What we were introduced to at Drake by the Lake was the evolution of this series, namely, the Northern Border Collection Rare Release.
The bracing, spicy Lot 40 is re-envisioned as the Lot 40 100% Rye Cask Strength Aged 12 Years. Bottled at 55 percent ABV, this is Canadian rye whisky at its boldest, spiciest, most potent best. Dark plum, rye bread, toasted grains, baking spices and candied orange peel. Rich, powerful and spicy with some brittle rye notes enveloped by a sweet, back fruit veneer.
The standard Gooderham & Worts transfigured into Gooderham & Worts Little Trinity 3 Grain Blend Aged 17 Years. Taking its name from the red brick Little Trinity Anglican church located just north of the historic Gooderham & Worts distillery complex in Toronto, this three-grain expression offers up red apple, creamed honey, a dollop of rye and some hard toffee nuances. The warm, round and complex flavours hint at rye bread, vanilla, cinnamon and caramel.
Next up, Pike Creek — usually a 10-year-old, rum-barrel-finished number — sees a Rare Release expression in the Pike Creek Finished in Speyside Single Malt Casks Aged 21 Years. The name is a bit of a mouthful, but, then again, so is the whisky. Aged in a warehouse with no electrical climate control, the barrels are subject to variances in temperature and humidity, leading to a fair bit of reduction in volume (darn angels). What it lacks in volume, it makes up in flavour. Complex, with sweet vanilla, toasted grain, subtle smoke and marshmallow aromatics that segue into a warm, round, sit-me-by-the-fire-and-rub-my-shoulders kinda thing. (Hey, I can dream!)
Finally, we were treated to the J.P. Wiser’s Aged 35 Years. Thirty-five is a nice age. The second-oldest Canadian whisky ever released — and certainly the oldest J.P. Wiser’s expression — this is, honestly, brilliant stuff. Bottled at a potent 50 percent ABV, it’s mostly corn with a splash of rye to pump up the spicy notes. In a word, it’s big. Creamy and silky in the mouth, it nonetheless retains a crisp, brisk, peppery core that holds the fruity, grassy, marmalade notes in check. At $165 a bottle, it ain’t the stuff you mix with ginger ale … but you wouldn’t want to do that with this anyway.
Of course, The Northern Border Collection Rare Release wasn’t the only big Canadian whisky story to help usher in Canada’s 150th. In Windsor, Ontario, I waited in anticipation while Canadian Club brand ambassador Tish Harcus drew a measure of Canadian Club Aged 40 Years straight from the barrel.
Destined for blending with other whiskies, a few barrels of 100 percent corn whisky kinda got overlooked in the warehouse (and when you see the size of the CC warehouses, you’ll see how this could happen). Upon discovery — and upon tasting — it was decided (rightly) that this exceptional liquid was just perfect on its own.
“We wanted this to be as pure an expression as we could get,” Harcus revealed while pouring my dram. “So, no colouring or filtering.” What the CC people did do was reduce the cask strength of 60 percent ABV to a tamer 45 percent. Good or bad move? Well, the cask strength did sport a viscous, oily mouthfeel that was, to a degree, lost in the 45 percent edition. That being said, the 60 percent was almost unbearably hot and peppery (which freaked me out a bit — a very rye-like corn whisky). In any case, it was a magnificent whisky, redolent of sweet mashed grain, dark plum, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, marmalade, and caramel. If you can find it, grab it.
Collingwood, Ontario, is a sort of a Canadian Aspen. A hangout for well-heeled skiers, it is also home to Canadian Mist Distillers, whose flagship product, Canadian Mist whisky, is barely attainable in Canada (the guys down south suck it all up). That being said, we have something rather special to indulge in thanks to the distillery’s Collingwood brand and, specifically, The Town Collection Collingwood Double Barrelled expression.
I tasted this new bottling with Collingwood brand ambassador John Breckon. As we toasted Canadian Mist’s 50th anniversary, Breckon chose not to speculate on how this expression would sit with Canadian whisky drinkers.
“This isn’t traditional Canadian whisky,” he admitted. Not a bad thing, says I. It’s a full-flavoured, robust dram redolent on the nose of cigar box, buckwheat honey, caramel, sweet oak/vanilla and a hint of maple (thanks to a signature mellowing process that sees the final liquid introduced to maple wood staves). Full and rich, with baking spices, black fruit, dark chocolate and subtle vanilla/maple flavours, it certainly strays from the sharper, drier style that trademarks many Canadian whiskies.
There are even more exciting things happening on the Canadian whisky front. As I write this, I’ve received word that Jim Murray’s annual Whisky Bible pronounced the initial release of Vancouver Island-based deVine’s 2017 Glen Saanich Single Malt to be “as a first bottling, genuinely superb,” and lauded the whisky for the “unfettered brilliance of the malt and the all-round joy of the intense experience.”
Also, click here for an interview with Forty Creek Distillery’s John Andersen, Senior Brand Manager, North American Whiskies as he discusses new packaging, new whiskies and new directions.
Chicago: The Whisky City
When thinking of whiskies coming from south of the border, we typically look to Kentucky to furnish the newest goods. Not to say that exciting things aren’t happening down there (look no further than the multi-award winning Rabbit Hole Distilling for proof — ahem — of Kentucky’s contribution to forward-thinking distilling, and the inroads into the Canadian market being made by the female-helmed Michter’s Distillery), but perhaps the most innovative offerings are coming from places closer to our own neighbourhood.
Chicago is dubbed the Windy City, but it could also be called the Whisky City, thanks to the innovative drams being crafted by the city’s internationally acclaimed KOVAL Distillery. I had the pleasurable opportunity to talk and taste with the company’s president, Dr. Sonat Birnecker Hart, when she briefly touched down in Toronto.
Birnecker and her husband, Robert, left comfortable academic lives to found the city’s first post-Prohibition distillery. The couple’s natural curiosity and their academic approach to distilling led to experimentation with numerous different grains and oak barrels with varying levels of toasting and/or charring. The result was the production of a plethora of whiskies — far more than the market could be expected to bear.
“It was absolutely insane,” Birnecker admits. “We cut down and focused on the Rye, the Oat, the Millet, the Bourbon and the Four Grain — what we felt were the best representations of what we were doing.”
The Oat shows fruity, mildly dusty/cereal grain aromas with a rich mouthfeel and peppery/caramel flavours. The Rye is fresh, crisp and clean with traces of vanilla and a hint of fruitiness on the palate. A blend of oat, malted barley, rye and wheat, the Four Grain offers up suggestions of dark chocolate, marzipan, tobacco leaf and candied orange that segue into complex, earthy, toasted grain nuances in the mouth. The Bourbon adheres to the requisite 51 percent corn mash bill, but substitutes millet rather than the more common rye or wheat. The result is a whiskey that sports the sweet caramel flavours imparted by the corn, along with toffee, dark chocolate and marmalade notes.
These whiskies are all single barrel, certified organic and certified kosher by all the reliable certification, um, certifiers. And certified superb by me.
Back to the Beginning
Finally, could a whisk(e)y story be a whisk(e)y story without a mention of bonnie Scotland? From the far north of the county, the ever-innovative Highland Park continues to celebrate the Orkneys’ Viking heritage with the release of the Valkyrie Special Edition single malt. The first in a series of three Viking Legend releases, it’s striking package — created by Danish designer Jim Lynvgild — that is matched by the striking whisky inside. Mildly peaty/smoky, with notes of candied lemon, toasted grain and mild sultana on the nose. Rich, full and viscous in the mouth, there’s an intriguing blend of exotic spice, a hint of sea salt and sweet oak that carry on into the long, toasty/smoky finish.
Travelling due south, the whisky lover reaches the Old Pulteney Distillery. Fans of their Single Malt Scotch Whisky (and even those new to it) will welcome two new malts: the 25-Year-Old and the exclusive 1983 Vintage expressions. Both whiskies have been aged in warehouses laced with the bracing sea salt air that surrounds the town of Wick on the shores of the North Atlantic.
To the west, and into the renown Speyside region, Macallan marries European and American oak in the creation of the new The Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old expression. New American oak is crafted into barrels in Spain and seasoned with sherry before being shipped to the distillery and filled with newly made spirit and aged for 12 years. Once aged, the whiskies are blended with others drawn from sherry-seasoned European oak. The result is a fragrant (think chocolate, butterscotch, vanilla, and floral/fruity elements), supremely smooth, velvety, luxurious dram. The uncompromising chill of winter has met its match.
Heading south, those who seek out the bolder whiskies of Islay should seek out a pair of new releases from Bowmore Distillery: No.1 Malt and the Vault Edition Atlantic Sea Salt. The former sports the distillery’s classic briny, zesty, smoky profile, while the latter, bottled at a warming 51.5 percent ABV, sports crisp, ocean spray aromas, with gently peaty, raw honey and beeswax overtones. Powerful yet exquisitely balanced, the latter features warm, slightly peppery flavours, with traces of mildly sweet orange zest and an incredibly long, peaty/caramel finish.
Sticking with Islay (and why not?), there’s much anticipation surrounding the official opening this spring of the island’s ninth operational distillery, Ardnahoe. Having been blenders and bottlers for over three generations, the Laing family has teamed up with legendary Islay stillmaster Jim McEwan to open just the second new operation on the island in over 100 years. The only Islay distillery to employ worm tubs for condensation, its first run of non-coloured, non-chill-filtered whisky is set to be released in 2021-22.
Back to the mainland, it’s a shame that so many of the great Lowland distilleries have been mothballed (Rosebank and Littlemill, we miss ya!), but at least Auchentoshan Distillery is keeping the stills stoked and creating creative bottlings, the newest being the Auchentoshan Bartender’s Malt. A collaborative effort between 12 international bartenders and master blender Rachel Barrie, the whisky is a single malt designed for use in cocktails. Sampled neat, the nose is redolent of black cherry, nougat, cocoa powder and nutmeg. Quite delicate in the mouth (as Lowland malts are wont to be), it’s hardly shy, with milk chocolate, dried apricot and nutmeg flavours drifting into a lively, spicy finish.
Finally, one revered Scottish malt maker has engaged in a particularly interesting collaboration that celebrates whisky, wood and, well, wheels. The Glenmorangie distillery and Renovo Hardwood Bicycles are breathing new life into used casks. Whisky on wheels…it’s not as dangerous as it sounds!
Indeed, the world of whisk(e)y is ever-evolving. Grab your glass, get out and explore.