Lift your spirits with the best of 2018
“The Holiday Season.” To many, this is a very evocative phrase. I know it is for me. It’s evocative of blatant commercialism, cynical goodwill, and suicidal malls. Call me Ebenezer. On the upside, The Holiday Season is all about conspicuous over-consumption, which I wholeheartedly endorse.
2018 has been a great year in booze: spirits, wine, beer and everything else. So, in keeping with the spirit of the season, lets start with spirits…and a cocktail or two.
Do you remember the first sip of booze you ever had? I do. It was Disaronno (called Amaretto di Saronno back then..I think). My nona introduced me to its complex and delicious almond flavour when I was just a kid (sending me down the road to ruin… thanks, grandma). While nice on it’s own or on ice, it also makes for a great Disaronno Sparkling – one part Disaronno to three parts Prosecco in a flute glass. Lucky for you, this year’s holiday season package includes a limited edition Disarrono bottle wrapped in a luxury glove maker Trussardi sleeve, along with two flute glasses.
Though I’m not really a vodka drinker, I tend to prefer the oilier, earthier potato-based versions to the more neutral grain expressions. Of those, Luksusowa (polish for luxurious) offers a great introduction. Superb served very chilled with caviar, it also shines in cocktails. Try it in The New Old Fashioned: a couple ounces of Luksusowa, a hit of Calvados Boulard, one or two tablespoons of cherry syrup and a few dashes of bitters. Pour it all into a rocks glass with ice and stir. Since Luksusowa now has a traditional Polish cherry liqueur (Wisniowa) on the market, you could swap the cherry syrup with it. Less sugar, more booze. Yay.
The year saw more and more designer gins hit the market – Levenswater Spring 34 Gin and Nordés come to mind. But there were also some personal favs including the crisp, fresh, floral Caorunn from Scotland and, for those with a palate for a more traditional London Dry style, Sipsmith London Dry Gin. The quintessential summer spirit, there’s plenty of room for this gin in colder weather.
Try it in a Hot Negroni: blend an ounce of Sipsmith with equal measures of Campari and sweet vermouth. Pour into a mug and top with hot red berry tea and garnish with either dehydrated orange peel or a fresh orange slice.
If all the mixing and measuring is way too much math, grab a bottle of J.P. Wiser’s Old Fashioned Whisky Cocktail. A classic spirit-forward cocktail made with a classic Canadian whisky. Just crack the cap and pour over ice. Garnish with a twist of orange peel, if you’re so inclined.
2018 was a great year for whisky. Whisky guru Jim Murray hit T.O. to promo the 15th edition of Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible, and to sing the praises of Canadian Club “Water of Windsor” 41 Year Old – his Canadian Whisky Of The Year. “A lot can go wrong with a whisky that’s been in barrel 41 years,” he admitted as we tasted what can only be described as an astonishing dram. “It was technically perfect, but beyond that, I tasted it and thought, ‘this is a superstar.’” This is issue No.1 of the “Chronicles” series.
A similar thought crossed by mind as I tried the Forty Creek 22 Year Old Straight Rye during the distillery’s annual Whisky Weekend. A bold, in-your-face whisky with searing rye spice, orange marmalade and complex, mineral nuances. Only 200 or so measures were bottled, so you’ll have to be quick if you want some. If not, console yourself with the distillery’s annual limited edition offering: Unity. A full, round, rich whisky, with caramel, dark plum, mocha and vanilla aromas that segue into full palate of dark fruit, chocolate, baking spices and a dash of pepper. Long and memorable.
“Hide Nothing. Fear Nothing.” It’s the tagline of BEARFACE Triple Oak, a new Canadian whisky aged for seven years in a combination of ex-Bourbon, French wine, and new Hungarian oak barrels dried for three years. A truly collaborative effort, this is warm, supple whisky, with aromas of citrus peel, brown sugar, hard toffee, and toasted nuts. Robust and smooth, with apparent fruit on the palate, enhanced by warm spice and toasted grain flavours. Silky, with a dash of chilli pepper on the finish.
Coming in from across the pond, Robin Coupar, Global Brand Ambassador for Glen Grant, popped into Toronto for an intimate dinner at the Cozy Peter Pan restaurant on trendy Queen Street West. He introduced me to both the buckwheat honey nuanced, toasted nut and pear-scented Glen Grant Aged 12 Years and the intense, malted barley-scented, mineral infused, lemon-oil tinged, and mildly smoky Glen Grant Aged 18 Years. Butterscotch, spicy malt, caramel, mineral and gentle spice in the mouth. Not surprisingly, Jim Murray’s Second Finest Whisky in the World for 2019.
Though I wasn’t at the official Toronto launch party, I did manage to procure a sample of the lovely Bowmore White Sands 17 Year Old Single Malt. Much consternation from many online “experts” (ahem) claiming this expression is too bland, simple, gentle, etc. Hello!!?? Islay malts CAN actually be elegant, just mildly smoky, just mildly briny, and just delicious. Case in point here. If you like a hint of maritime tang but find even the lightest Islay malts still a bit too much, consider my old pal, Old Pulteney. A northern, seaside malt, the Old Pulteney 12 Years Single Malt Scotch Whisky offers up aromatic citrus fruit notes, with a dollop of vanilla and a dash of seas spray. Medium-bodied and creamy on the palate, with honeyed salty/spicy nuances.
Across the Channel, the cognac people are being fairly vocal. And some of what they’re saying is a bit, well, different. “Serve frozen in a shot glass with sashimi,” suggests the sell sheet for the new H by Hine VSOP. WHAT??!! “As a surprising twist to a punch.” REALLY??!! Okay, experiment with cocktails if you must, but I’ll enjoy the dried apricot, cedar, lavender-tinged VSOP on its own, in a snifter, by the fire. Call me traditional.
Cognac is the heart of one of the world’s most famous liqueurs: Grand Marnier. First crafted in 1880, the Master Blender of the spirit today, Patrick Raguenaud, dropped into Toronto to taste the full Grand Marnier Range, including the sublime, ultra-premium limited edition Cuvée Quintessence. Those on a more modest budget (or a budget, period) might want to opt for the delicious Cuvée Louis-Alexandre, with its intense, orange marmalade/floral nose and flavours of spicy, sweet orange essence and subtle bergamot notes.
If cognac is (arguably) France’s greatest brandy, Calvados – Normandy’s apple brandy – is likely the most under-appreciated. This fact was (again) made apparent when a sample of Château du Breuil Calvados 8 Year Reserve was passed my way. Beautifully aromatic with suggestions of almond extract, walnut, and subtle vanilla/baked apple aromas and flavours.
Moving from apples to agave, Mexico’s claim to spirit fame – tequila – continues to enjoy a surge in popularity. The Extra Añejo category – tequila aged in oak for over three years – is growing, and the Cazadores Extra Añejo offers a great introduction to the style, with rich, caramel and aged oak on the nose, along with suggestions of cinnamon and nutty spice. Rich and smooth, with some caramel/crème brûlée notes that add fullness without masking the agave core of the spirit.
And since you really can’t have a holiday season without rum, two words: Kill Devil. Extraordinary single cask rums sourced throughout the Caribbean and bottled – unscrewedwith – in Scotland. Unlike any rums you’ve ever tasted. Guaranteed. Look them up.
And finally, if you are the designated driver, want to give the liver a bit of rest after going through this list, or just want an alcohol-free cocktail experience, check out Seedlip Grove 42. The third expression in the Seedlip lineup of non-alcoholic distillates. The profile is citrus, enhanced with ginger, lemongrass, and Japanese peppercorn. Pour over rocks and add Fever-Tree tonic or soda and garnish with an orange twist. If you want to add a healthy shot of Luksusowa, your secret is safe with me.