A look back at 2016 – the year in whisk(e)y
With Robbie Burns Day almost upon us, it seems like a good enough time to reflect on what 2016 bestowed, whisk(e)y-wise.
Many of us (for good reason) took a “good riddance to bad rubbish” stance when it came to bidding adieu to the past year. Bombings, shootings, celebrity deaths and for many, (including myself) personal loss, all combined to make 2016 far less than sweet. Thank god for the elixir of the grain, which arrived last year in the form of many a pleasant dram.
Possibly the biggest splash in the whisky well was made by the venerable John Dewar & Sons with its Last Great Malts of Scotland lineup. This collection of five Highland malts (including Aberfeldy, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla, Aultmore and The Devron) arrived in Canada (some in multiple ages) via a few splashy events, with its “Scotch Camp” being possibly the splashiest of any whisky launch I’ve ever attended.
If you haven’t tried these malts yet, give them a shot. I particularly liked the deceptively complex Aultmore, the assertive, meatier Craigellachie, and the elegant, toffee-tinged The Devron.
The other Highland standout was The Macallan Edition No. 2. Bursting with sultana, marmalade, banana, cocoa, apple, toffee and about a zillion baking spices, this was the “plush leather armchair by the fire” of malts. Seductive.
Next to the Highlands, the Islands of Scotland put in a bonny good showing.
Islay’s Laugavulin released an 8 Year Old special edition to commemorate its 200th Anniversary. Extremely fragrant, with sweet smoke notes buttressed by some brine, cocoa and vanilla aromatics, it delivered a gently assertive palate hinting at brown sugar, kelp, mild iodine and chocolate.
Staying on Islay for a bit (not a bad thing), Laphroaig was also throwing some new curves into the mix.The distillery introduced both Lore and Select to its already established 10 Year Old and Quarter Cask expressions. Sticking with the no age statement (NAS) trend in single malts, Lore is dubbed by Distiller Manager John Campbell as “the richest of the rich.” Lore is a massively proportioned dram, with everything you’d expect from Laphroaig, plus way more, including dried flowers, citrus, caramel and cocoa notes.
Select takes its name from the special selection of American and European casks used to mature this new NAS offering. Definitely peaty (it’s Laphroaig, right?), with the usual kelp and brine, and notes of nougat, lavender, black currant and a trace of nutty sherry. Complex stuff.
Heading north (way north) to Orkney, Highland Park’s 10 Year Old expression has been in the market for a bit, offering an “entry level” version that thankfully retains all the the Highland Park character. In an interesting collaboration, Toronto’s The Healthy Butcher used the 10 Year Old as an ingredient in a delicious lamb pot pie as well as in some equally delectable Red Deer sausage. Scotch “with” food has always been somewhat problematic with me. Scotch “in” food, however, totally rocks! Apparently infused haggis is on the way. Worth an ode (and a dram).
Finally, for those who are (still) unconvinced that blended scotch (or blended malt) is worth the bother (too bad for you), may we introduce the An Ard Ri Cask Strength from the venerable Usquaebach brand – the first new expression for the firm in 25 years. A blend of more than 20 single malts compiled by Master Blender Stewart H. Laing from his personal stash – all between 10 and 21 years old – this is ambrosia.
Bottled at 57.1 percent ABV (but showing no burn or heat), this stunning dram has a mind-blowingly complex nose of cocoa powder, sultana, mild smoke, orange peel, vanilla, ginger and old, polished wood. On the palate, black pepper, dark chocolate, mild smoke, Asian spice and lots more. Rich, complex and memorable. Good luck finding any.
Off to the southwest, Ireland is upholding its reputation as a producer of attention-grabbing libations. I was fortunate enough to taste Walsh Distillers Writer’s Tears range while braking bread with Owner/CEO Bernard Walsh. These included the flagship Writers Tears Pot Still Irish Whiskey, the new, limited edition Writers Tears Red Head (aged in Oloroso sherry butts), and the powerful Writers Tears Limited Cask Strength.
Superlative drams all, taste profiles ranged from the slightly fruity/nutty toffee-tinged Pot Still, to the more exotic sultana/buckwheat honey/hard toffee and candied orange peel of the Red Head, to the assertive pear drop/white pepper/cocoa notes that dominate the punchy yet perfectly balanced Limited Cask Strength. They’ll keep more than just Irish eyes smiling.
Last year also saw the return of Japanese whiskies – all NAS mind you, but perhaps good enough proof that age isn’t everything. Nikka Pure Malt and Suntory’s Hibiki Japanese Harmony and Toki whiskies all made an appearance…for a short time. The Nikka is pretty scarce and the Hibiki (actually introduced in 2015, but back, briefly, in 2016) seems perpetually out of stock. Toki is around – for now. Grab while grabbing is good (or possible).
And let’s not forget the great hootch from our own (expansive) back yard. A tour and tasting at Forty Creek Distillery – less than an hour from Toronto – this fall reintroduced me to the stellar range of whiskies being crafted here, including: the slightly fruity/honeyed Barrel Select; the full-bodied, marmalade and toffee-laced Copper Pot Reserve; the intriguing, Canadian oak-aged Confederation Oak Reserve, with its complex, nutty, dried fruit, spice, toasted oak and vanilla nuances; and, finally (trumpet fanfare), the 10th edition of the distillery’s limited release.
The Forty Creek Founder’s Reserve – 2016 Special Release is a tribute to Forty Creek founder John K. Hall. Only 12,000 bottles of this bold, powerful and complex elixir were release in 2016. A blend of whiskies ranging from four to nine years that have rested in a combination of lightly charred and heavily toasted American White Oak barrels. A sublime whisky and a fitting homage to one of Canada’s whisky pioneers.
So even if some of 2016’s more trying moments made you reach for a drink, at least there were plenty great choices in the whisk(e)y world to choose from.