2020 … what a year. It was a bad one, for sure, and most of us are just wishing it gone already. If there was a bit of good news it was that spirit producers (perhaps sensing the collective need for it) continued to up their game, bringing us a selection of diverse, top-quality offerings, a number of which passed my lips. Here are a few holiday spirits I can recommend.
Vodka and Gin
Though doubt still exists over the birthplace of vodka, most now agree that the Ukraine (part of Russia at the time) was it. Upscale Ukrainian vodka brand Zirkova has taken the unique approach of releasing a pair of luxury grain vodkas. Zirkova One, made from premium Ukrainian wheat and rye, is crafted in an ultra-clean, silky, delicate style and is designed to be savoured chilled neat, on the rocks, or in a pure cocktail such as a vodka martini. Zirkova Together employs quadruple distillation and Zolotonosha spring water to give a unique vodka designed specifically to enhance vodka-based cocktails. Personally, I found the slightly earthier style, with a hint of almond and spice, to be equally enjoyable served neat.
Though vodka isn’t, admittedly, by go-to spirit, I do prefer those that are on the earthier side, with pronounced viscosity. These are typically potato rather than grain-based versions. Chopin, a luxury potato-based vodka from Poland, ticks both those boxes. Full-bodied and silky in the mouth, it also sports some woodsy/mineral flavours that make this perfect for sipping neat, well chilled, or used as the base for a distinctive vodka martini.
Whether you’re looking to treat someone special – or just treat yourself – you can’t go wrong with the Bas-Armagnac 2001 from De Montal. Engaging aromas suggesting toasted pecan, walnut, dried apricot, vanilla, and a hint of peppery spice. Very intense and complex in the mouth where you will find flavours of toffee, butterscotch, vanilla, mocha, and candied orange zest, capped off by a finish that goes on, and on…and on.
The rum category is definitely seeing a trend towards up-marketing. Established brands like Jamaica’s Appleton Estate have have seen packing do-overs and line extensions/modifications, others, like those from Foursquare Distillery in Barbados, are so sought-after that they literally evaporate when (typically extremely limited) orders are released in Canada.
The El Dorado line from Guyana can always be counted on to deliver a superior rum experience. Upping the uniqueness factor are a trio of single-still rums. The three stills used to craft El Dorado rums are one-of-a-kind (two are actually made of wood). The end distillates are typically blended, but in this case, the El Dorado Single Still Enmore Rum 2006, El Dorado Single Still Versailles Rum 2006, and El Dorado Single Still Port Mourant Rum 2006 represent unblended rums from the individual stills. Though all three landed in Ontario in early fall, only the Port Mourant was available at the time of writing. Seems the LCBO is more interested in warehousing product than selling it.
Be that as it may, the Port Mourant 2006 is worth tracking down. This is definitely a rum crafted in a style that all but true rum aficionados will likely be comfortable with. Crafted in the world’s only operational dual wooden pot still, it’s intensely aromatic – and the aromas are surprising. Don’t be put off, but you’re going to get a definite whiff of acetate – yes, nail polish remover. But the way that note weaves its way in and out of the treacle, dried apricot, old polished wood, and crème brûlée just adds to the incredible aromatic complexity. In the mouth, it’s intense, dry, spicy, and warm, with a hauntingly long finish. Go on, take a chance.
Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva Rum is the rum equivalent to easing back into a soft, buttery, worn-in leather armchair. Molasses, sultana, fruitcake, and butterscotch on the nose; smooth, silky, and sensuous on the palate, with enough lively, spicy, marmalade nuances to keep the overtly hedonistic palate in check. Try not to like it. Go ahead…resistance is futile.
The proliferation of unique - and in some cases, super-premium - whiskies (thankfully) continues. I spoke with Bowmore Brand Ambassador James Neil about one such offering that certainly fits the “super-premium” moniker. Partnering with legendary British automaker, Aston Martin, Islay’s Bowmore Distillery ingeniously packaged the Black Bowmore DB5 1964 to celebrate both the iconic James Bond-driven sports car and perhaps Bowmore’s most outstanding whisky. The bottle itself is a work of art, fusing glass onto an actual Aston Martin piston head. It would look great on your mantel - and would make an excellent gift for the Bond/whisky lover in your life. One slight problem: only 25 bottles were released. Globally. Canada got two, each with an estimated selling price of CDN$85,000. Sorry to say, but no tasting note for this one.
Those of more modest means can always get (and likely afford) the flagship 12 Year Old expression - my “go to” when looking for a distinctive, honeyed, briny Islay single malt that’s not over-the-top when it comes to peat smoke.
Sticking with Scottish malts, I had the opportunity to be “virtually introduced” to The Macallan Edition No. 6 during an online tasting with The Macallan Brand Ambassador Cameron Millar. The sixth (and final) of The Macallan’s Edition Series, Edition No. 6 celebrates the power of the mighty river Spey, Aged in a combination of American and sherry oak, this is an aromatically captivating dram. Expect a complex nose of baking spice, vanilla, dried fruit, sweet oak, toffee, and caramel. Warm, round, and supple in the mouth, it offers flavours of dark chocolate, pear/citrus fruit, dark plum and mocha, trailing off with a memorable dried apricot finish.
Another favourite of mine, Highland Park (any expression) has introduced a cask strength (63.3 ABV) version (thank you!) that delivers buckwheat honey aromas complemented by mild smoke, baked apple, a dash of toasted grain, and a whiff of sultana. Similar nuances reappear in the mouth, with the powerful palate also introducing some warm, toffee notes. A big whisky with a gentle side.
Across the St. George’s Channel Ireland’s whiskey scene continues to develop. Distillers like Walsh Whiskey and Glendalough Distillery are making strong headway in introducing whiskey lovers to a more traditional style of Irish whiskey - a fuller, richer, more complex style that all but disappeared as the “big boys” made the style lighter and fruitier. Look for brands like Writer’s Tears, The Irishman, (link to Bernard Walsh interview) and Glendalough. Aged in a ex-bourbon casks and finished in sustainably farmed, virgin Irish oak, the Glendalough Pot Still Irish Whiskey is particularly tantalizing, with aromatic notes of vanilla, banana, and traces of maple and clove, and a smooth, full, multi-faceted palate.
Closer to home, American bourbon continues its popularity. The word “authenticity” is cropping up more and more in the spirits world. With the limited-edition Old Tub, the James B. Beam Distilling Co. pays homage to a whisky that predates Jim Beam bourbon. As with the original, this rendition is neither carbon nor chill-filtered, and bottled at 50 per cent ABV. Woodsy, with traces of honey, vanilla, corn mash, and caramel on the nose; dry, powerful, and spicy in the mouth, with suggestions of dried fruit and charred wood. Punchy and assertive.
Even closer to home - actually, at home - Canadian whiskies continue to chart new territory, sometimes with some very old spirits. The Canadian Club 42 Year Old Chronicles Issue No. 2 “The Dock Man,” and Canadian Club 43 Year Old Chronicles Issue No. 3 “The Speakeasy” were both tasted virtually with Canadian Club Brand Ambassador Tish Harcus. Both version are, in a word, stunning. The 42 year old offers up a nose of intense ginger, vanilla, biscuit, butterscotch, citrus fruit, and flower blossom. In the mouth it shows amazing balance and elegance, with flavours suggesting mild anise, caramel, vanilla bean, and clove. The 43 year old shows a deeper colour, with aromas of sultana, sandalwood, mocha, and marmalade. Rich, full, and complex, the flavour profile hints at toffee and clove, with a distinct, palate-tingling spiciness. Which is “better” is pretty much a moot question, as both are equally impressive.
As it has done in the past, Alberta Distillers Limited has once again knocked it out of the park with a pair of “limited edition” releases, including the luscious, zesty, orange peel and leather-infused 20 Year Old Rye, and the Cask Strength Rye. I first tasted these quite a few months ago a looked forward to grabbing some when they were released. Between then and now, the Cask Strength garnered a treasure chest of accolades. I was very fortunate to secure my two bottle (in Ontario) limit. This is a big whisky indeed. At 65.1 per cent ABV, it’s dry, with penetrating, dusty rye flavours and a cayenne pepper-laced finish. With a slight dilution, it’s one of the best songs in the key of rye I’ve experienced. I won’t wax on further, as your chances of finding any of this ambrosia are pretty slim.
Some other miscellaneous tipples also made it to me (making my lockdown letdown a bit more tolerable). Popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, anise-flavoured absinthe (aka The Green Fairy) was eventually banned in many major markets. Cited for causing hallucinations and erratic (sometimes criminal) behaviour chalked up to the thujone extracted from the spirit’s wormwood component (but probably more likely due to it’s screamingly high proof), absinthe had a bit of resurgence starting in the 1990s as bans were lifted. The Absente brand has been in Canada since 2000. Diluted with cold water (one to three, or five), it’s nirvana for fans of anise flavoured drinks.
Technically a wine, port has spirit in it, right? Plus, it’s usually consumed in much the same way brown spirits are - after dinner and/or as a meditative tipple. The Kopke 10 Years Old Tawny works nicely in both rolls. Serve with a dessert course of salty cheese, dried fruit, and nuts (or with fruitcake), or just sip on its own, either way, its raisin pie, treacle, toasted nut aromas, and silky/sweet/nutty flavours - balanced by zippy acidity - make for a perfect winter warmer.
While combining depressants and stimulants probably isn’t a wise thing to do from a pharmaceutical standpoint, Dan Pabst, Coffee & New Product Development Manager for Melitta has provided us with a cocktail recipe that does just that. It’ll keep you both relaxed and fully awake. The Melitta Hazelnut Crème White Russian is rich, flavourful and creamy
The Melitta Hazelnut Crème White Russian
2 oz Vodka
1 oz Hazelnut Crème Melitta Cold Brew
1 oz Heavy Cream
Pour ingredients over ice. Stir and enjoy.
Keeping with cocktails, the Caesar is a Canadian classic (invented in Calgary). If you don’t want to keep all the ingredients on hand, Walter Craft Caesar Mix offers a simple solution in an all-natural, Canadian-made, bottled alternative. The Extra Spicy version - laced with five types of chilli peppers - will be loved by those who like their Caesars to pack a bit of a punch, while the limited-edition Holiday Caesar Mix swaps in lobster stock for traditional clam juice, resulting in a rich, luxurious flavour. Vodka is the standard spirit in a Caesar, but for something more interesting, try using a peaty Islay scotch like Ardbeg, Laphroaig, or Bowmore for a “smoky Caesar” (garnish with a crisp bacon strip rather than a celery stick).
Finally, Good Dee’s - the company that’s created some stellar low-carb baking mixes (I tried the Snickerdoodle Cookies and the Chocolate Brownie mixes - both were über tasty - and über simple to make) - brings us Sipping Chocolate Low Carb Drink Mix. “But there’s no booze in that!” I hear you protest. Ah, but if you drop in a good measure of Green Chartreuse you have a Verte Chaud. Kick back beside the fire and pretend you’re après-ski in the French Alps.
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