Archive for the ‘Canadian whisky’ Category

A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxWhen Robert Simonson alerted me recently that the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean” and confirm that the whiskey* they bottle is from Canada, I was skeptical. However, in an article written for the upcoming summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, Simonson quotes WhistlePig’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell, saying that the original WhistlePig came from Canada’s Alberta Distillers (ADL), and that some of it still does.

Here’s some of what that piece will say:

“It’s fairly common knowledge that that’s where we started,” Pickerell said of ADL. “What’s not common knowledge is that’s not where we are now. We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada.” One of those Canadian distilleries, however, is still ADL.

Has several years of badgering from American whiskey bloggers softened the stance at WhistlePig? Finally, Pickerell has stated for the record that at least some of the whiskey is from Canada. He also went on record in 2010 that this is the very best rye whiskey in the world.

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

When WhistlePig was released in 2010, the firm’s publicist was blunt that they did not want people to know that the whiskey was Canadian. So I was surprised when WhistlePig brand owner Raj Bhakta contacted me last week wanting to talk. Speaking of his whiskey’s Canadian heritage he was quick to say, “That’s not something I’ve shied away from,” although he did later concede that might not have been his approach in the beginning. In any case, he is talking now, and is completely candid that the whiskey they are bottling today is still from the same single Canadian source, not five distilleries as Pickerell implies.

“Yes, we’ve been growing our own grain,” he continued, “and we have been contracting others to distill it for us. We wanted to see how it turned out. That whiskey is currently maturing on the farm in Vermont, but it is not yet ready for release.” And the whiskey in the bottles? It’s still all Canadian rye whiskey, and will be for years to come.

“We’re deeply in bed with Canada, it’s just not our lead,” he continues. “WhistlePig is a Canadian-U.S. collaboration to the core. The latest batch has spent four years on the farm in our own barrels, so much of the flavor is from wood we put it into in Vermont.”

Shortly after Bhakta bought WhistlePig farm in 2007, he began casting about for business ideas. A mutual friend introduced him to Pickerell. He had found what he called “the best rye whiskey in the world,” in Canada and wanted to bottle it. However, try as he might, Pickerell could not convince any of the big players to sell Canadian whiskey at a premium price. Bhakta, meanwhile, wanted to create “America’s first luxury rye.”

Rye growing at WhistlePig Rye Farm

Rye growing at WhistlePig Farm

“Dave had the product and the pedigree, I had the entrepreneurial gusto,” he told me. But after so many rejections, Pickerell wasn’t sure how to tell people the whiskey was Canadian.

“I’ve never not wanted to disclose,” Bhakta told me, citing what he called “the Templeton debacle.” But, he added, “you don’t start out saying, ‘This is Canadian whiskey.’ It’s looked down on. It’s been an interesting navigation. It’s a tricky piece—the people who react are the geeks of whiskey—but we don’t want to confuse the general public.

“Look, I’m a salesman with a bit of P.T Barnum in me,” Bhakta continues, “and I like that.” According to Bhakta, rather than talking about the Canadian connection, they decided to focus on their long-term vision of making rye whiskey in Vermont. “We’re not trying to dance around the issue, but how do you navigate this?” he wondered.

“We have the opportunity to sell younger whiskey,” he noted, “but we are storing our stocks and doing barrel experimentation. Five years from now the critics will come to see there was a much greater vision here. I feel I am getting attacked for building the thing the right way.”

One thing is certain from my conversation with Bhakta. There are no stills at WhistlePig. Although they have applied for a permit to open a distillery, they are still awaiting approval. For now WhistlePig is a farm, pure and simple, and not a drop of the whiskey bottled under the WhistlePig label was actually distilled by Dave Pickerell: sourced, selected, and approved, but not distilled.

 

*Rather than switch back and forth between the American “whiskey” and Canadian “whisky,” this one time we decided to just use the American spelling. Davin, no shy Canadian, approved, for which we thank him.

Campari Buys Forty Creek

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxNews today that Italy’s Campari Group has bought Canada’s Forty Creek Distillery, should come as no surprise. After decades of marginal decline, Canadian whisky sales have rebounded strongly in recent years. Much of the credit for this must go to Forty Creek’s whisky maker, John K. Hall.

JohnHall_106It is more than a decade since Hall began taking his whisky from bar to bar in New Orleans and Texas. At the time Canadian retailers had shown little interest in the upstart Canadian whisky maker. As he pounded the pavement, selling a case here and a case there, Hall effectively became the face of Canadian whisky in the U.S. Happily, despite the sale of his distillery, this will continue.

From the firm base he began building in America, Hall returned to Canada to conquer his home market. Forty Creek is not the largest, but it is now the fastest-growing whisky brand in Canada. Today, Campari, which also owns Wild Turkey bourbon, confirmed Hall’s unshakable faith in Forty Creek by purchasing 100% of the distillery, its brands, and holdings for $185.6 million Canadian. Forty Creek, as the consultants say, was low-hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

Campari was one of a number of firms that was interested in purchasing the distillery. Hall was looking for a buyer that would keep the Grimsby facility open and ensure that all the employees could keep their jobs. The deal was sealed when Campari committed to those objectives.

When I met Hall in Victoria this past January, he seemed tired. “I just can’t keep this up,” he said of the non-stop pace of appearances at whisky shows and liquor stores across Canada and the U.S. “I want to spend more time with my family. When I’m in my distillery now I spend half my time behind a computer.”

“You need to hire a CEO and get back to tending your stills,” I offered. And I guess, in a way, that is what he has done. Little will change in day-to-day operations at the distillery and Hall will remain as company chairman and whisky maker. With the full strength of Campari’s sales force supporting him, Hall will likely have more time to do what he loves best: make whisky.

“I am very excited about my 2014 Limited Release,” Hall told me recently. “It will be bottled in July, and then after two and a half months of bottle rest I’ll release it.” That’s typical John Hall. Ever the wine maker, he wants to be sure his whisky has time to recover from bottle shock.

Forty Creek is a small distillery. With two pots and one column still, it has yet to reach its annual production capacity of 555,000 cases of whisky, but with the Campari deal, that can’t be far off. Watch for expansion plans in the not-too-distant future as Campari uses its global resources to grow Forty Creek in Canada, and around the world.

Meanwhile, congratulations are due to Canada’s hardest-working and best-known whisky maker, John K. Hall, and the whole Forty Creek family. For that’s what it feels like when you visit the distillery.

Canadian Catches Up: Hiram Walker expansion planned

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxAfter several years of very encouraging sales, managers at Canada’s largest distillery have decided to expand production capacity. In 2014, $8 million will be invested on new and upgraded facilities. The coldest winter in a century delayed construction, but the cement is now poured for a new tank house at Pernod-Ricard’s Hiram Walker and Sons distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

“The bottleneck here is the column stills,” master blender Don Livermore told me. “We can’t speed up the stills without affecting quality, so we are constructing a new building with four tanks to hold excess high wines. That will let us run the beer stills longer without getting backed up.”

Changes are coming in blending and bottling as well, where expansion will increase overall volumes while enabling smaller production runs. When your lines are geared to over 400 bottles a minute, it’s difficult to do small batches. New equipment in the bottling hall will permit a more leisurely pace, allowing it to process smaller runs. And good news for whisky lovers: capacity for short runs could lead to more new products making it into field-testing and onto your home bars.HIRAM WALKER & SONS LIMITED - Major Investment in Windsor, ON

“When you are set up for high production it’s difficult to attract business from small producers,” says Jason Leithead, who manages the bottling hall. “Right now a seemingly trivial change can be a monumental undertaking for us.”

Hiram Walker and Sons president Patrick O’Driscoll agrees: “The new production volume will smooth out the seasonal peaks to offer more stable employment and enhanced partnership opportunities for our customers.”

The expansion will boost overall bottling capacity by 230,000 cases. Hiram Walker currently employs about 400 people across Canada, 300 at the distillery.

“In my 18 years at Hiram Walker I’ve never seen it this busy,” Livermore tells me. “We were distilling about 20 million liters a year when I started. Last year we made the equivalent of 55 million liters of pure alcohol.” That translates into a lot of whisky. Key brands include Wiser’s, Canadian Club (made for Beam), and Gibson’s Finest (for Wm. Grant). Hiram Walker and Sons makes about 70% of all Canadian whisky, of which about 75% is sold to independent bottlers in Canada and abroad.

If Livermore has his way, this expansion is just the start of bigger things to come. “My long-term vision is to have an education center right here at the distillery. We make great products here and we need to tell people all about them.” That project is at least a decade down the road, says Livermore. For now, expanding capacity to keep up with demand and support growing consumer interest in small-batch high-end specialty whiskies is the top priority.

Suntory Bids For Beam

Monday, January 13th, 2014

Author - Lew Bryson

It was revealed today that Beam, the all-spirits company spun off by Fortune Brands in 2011, has agreed to be acquired by Suntory for $13.62 billion, upon approval from Beam Inc. shareholders. Suntory already distributes Beam’s products in Japan, and Beam distributes Suntory’s products in several other Asian markets. The deal is targeted for completion in the second quarter of 2014.

Given numbers from the Impact Databank, the deal will make Suntory the world’s fourth-largest spirits company, behind Diageo, India’s United Spirits Limited, and Pernod Ricard; Bacardi will now be fifth. By dollar amount, this is a bigger deal than the Fortune Brands/Pernod takeover of Allied Domecq in 2005.

Assuming the deal goes through, this will put a lot of new whiskeys under Suntory’s roof. In addition to their own Suntory, Yamazaki, and Hakushu brands, and Scottish brands Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, and McClelland’s, they will now own all the associated Jim Beam brands, Maker’s Mark, Canadian Club, Laphroaig, Ardmore, Teacher’s, Alberta Distillers, Cooley, and the Spanish DYC brand. They’ll also own the still-growing Pinnacle flavored vodkas, Courvoisier cognac, Sauza and Hornitos tequilas, Gilbey’s, and Skinnygirl cocktails.

What’s this mean to you, the whiskey drinker? Probably not much. Beam CEO Matt Shattock and the current management team will be left in place to run the business. Bourbon, Irish, Canadian, and Scotch whisky are all growing strongly. Given Suntory’s record with Morrison Bowmore, it seems unlikely that they’d change anything with their new acquisitions. Should we worry about Suntory owning both Bowmore and Laphroaig, and possibly closing one Islay distillery as unwelcome internal competition? Not for now, when both are selling well, though it may become a factor if there’s a downturn; but in that case, everything is going to be in play anyway.

The deal will increase Suntory’s debt load considerably; Moody’s Investors Service indicated that they would be evaluating the company for a re-grading in light of it. Should we worry about prices going up to cover the debt? Realistically, at this point in the whisky market…would we notice?

This was a sale that everyone interested in the industry had been expecting, at least on the “Beam sold” end. As a purely spirits company that was neither family-owned nor large enough to fend off purchasers, Beam was widely considered as a very likely takeover target. The “Suntory acquired” part was more of a surprise, in that one company is swallowing them whole. That’s the only potential downside; that a richer purchaser might have been able to put more into the new brands than Suntory will, but that’s all speculation.

In the end, it looks like a ‘move along, nothing to see here’ moment. Just another swapping in the game that has gone on for decades. Suntory has a good track record; rest easy. We might even see more Suntory whiskies in the world market.

Meanwhile, in a much, much smaller deal that was also announced today, two Tasmanian distilleries are merging. Lark distillery will acquire Old Hobart distillery and the Overeem brand. Both companies will remain as separate brands and entities, Overeem becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Lark. Perhaps more importantly, Bill Lark will be reducing his time at the distillery and becoming the Lark global brand ambassador, and Casey Overeem will be doing the same. We’ll wait to see if this means more Tasmanian whisky in America.

Whisky Advocate Award: Canadian Whisky of the Year

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Wiser’s Legacy, 45%, C$50

Amidst a wealth of outstanding new releases it’s easy to forget old favorites. Forty Creek Heart of Gold, Highwood Ninety, Collingwood 21 yearWisers_Legacy_750mL_CDN old, Wiser’s Red Letter, and Masterson’s Barley each fought to stay at the top of my 2013 whisky charts. Many head-to-head tastings and much thoughtful consideration later, the whisky to hold its own and emerge as Canadian whisky of the year is Wiser’s Legacy.

Legacy is the crowning achievement of Wiser’s former master blender, David Doyle. Looking back, it was also a harbinger of the new direction Wiser’s whiskies would take following Doyle’s departure. In hindsight, the influence of Doyle’s then-apprentice, Don Livermore, is obvious.

After a decade and a half as a blender, Livermore completed his PhD in brewing and distilling in Edinburgh at Heriot-Watt University. Shortly thereafter Doyle handed him the master blender’s reins at the Corby distillery in Windsor where Wiser’s whiskies are made. Livermore studied the effects of wood on aging for his doctorate. That almost candied succulence of toasted new oak that you taste in Legacy is the fruit of those studies.

A muscular, full-bodied, friendly whisky, Legacy slathers your mouth with its creamy, not-too-sweet candied essence. Hot cinnamon hearts and peppermint buttress the ginger, cloves, and nutmeg of warm Christmas pudding. Sweet vanillas and sumptuous butterscotch toffee becalm the steely earth of rye-grain whisky into kid-soft armchair leather. Then, just as you hit a pocket of black licorice, toasted new oak resurges with freshly split red cedar, over-ripe dark fruits, and out of nowhere, a briny wash of seashells. Finally, ever so gently it fades to a sweet spicy memory.

Though price was not a factor in deciding the Canadian whisky of 2013, its $50 price tag is a welcome bonus. Formerly in U.S. distribution, Legacy is now exclusive to Canada. –Davin de Kergommeaux

Come back tomorrow for our Irish Whiskey of the Year.

Whisky Advocate’s Winter Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

Here it is: a sneak preview of Whisky Advocate‘s winter 2013 issue’s Buying Guide. Revealed here are the top 10 rated whiskies. We begin the list with #10 and conclude with the #1 highest-rated whisky of the issue.

Forty Creek Heart_of_Gold_bottle#10: Forty Creek Heart of Gold, 43%, C$70

Each fall, whisky lovers in Canada and Texas anticipate John Hall’s new limited edition whisky. This year’s sits squarely in the golden heart of classic Canadian rye. Tingling gingery pepper is bathed in ultra-creamy butterscotch, woody maple syrup, black tea, and barley sugar. Prune juice and ripe dark fruits dissolve into dried apricots and zesty hints of citrus. Then floral rye notes turn dusty, with gentle wisps of willow smoke. Complex, full-bodied, and slowly evolving, so let it breathe.—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate rating: 93

Handy Sazerac2

#9: Thomas H. Handy Sazerac, 64.2%, $70

The youthful, testosterone-laden member of the Antique Collection family. Bold and spicy with cinnamon and clove, but softened and balanced by thick toffee, vanilla, and honeyed orchard fruit. Lush and mouth-coating. An exercise in extremes: bold, muscular spice, along with soothing sweeter notes. While its older sibling, Sazerac 18 year old, expresses a classic “older rye” low-risk profile, Handy pushes the envelope in many directions.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 93

#8: Eagle Rare 17 year old (bottled Spring 2013), 45%, $70

Often overlooked in this portfolio because it isn’t barrel proof. The last few years of this bourbon have been wonderful. This year is no exception, with a bit more spice. Notes of nutty toffee, caramel, creamy vanilla, and pot still rum, with interwoven hints of oak resin, dried spice, tobacco, and honeyed fruit. Hint of barrel char and anise for intrigue. Delicious! (And actually 19 years old, even though it bears the traditional 17 year age statement.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94
Elijah Craig 21 Year Old
#7: Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42), 45%, $140

Surprisingly reserved on the oak spice; it tastes like a bourbon half its age. Soothing in nature, with layers of sweetness (honey, vanilla cream, caramel, nougat), lively complex fruit (coconut, pineapple, ripe peach, honeydew melon), and gentle cinnamon. Soft, creamy finish. A whiskey that has aged very gracefully. Delicious! (This is a single barrel; every barrel is unique.)—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 94SazeracRye18year2

#6: Sazerac 18 year old (bottled Fall 2013), 45%, $70

Still lively for 18 years old, with no hint of interfering oak. The age has softened the rye spice, making it an easy entry into the premium rye category. The balance here is beautiful, with rounded spice (mint, cinnamon, licorice root) on a bed of soft vanilla and caramel. Gently, dry finish. Very sophisticated for a rye. It remains my benchmark for extra-matured rye whiskeys, which are becoming exceedingly scarce.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#5: William Larue Weller, 68.1%, $70

The traditionally gentle demeanor of this wheated bourbon is jazzed up with some lovely complex spice (mostly coming from the oak). Sweet notes of maple syrup, silky caramel, blackberry jam, and blueberry are peppered with notes of allspice spiked with cinnamon and vanilla. Soft leather on the finish. Great balance. A lovely whiskey!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95
GeorgeTStagg2
#4: George T. Stagg, 64.1%, $70

Less alcohol than past Staggs, even at 128.2° proof. This whiskey has always been one of the best in the portfolio, and its reputation is intact. Sweeter and fuller in body than recent releases, and not as masculine, making it easier to drink. (Don’t worry; it’s still a big Stagg, but with a smaller “rack.”) Vanilla taffy, nougat, dates, polished oak, roasted nuts, leather, and tobacco: it’s all there.—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 95

#3:  Yoichi 1988 single cask, 62%, €185

Though aged in virgin American oak, it’s distillery character that’s in charge here; a fully expressive Yoichi. Rich, mysterious, layered, mixing rich fruit compote with scented coastal smoke (ozone, tar, soot) alongside masses of vetiver and cigar humidor. The palate is oily and immense, with fluxing layers of sweet fruit, oily peat, salt, and ink; camphor, flax seed, and in among the smoke, apple mint. Long, insanely complex, and jaw-droppingly good. This will go down as a classic.—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96Redbreast 21 Year Old

#2: Redbreast 21 year old, 46%, $180

Wow! After the wonderful 12 year old cask strength, Redbreast does it again. This is a different beast altogether, but it is a stunner. This is Roger Waters doing The Wall: over the top, unsubtle, and totally entertaining. There’s lots going on: fermenting apples, juicy oils, spice, and dark cherry and berry fruits zip and fizz over the palate, the wood influence is sublime. I’m comfortably numb.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 96

125th_Front_SMBLE#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Small Batch, 51.5%, $85

A marriage of 13 and 18 year old bourbons. A mature yet very elegant whiskey, with a silky texture and so easy to embrace with a splash of water. Balanced notes of honeyed vanilla, soft caramel, a basket of complex orchard fruit, blackberry, papaya, and a dusting of cocoa and nutmeg; smooth finish. Sophisticated, stylish, with well-defined flavors. A classic!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 97

 

The Laird of Fintry has Landed

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

author-beaumontIt’s been a good year for Canada’s Okanagan Spirits. To begin with, a break on the standard retail mark-up in the provincially-owned liquor stores for distillers using locally-grown ingredients – which this fruit belt operation does exclusively – was rather unexpectedly announced in the early spring by the government of the company’s home province of British Columbia.  Then came word from the World Spirits Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria, where Okanagan Spirits was awarded not only World Class Distillery certification, but also the titles of Distillery of the Year 2013 and Spirit of the Year 2013, the latter for their Blackcurrant Liqueur.

Now a six-year project has finally come to completion with the arrival of Laird of Fintry Single Malt Whisky, distilled from 100% British Columbia-grown barley and aged in French and American oak. Although no doubt better known for their fruit-based eaux de vie lof.bottleshotand Taboo Absinthe, the Laird of Fintry is in many ways a landmark release for Okanagan Spirits, representing in production and aging almost a full two-thirds of the distillery’s existence.

“At the time, we weren’t sure we could even make a whisky, so it was more of an experiment than anything else,” explains Rodney Goodchild, marketing and operations director for Okanagan Spirits. “We had a brewery make the wash for us and were able to distill just a single barrel out of it. Then, as time went on, we kept tasting it and tasting it until at about eighteen months we realized that it was evolving into something quite nice.”

The whisky is titled with the nickname given to an early 20th century settler, James Cameron Dun Waters, who named what is now the Fintry Estate provincial park for his Scottish hometown. The distillery has been producing about a dozen barrels of whisky per year, says Goodchild. So while that initial run has resulted in rather meagre release – leading to a lottery-style sale that had 1,527 people vying for an opportunity to buy the a mere 210 bottles of the whisky – there will be more available next year and in the years to come. One key to Okanagan generating more whisky for sale will definitely be a change in what can only in the loosest of terms be called “warehousing.”

“The distillery has no real warehouse,” says Goodchild, noting that the only other significantly aged product is an 18 month old apple brandy, “So we’re currently storing the barrels in the retail area. The problem is, with the changes in temperature and the dryness of our winters, we estimate that we’re losing about 12% of the spirit per year.” Okanagan Spirits aims to reduce that overly generous angel’s share with the construction of a glass walled barrel room adjacent to their current retail space and tasting bar.

OKS-1223

Distiller Peter von Hahn

As for the whisky itself, its nose is possessed of a surprising maturity for a spirit so relatively young, with aromas of plum, cooked pear, and stewed and spiced raisins accompanying the expected notes of vanilla and toffee. On the palate, however, its youthfulness shines, with ample but integrated oakiness and effusive, sweet notes of both fresh and baked pear, apple and yellow plum, caramel and baking spice, all leading to a still fruity, vanilla-accented finish.

Although it is obviously a grain-based spirit, the Laird of Fintry seems to channel the character of many of its stablemates in the Okanagan Spirits portfolio, specifically the fruit eaux de vie for which the distillery is becoming quite famous. As an operation committed to the use of local ingredients, that is not at all a bad thing.

True, in this batch and at this age, the whisky is not likely to excite anyone approaching it in search of Speyside or Highland complexities, or even the simpler charms of a pot-distilled Irish whiskey. But in terms of speaking to its terroir in the one of the largest fruit-growing regions in Canada, it can only be considered a success, and a harbinger of greater things to come from western Canada’s original and arguably greatest and most successful craft distillery.

Whisky Advocate’s Fall Issue Top 10 Buying Guide Reviews

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

John HansellHere is your sneak preview of Whisky Advocate’s fall issue Buying Guide: the top 10 whiskies reviewed. We begin with #10 and end with the highest rated whiskey.Few Rye

#10: Few Rye, 46.5%, $60

Solid, chunky bottle with idiosyncratic whiskey inside. Straightforward rye crisps out of the glass in no-nonsense style; dry grain, sweet grass, and light but insistent anise almost wholly drown out the barrel character. The mouth is as dry and spicy-medicinal as the nose hints at, laying down character like a winning hand: rye SNAP! heat SNAP! light tarragon SNAP! oak SNAP! and a warm wrap-up finish SNAP! Full house, flavors over sensations. Clean and interesting. Nicely played.—Lew Bryson

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 89
Special09_SV_frilagd_cmyk_300dpi

#9: Mackmyra Special No. 9, 46.1%, $90

Mackmyra continues to play a far more sophisticated game than it is given credit for, releasing pleasant and easy drinking mainstream malts, and then packing a punch with one-off oddball single casks. So this is an utter delight and among the very best Mackmyras released. Vanilla, banana, sweet jellybeans, and some toffee all playing Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde pops up with earthy salt notes. Medical gauze and pepper for a savory finale.—Dominic Roskrow

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#8: Elmer T. Lee Single Barrel, 45%, $30

An elegant bourbon, and very drinkable too! Its flavors are clean and tight, with bright fruit (nectarine, tangerine, pineapple), soft coconut, honeyed vanilla, cotton candy, and subtle gin botanicals. Polished leather and a hint of dark chocolate on the finish. Great anytime. (Exclusive to Capital City Package.)John HansellGlen Grant 5 Decades

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#7: Glen Grant Five Decades, 46%, £115

Created by Dennis Malcolm to celebrate his half century at Glen Grant, this uses casks from each of his five decades. Pale it may be, but this is no dainty little thing. There’s lots of buttery oak before classic Glen Grant lift and energy emerge: green apple, fruit blossom, William pear, and yellow fruits; lemon butter icing and nettles with water. The palate is vibrant and energetic, but holds to the middle of the tongue. A suitably celebratory dram. Congratulations!—Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 90

#6: Caol Ila Feis Ile Bottling 2013, 56.5%, £99

Although aged in refill, then active hoggies, and finally sherry, there’s more smoke than oak here, a smoke like the aroma of a fire clinging to a tweed jacket. A note akin to wilting spinach gives way to more conventional strawberries and cream, but always mixed with seashore breezes. This is Caol Ila in deep and bold mood with green fig, banana, and a sweet center. Water gives greater integration. You might (just) be able to get this. Do it. (distillery only)Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91
ArdbogBottle&Pack_WB

#5: Ardbeg Ardbog, 52.1%, $100

The follow-up to last year’s Ardbeg Day, here’s the cult distillery in its funkiest guise with a nose that’s reminiscent (I’d imagine) of a frontier trading post: all pitch, furs, and gun oil. Some mint hangs around in the background alongside eucalyptus. This is an earthy, in-your-face Ardbeg with a hint of box-fresh sneakers indicating some youthfulness. The mouth is thick and chewy: wild mint, oily depths, and the slightly manic energy typical of Ardbeg’s young years.—Dave Broom
Nienty 20yr
Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#4: Ninety 20 year old, 45%, C$48

Tucked away in the small Alberta town of High River, Highwood distillers has made large volumes of Canadian whisky and dozens of other distilled beverages since 1974. Undaunted by recent flooding and with more than three decades of aging whisky on hand, the owners recently decided to emphasize premium whiskies. Ninety, the latest of these, is simply gorgeous. Crispy clean oak, dark fruit, butterscotch, corncobs, and nutmeg precede candy cane, sour fruits, cinnamon, ginger, and citrus pith. (Canada only)—Davin de Kergommeaux

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 91

#3: Lagavulin Feis Ile 2013 bottling (distilled 1995), 51%, £99

Though quiet to start, the impression is of a fog of smoke, balled up within a dunnage warehouse, ready to erupt to add itself to the cool spearmint and oxidized nuttiness. The palate is where it shows its class: mature, slowly unfolding and layered, with Latakia tobacco, menthol, nori, white pepper, pear, and a massive, tarry Bohea Souchong tea element on the finish. Everything from Lagavulin is touched with gold at the moment. Try to find a bottle. (distillery only)Dave Broom

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

#2: The Exclusive Malts (distilled at Laphroaig) Cask #10866 22 year old 1990, 47.1%, $250

Clean and complex, showing a matured, somewhat restrained personality for Laphroaig: less medicinal, but more rounded. Tar, pencil shavings, anise, honeyed citrus, Spanish olive brine, and a hint of seaweed and white pepper on a bed of creamy vanilla, caramel, and light nougat. Lingering, satisfying finish. Frustrated by a dearth of 20-plus year old distillery-bottled Laphroaigs? Look no further. Delicious!—John Hansell

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92
Four Roses/ 070

#1: Four Roses 2013 Limited Edition Single Barrel, 60%, $90

Thirteen years old, but it shows its age nicely. It’s peppered with complex dried spice notes (mint, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla), yet it also has interwoven sweet notes (maple syrup, caramel, honey) to keep the whiskey from being too dry. Hints of dark chocolate and berried fruit add complexity. Dry, spicy, tobacco and leather-tinged finish. Great complexity!—JH

Advanced Whisky Advocate magazine rating: 92

 

 

Part Two: Lost in Alberta. And Windsor.

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin, David, and Lew get into the nuts and bolts of Canadian whisky, as described by Lew.

After our day at Black Velvet, we left Lethbridge the next morning, headed north toward Calgary, and stopped along the way at the Highwood Distillery in High River, Alberta. These guys do things their own way: they don’t have a mill. Only distillery I’ve ever been to that doesn’t have a mill! They put the whole grain—wheat is what they’re currently running—in a big pressure cooker, step it up through three temperature/pressure stays, and then, at 120 psi, they open the valve and the wheat blows into a vessel where it slams into a bell-shaped metal plate. Any starches that haven’t already burst from the pressure blow open at that point! They’ve been doing it that way since they opened in 1974. They use a column still, and a pot still for rectification, doing a series of redistillations.

The guys at Highwood confirmed what we’d been starting to suspect: barrels are used, re-used, and re-used some more in Canada. “We like to get as much use out of a barrel as we can,” we were told. “A barrel is spent when it starts to leak.” There must have been some leakers in there, because Highwood’s warehouse was the most alcohol-filled I’ve ever been in; my eyes were burning! When we were treated to a sample from a 33 year old cask (which was lovely, sweet, and gentle enough to hold on the tongue, even at 79%, which is just crazy), the whisky reek in the air was so strong that I couldn’t discern a difference between the air in the glass and the air outside the glass! We had to open a door. By the time we got to the lab to taste whiskies, we were all a bit jolly from just breathing…

We tasted White Owl, Highwood’s carbon-filtered 5 year old white whisky (and their best-selling product). It was sweet, fruity, touched with vanilla, and a flip of a bitter finish; definitely not vodka, despite its appearance. We tasted several more whiskies, some—like the 20 year old Ninety (named for the proof)—quite good indeed, and then wrapped up with a bottle Dave and I had noticed: The Volstead Project. It was a 5 month old barreled Manhattan, and it was quite tasty; putting a handful of cracked ice in it made it even better. But…we begged to be dropped off at a restaurant for lunch; we were woozy! We ate a big lunch, and walked about a mile back to the distillery, and felt much better. Back to Calgary, and we’d leave early in the morning for a day of travel that ended in Windsor. (We’ve since learned that Highwood had 2 feet of water running through it on 6/20 due to flash floods; best of luck to them, hope they’re okay and didn’t lose much stock.)CC-Heritage-Centre-June-14,-2013

Windsor was a pretty nice little town, all things considered—being a mile from Detroit these days can be unnerving—and after a great dinner at a place called the City Grill and a couple beers in some downtown pubs, we got some rest before the final day of distillery visits: Canadian Club and the Hiram Walker distillery.

If you’ve never been to Windsor—or Walkerville, as it was originally called, when it was Hiram Walker’s company town—you’ve never seen the Canadian Club Brand Center. Hiram Walker—the Hiram Walker, the man—built it in 1891 to celebrate the success of the global whisky brand he’d built. It’s modeled on the Pandolfini palace in Florence, and frankly, it’s stunning. Hiram may have been a grocer from Massachusetts, but he had or developed excellent taste, and the art and architecture in the building is beautiful. The offices look over the Detroit River, over to where Hiram lived (he never became a Canadian citizen, and commuted home every day by way of a tunnel and a cart pulled by his beloved donkey, Hector). We had time for a quick sample; I picked the CC 20 year old, and found it delicious, with a firmly oaky nose, but gracefully youthful notes of grass, mint, and pepper.

Canadian Club is made under contract at the Hiram Walker distillery. The distillery also makes the Corby brands, including Wiser’s, Pike Creek, and Lot No. 40. We got our tour from Dr. Don Livermore, the master blender, who is very savvy, and very keen to experiment with places Canadian whisky hadn’t yet gone. He talked several times about “keeping the pipeline full of innovation,” staying ahead of the demands of marketing.IMG_0281

This was where we came face-to-face with the tail-end of Canadian whisky, the waste, the DDG: distiller’s dried grains. Due to their use of enzymes and scarily clean fermentation, Canadian distillers get an almost complete use of sugars in fermentation, and as a result the material coming out of their dryhouse is almost all protein. Unlike the burnt chicken feather smell of most dryhouses, the Walker dryhouse smelled like toasted cereal, almost good enough to eat. When something’s wrong with fermentation, Dr. Don said, you’ll smell it here, and you’ll know. This high-protein product is a profit item for them; “It’s not a by-product,” he said, “it’s a co-product.”

Hiram Walker is huge. They use 218,000 liter (57,000 gallon) fermenters that use 60 metric tonnes of corn in every batch, and they have 39 of them. The fermenters are cooled by huge amounts of water piped in directly from the Detroit River: brute force cooling. Their column still is the size of a Titan missile and puts out spirit at 240 gallons a minute. It is the largest beverage alcohol plant in North America. It reminds you that while we may not think much about Canadian whisky—and that’s likely to change—one hell of a lot of it gets bought in a year.IMAG0738

We tasted 40 samples, everything from straight-up new make base whisky pulled off at 94.8% and their Polar Vodka, done at 96%— they were surprisingly different—to all the different flavoring variants of corn, rye, barley, malt, and wheat, run off the beer still in single pass or second-distilled in their pot still (referred to in-house as “Star” and “Star Special” variants) at various ages, spirit aged in used oak and new wood, and in used wood with red oak stave inserts…Dr. Don is an experimenting fool! “They’re all tools in the box for a master blender,” he said.

We tasted finished whiskies, too; the full Wiser’s range, Pike Creek, Lot No. 40, and a new J.P.Wiser that’s intended for the U.S., blended with more rye, and whiskies aged in new wood, bourbon barrels, and used Canadian whisky barrels. It was spicy, sweet, bold, and had some vinous notes to it. Then he pulled out a surprise. Davin had mentioned a 15 year old whisky from the defunct Gooderham & Worts distillery as a “dram before you die;” Dr. Don had the stock from the distillery and the formula, and he made up a small batch. We tasted it, and Davin was right; an exceptional whisky indeed.

A barrel of Dr. Don's Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

A barrel of Dr. Don’s Ph.D. whisky that we all signed.

You’d think it was downhill from there, but we drove out to the Wiser’s warehouses (beside the real Pike Creek, and sampled Dr. Don’s Ph.D. project, three small runs of whisky done in new oak. It was roaringly bold, and we were loath to toss them, but there were others to try… We were off the clock, and having fun, but still noticed that they had begun barcoding barrels and tracking use and flavor. Wood management is coming to Canada.

After a fine Italian dinner on Windsor’s Via Italia, and a couple more drinks in a street fair on a fine moonlit night…our trip was finally done. We’d learned a lot about Canadian whisky, its history, and its homeland. There’s a lot to be said for learning, that’s for sure.

Part One: Lost in Alberta

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Lew BrysonDavin De Kergommeaux, Dave Broom and Lew Bryson hit the prairies in search of real Canadian whisky. Lew brings you along for the ride.

Our Canadian whisky reviewer, Davin de Kergommeaux, contacted Dave Broom and I a couple months ago about a trip to visit Canadian whisky distilleries, sponsored by the Association of Canadian Distillers. We were eager to learn more about the Canadian whisky tradition—especially after reading Davin’s excellent book, Canadian Whisky—so the second week of June saw the three of us, and the Association’s president, Jan Westcott, converging on Calgary.

I landed first…and realized Davin and I had made no plans on how to meet. My emergency plan worked: sitting in an armchair beside the baggage carousels till Davin walked by. We picked up the rental car and drove to our motel in downtown Calgary, where we ran into a colorful demonstration against the government. The Ethiopian government. Didn’t make sense to me, either, but Davin waded right into it—they politely held the door for him, it is Canada—we dropped our luggage in the rooms, and headed to a well-recommended spot, Beer Revolution, to meet friends of mine for pints and pizza. Or at least, I did, and Davin headed back to the airport to get Dave. They got lost on the way back; it was a precursor.

The next morning we met up with Jan, who was going to lead us to Alberta Distillers Ltd., our first stop. We saw some nice neighborhoods, the Bow River, one really nice neighborhood under construction — we were lost. After some quick discussion, we were off again, and found the place, off in an industrial area, surrounded by magpies. We learned about enzyme creation and the difficulties of 100% rye distillation, and tasted Alberta Premium 25 year old and 30 year old, two wonderful limited release whiskies that are vanished from the shelves, and Dark Horse, a 45% NAS kicker that was just stuffed with flavor, a very lively whisky indeed. (More to come on Canadian distilling in an upcoming issue of the magazine; we’re just having some fun here).

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

Tom Riehs and Lew Bryson

After lunch, we headed south across the prairie, the Rockies in the distance to our right, rye fields all around us. We stopped at one, Tom Riehs’s farm—I’d asked Davin to see a rye field, and he delivered!—and Tom was good enough to take us out to see the field, stand in it, see what rye looks like and how it grows. He told us that it was just young at this point, up to our knees, but when it was ready for harvest, it would be almost head-high. He also told us that fewer farmers are growing rye—a variety of reasons; his son’s probably not going to grow rye when he takes over because he doesn’t want to raise cattle, and pasturing them in the rye is part of the process—which doesn’t bode well for whisky.

Back in the car, and as we approached the turnoff for Lethbridge at Fort MacLeod, Jan said he had to stop to stretch his legs, and started going on about a great hamburger he’d had in the bus depot in Fort MacLeod. He went looking for it. We didn’t find it—it had closed about five years earlier, and to be honest, it looked like a lot of the rest of the town was waiting to join it—but we did stop and tour the recreation of Fort MacLeod, home of the North West Mounted Patrol, which would become the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: the Mounties. It was a great tour, with Mountie memorabilia, photos, and a gift shop…where Jan found that one of the women who worked there used to be a waitress at the bus depot. He was overjoyed.

We drove on to Lethbridge, and I took over the directions: we rolled straight to our motel, where we discovered a tiki-type bar in their central courtyard, which was full of tikisemi-tropical plants, water, a piano, and cast-iron alligators. We had to have a drink! I got a rummy-pineapple concoction (with umbrella; Dave insisted on getting a picture: “For evidence.”), Davin had a beer, and Dave got a daiquiri (Waitress with permanent smile: “What flavor would you like?” Dave, wary: “Daiquiri flavor.”). After a long walk for a nice dinner (and a continuing enjoyment of Calgary-brewed Big Rock Traditional ale), we called it a night.

We set out across town for Black Velvet the next morning. After our misadventures with directions, I was prepared with a mapped-out route to the distillery. It was great, until we hit a roadblock and detour on the main road that dumped us onto the road out of town, in the wrong direction. We were cursed! Davin found a quick route back through a nature preserve, and we took side streets to Black Velvet.

They really rolled out the red carpet—all the distillers did—and opened every door, answered every question, even the sticky ones. For instance, why do they feed the heads of the distillation process back into the fermenters? The compounds in the heads induce the shutdown of certain metabolic paths in the yeast, which keeps them focused on alcohol production; they’re getting 14-15% ABV in fermentation. We then had a thorough tasting session that included the GNS used for blending, the rye and corn “flavoring whiskies,” Black Velvet, and Black Velvet Reserve (all cut to 20%).

Then we got to taste the Danfield’s 10 and 21 Year Old, at which Jan protested in mock fury: “No, they can’t taste them, and they can’t have them outside of Canada!” We’d already discovered that Canada does indeed keep “the good stuff,” and we were intrigued. The Danfield’s whiskies intensified that, full of fresh-sawn oak and cedar notes, vanilla, and sweet warm cereal, delicious without the cloying sweetness of some younger, export Canadians. We wanted them, and Jan wasn’t letting go!

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

Tins of alcohol at Fort Whoop-Up.

We had overstayed in our curiosity, and the rest of the day would be a rush. We grabbed a quick but delicious lunch at a local taphouse, then went to Fort Whoop-Up, an old “whisky fort” where sharp traders swapped diluted grain alcohol-based “whisky” to the natives for furs; it was another thing the Mounties were formed to monitor.

Then we zoomed across the prairie to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a site where native peoples without effective weapons had craftily stampeded buffalo over a cliff for food and materiel for millennia; the last such hunt took place only 120 years ago. Our guide, Edwin, was a Blackfoot, and even though we got there just before closing, took us up to the cliff site, showed us the herbs the hunters used to disguise their scent, and—really—beat a drum and sang a Blackfoot song for us. It was a fierce moment, and a great experience, with a tremendous view of the vast Alberta prairies.

The next day we would see a third Alberta distillery, then head east…to Windsor.