Writers’ Tears Red Head - Familiar, but Different

Writers’ Tears Red Head - Familiar, but Different

The brand of Writers’ Tears is affectionally enjoyed by writers, partially because of the name, and also partially because the whisky is just gentle enough to sip without distracting the writer from the task-at-hand. When writing The Whisky Cabinet I went through a few bottles of Writers’ Tears. Back then there was only one type of whisky, but today the brand has expanded, and this is a look at their sherry barrel matured whisky, Red Head.

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Blanton's Original Single-Barrel Review

Blanton's Original Single-Barrel Review

When I first came across the bottle of Blanton's Original, I was in Las Vegas and early in my whisky writing career. The bartender took me through a long list of bourbons before ending the night with the last of his Blanton's. Many years later, I found myself at the lab of Buffalo Trace Distillery on a media tour with an wonderful insight to how each barrel of Blanton's is selected. 

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Virginia Black American Whiskey - For the Drake Fan in Your Life

Virginia Black American Whiskey - For the Drake Fan in Your Life

Virginia Black American Whiskey is the otherwise known as Drake's whisky. This whisky is bound to be polarizing: Drake is pop culture at its highest level, and traditional whisky drinkers are likely disregards his music as stuff "young people listen to." It's also a celebrity booze product, which nearly always gets negative reviews from critics.

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Toronto Distillery Company Challenges Canadian Whisky Traditions

Toronto Distillery Company Challenges Canadian Whisky Traditions

It would dramatic to say that there's a battle over the definition of Canadian whisky, but one small distillery is taking a stand against a Canadian regulation that has been in existence since 1887. Toronto Distillery Co, the city's first distillery since 1933, released a whisky aged under the minimum three years required for a spirit to be recognized as a whisky. 

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Lagavulin 8 Year Old Review - Diageo's Welcomed Volley At Whisky Reviewers

Lagavulin 8 Year Old Review - Diageo's Welcomed Volley At Whisky Reviewers

I made the mistake of doing a blind tasting pitting Lagavulin 8 against Lagavulin 16. These two drinks could not be any different, and while the older scotch is more immediately pleasing on the nose, Lagavulin 8 Year Old is more brilliant then I would have imagined. It might even be better then Lagavulin 16, depending on your mood. It's also a big corporate middle finger to whisky writers that complain about no-age statement whisky (more on that later).

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Colonel E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood Review - Raw Complex Oak Spice Doesn't Always Add Up

Colonel E.H. Taylor Seasoned Wood Review - Raw Complex Oak Spice Doesn't Always Add Up

Colonel E.H. Taylor is an excellent brand extension from Buffalo Trace Distillery. Named after the man who helped bring forward the Bottled-in-Bond Act, this brand is nicely done from both a historical perspective and in its execution of whisky making.

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Distillery Review - Forty Creek

Forty Creek Distillery has deep roots in winemaking, with a passion for whisky. Recently I had the pleasure of doing a private tour of the distillery that included a tasting of the full product line.

To mention the history of the distillery is really to speak about the owner and whisky maker, John K. Hall. A native of Windsor, Ontario with a passion for whisky, Hall grew-up dreaming of working for the local distillery, Hiram Walker. When it came time to start his career, things didn't work out as he envisioned. Instead he received an opportunity to pursue his other great passion, winemaking. Hall would spend 20 years as a winemaker, but as much as Hall loved winemaking, his first love was whisky. So when he heard Reider Distillery in Grimsby planned to close he cashed out his shares in Cartier (where he worked) and bought the distillery renaming it Kittling Ridge Estate Wines and Spirits.

As a winemaker with a lifetime of experience in Niagara, he continued to produce wine, but his true love was whisky and his childhood dream was something he couldn't deny. The whisky business, however, is hard to get into. Unlike wine, which can be ready in as little as a year, a good whisky requires six or more years of aging. Hall ran both businesses in parallel, but is currently going through what he describes as the bittersweet process of de-emphasizing and likely divesting his wine business. It's something you can literally see on the building as the signs and the company have been recently rechristened Forty Creek Distillery—indicating that going forward the focus is all on the whisky.

Forty Creek has a loyal following, and for good reason. Hall takes his knowledge as a winemaker and applies it to whisky. For example, in winemaking there are three noble international red grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Winemakers are able create some of the most revered wines in the world by making them separately and then carefully blending them together with an artistic touch. Hall sees a similar parallel with whisky having three noble grains: corn (used in bourbon), barley (used in Scotch), and rye (traditionally used in Canadian whisky).

All Forty Creek whiskies use all three grains. Hall distills each separately and treats them differently during the aging process, charring the barrels from light, medium to heavy depending on the grain. He believes this approach allows him to bring out the best in each grain, and he doesn't blend them until the last stage when the whisky is 'married' in a barrel for at least several months before being bottled. It's a very unique approach in the whisky world. American Bourbon distillers begin their whisky making process with a mix of grains (mostly corn with some wheat and/or rye and/or malted barley) called a mash bill and Scotch distillers use only malted barley. Hall explains that if he made his wine with that approach, fermenting a mix of different grape types altogether, the result would be muddied with the wine never reaching its full potential. Tasting through the line-up with him, you begin to understand why he goes through the extra effort of trying to coax the best out of each grain before blending.

I had the pleasure of doing a deconstruction of the whisky, tasting barrel samples of each of the three grains, and it proved his point. Each of the single grain whiskies are expressed uniquely in the final blend. The corn-based whisky offers a thicker, creamier, more interesting mouth-feel; the rye adds a fruitiness and a longer spicier finisher; and finally, the barley adds citrus and nutty notes.

I also did a full tasting of the Forty Creek whisky line-up, and while there's a range of flavour, the one consistent element is the finish. It is, in each case no matter the price-point, a long and fulfilling finish. This, for me, is what separates the greater whiskies from the regular ones. It's also something he works hard to achieve. “I don't think a whisky should bite you back,” he said, “I want something that softly captures your heart.”

Forty Creek whisky is widely available at the LCBO. The original, award-winning whisky, is the Forty Creek Barrel Select ($25.75), which takes the blended whisky and finishes it in sherry caskss for up to six months. New to the line is the Copper Pot Reserve ($28.45), which is blended heavier on the rye and makes for a flavour profile closer to a 'traditional' Canadian whisky.

When walking through the large barrel warehouse (it holds 20,000 barrels), I noticed a few that had "Hold for John" written across them. Hall noses barrels for two or more hours a day, and occasionally he finds a barrel that peaks his interest—those are marked “Hold for John”. These barrels are later used in his reserve line of limited edition products, and are typically released annually.

The Forty Creek Confederation Oak Reserve Whisky, is one of those and it's currently available at the LCBO ($69.96). This special edition Forty Creek is finished in barrels made from 150-year-old Canadian white oak trees sustainably harvested from a forest near the distillery. Hall explained that the trees have a denser wood grain due to the colder Canadian climate, offering a unique Canadian terroir.

Forty Creek has a fantastic story behind the whisky, and a whisky maker that's truly passionate and obsessed with making a fine product. It's something you can experience yourself taking one of the complimentary tours and tastings held at the distillery from June to September. “I didn't set out to make just another Canadian whisky,” Hall said. After spending an afternoon tasting with him I can confidently say he succeed.

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto

Glenfiddich Whisky Tasting at Allen's On Danforth

John Maxwell, owner of Allen's, was the ever meticulous host presiding over a rather special lunch in honour of Ian Miller – Glenfiddich Global Ambassador and a true gentleman of the industry. The talk of the day was of Scotch and Ontario wine, and considering what we were about to be served, I rarely have felt as spoiled as I did that day. 

Upon Miller's arrival, Maxwell produced an old bottle of Grant's Best Procurable Scotch, a bottle stored in his cellar for quite some time. Miller helped date the bottle (since none was printed) to sometime in the late 1930s. Imagine tasting a drink that had been produced in the old way of blended Scotch, undisturbed since the 30s. Ian Miller had the honours of opening the bottle (with the help of a rubber-band tied around the neck of it, as it was being quite stubborn) and having that first whiff of air from the 1930s. This was a truly unique treat, and comparable to my experience tasting Glenlivet's 70 Year Old. Visually, it was cloudy and dark coloured.

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Distillery Spotlight: The Macallan & Highland Park

Recently, a couple of us at Spotlight had the pleasure of participating in a one-on-one tasting with Marc Laverdiere, the Canadian Brand Ambassador for Highland Park, The Macallan and The Famous Grouse.

One piece of wisdom he shared with us early on is that, when tasting and choosing a Scotch, it’s not about finding the perfect Scotch, but rather finding the perfect Scotch for the moment. In an effort to bring us closer to the harmony between selection and moment, we had the pleasure of tasting several different types of Scotches. Below are some of the points that I found particularly interesting during this introspective.

Barrels, Oak, and Flavouring

Barley-based alcohol (which is what Scotch is made of) is, on its own, quite unpleasant to smell and taste. The Scotch that we’re used to drinking benefits from the added flavours that come from the barrels used in the aging process. This is one of the reasons why older Scotches take on more distinctive flavours: they absorb these flavours from the barrels. Saying that, virgin barrels would only provide an oaky touch to the Scotch, and thebarley-based whisky requires more flavour to give drinkers the richness they’re looking for.  

Macallan, for example, purchases their casks from sherry producers, who use the barrels first to ferment their sherry, and then sell the barrels to other distilleries to be used in the Scotch aging process. Ex-sherry barrels are more likely to produce a rich dried-fruit type flavours scotch, while bourbon barrels tend to produce a softer more floral scotch.  During Prohibition, many bourbon distilleries started selling their barrels to Scottish distilleries, and so the American Oak bourbon barrels became popular. As it stands, bourbon barrels are more likely to be used these days because sherry production is fairly low whereas bourbon is produced in great quantities in the US. While many distilleries in Scotland traditionally used sherry casks, the relatively low supply and high demand has made these casks quite expensive.

Like in wine, barrels are often reused when making Scotch. First-fill barrels produce the most flavour, and with each re-use, the flavouring decreases. Distilleries often mix the liquid from first-fill with second-fill barrels to produce balanced flavours. An older Scotch is not only aged longer in the barrels, but it is likely to be made with more first-fill barrels as compared to a younger Scotch.

The type of wood also enters into the equation. There are generally two types of oak used in the production of these barrels: American (which is tightly grained) and Spanish oak (which is more durable and robust). The latter is typically preferred, but these barrels are difficult to export and are pricy. Other distilleries will use other types of oak,  but Macallan and Highland Park stick to only these two. American oak is used in two varieties, the first being as ex-bourbon casks and the second in the production of sherry. When Macallan uses American oak ex-sherry casks it actually grows the trees in the US, ships them to Spain, makes the barrels, and naturally air-dries them so that the wood takes on the elements of the air. These barrels are then filled with sherry that’s aged 2 or 3 years. By the time those barrels are filled with Macallan scotch, they would have already gone through a 6 or 7 years maturity process. Only then does the scotch get aged.

When tasting Scotches, it is an enlightening experience to find out the details of the barrels used during the aging process.

The Macallan
The Macallan comes in two varieties. The traditional line only uses ex-sherry cask, and provides for the rich flavours that Macallan is known for. Showcasing this line, we were privileged with a pour of Macallan 18, a perfect dessert Scotch. Tasting notes include Christmas fruitcake with rich dried fruits, spice, and a long butterscotch finish. The texture is quite creamy and silky, and this is all due to the use of ex-sherry Spanish oak barrels. The 12 and 18 year old Macallan are made in the same style, although the 18  is made almost entirely from first-fill ex-sherry casks. As mentioned earlier, not only is the Scotch aged longer, but  first-fill casks also provides for deeper, richer flavours. The 18 is available for $249.95 at the LCBO, while the 12 year old is $89.95.

The second line of Macallan is the “Fine Oak” series, best described as a summer Scotch. While the Macallan Sherry Oak is perfect with dessert, the Macallan Fine Oak is best for warm summer days due to its lighter nature.

Here we were utterly spoiled, as Marc pulled out the Macallan Fine Oak 25 Year Old that retails for about $750 at the LCBO (The Macallan Fine Oak 10 year old is only $60). The 25 year old blends liquid aged in Spanish oak ex-sherry casks, American oak ex-sherry casks, and American oak ex-bourbon casks. The flavour profile is more green apples, with an acidic punch that works well in the heat, and on the nose is quite floral. If you ever have a chance to taste the 25 year old, go for it. There was silence in the room as we were enjoying this beautifully refreshing drink that was both gentle and complex.
The Macallan Fine Oak is an excellent choice for wine drinkers, or those who typically do not enjoy Scotch,  for its smooth flavour, and yet it is complex and will have appeal to the Scotch connoisseur.

Highland Park 
Highland Park grows their barley in the Orkney Islands, the most norther point of Scotland where the winds are so strong that trees do not grow on the island. There is plenty of heather, however, and giving Highland Park that more honey-sweetened flavouring. Highland Park still uses malting floors, a tradition few follow due to the expense of this manual process. Many believe that the Scotch from Highland Park is the most traditional expression of Scotch.

Their 18, which uses both Spanish and American oak, has won multiple ‘Best Scotch’ awards. All Highland Park scotches are peaty, with this strong flavour profile intermingling and balancing perfectly with the rich flavours imbued via the aging process, with remarkable honey sweetness and smoky flavours.
The Highland Park 15 is produced differently, more in the style of the Macallan Fine Oak line, yet still retaining the brand’s trademark peatiness.  There is more American oak used, giving it light summary flavours for warmer days.

We were quite fortunate to try the Highland Park 25 Year Old, considered the “True Orkney Experience.” It is bottled at 48.1% giving it more bite, but the purpose of the  additional alcohol is to bring out more of the flavours. At first it comes across as a younger Scotch, with warm honey sweetness and peatiness. The finish is gives off a deeper complexity with lingering flavours are that of cinnamon and nutty toffee. You’ll sip this one gently and appreciate every moment.  

With the 12 year old priced at $59.95 Featured here and the summer-style Highland Park 15 at $84.95, there are affordable choices. The 18 year old is at $139.95, and the 25 year old is not currently available at the LCBO, but it’s sure to be back.

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto