Ardbeg Releases “Ardbeg in Space” Report

Ardbeg Releases “Ardbeg in Space” Report

After 971 days and 15 orbits around the earth, the Ardbeg sample sent into space arrived back to earth in November 2014. Ardbeg’s Director of Distilling, Whisky Creation and Whisky Stocks, Dr. Bill Lumsden has recently released his report on how space travel, more specifically, micro-gravity, has affected the whisky.

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The Importance of Aging

This week on The Whisky Topic, Jamie and I talk about scotch. Undoubtably, the discussion leads to no-age statement whisky and the current state of whisky from Scotland.

When I wrote about this topic originally, I noted that it’s not just about age-statements. It’s about the quality of the barrels used. Just yesterday, Oliver Klimek wrote about how Laphroaig 10 has changed over the years. Stylistically speaking, I’ve always been a far bigger fan of the Laphroaig Quarter Cask and the 18 over the 10. The 10 has always been a touch too mild, and while that can be good, it’s not really the type of drink I want from Laphroaig.

But this brings us back to the point that age-statements are such a small part of the picture when it comes to good whisky. First-fill, second-fill, third-fill, fourth-fill. These aspects of barrel maturation matter far more. That’s not to say all good scotch is made in first-filled barrels. It’s not. It does, however, mean that quality of the barrels matters far more than how long the whisky has been sitting around in those barrels.

The problem with no-age statement whisky isn't the lack of age statement (though that is a part of it). It's an issue of trust and credibility. For the distilleries that are selling NAS whisky, it's an issue they're going to need to address. 

Ultimately, it’s about palate and flavour. Check-out the podcast for a deeper explanation. Meanwhile, I’m going to see if I can find myself a Laphroaig 18. It’s an incredible drink! 

The Acquired Taste of Whisky

Matt Gemmell is a developer, turned writer. I’m a big fan of Matt’s writing. It’s always a pleasure when our direct interests line-up, such as this piece on whisky:

Whisky, like any non-clear spirit, is an acquired taste - and I mean acquired in the same way that we acquire wealth, or possessions: it takes work. You have to actually decide that you’re going to drink it. That’s the first step.

You can support Matt’s writing by checking out his membership page. I’m looking forward to his first novel! 

NAS Whisky Replaces Age Statements With A Price-tag

With a broad range of pricing, no-age statement (NAS) single malt scotch whisky is here to stay. In contrast, scotch whisky marketers have been telling consumers the importance of well-matured whisky for decades. Many distilleries, however, can’t keep up with demand while aging their whisky ten or more years. The solution is to sell younger whisky without an age statement on the bottle. Often, this new ageless whisky sells for more than their standard offering.

To understand no-age statement whisky, we must first admit that age statements were an over-simplified representation of quality. Scotch whisky is matured in re-used barrels often from either the United States (American Oak) or Spain (European Oak). These different barrels add complexity to the whisky that scotch drinkers enjoy. The first time a barrel is used, it gives the most vanilla and spice flavours (think bourbon). The second time (known as first-fill in Scotland), some flavours might come from the previous spirit that soaked into the barrel. However, the majority of the flavours comes from the wood. The more often a barrel is used, the less flavour it’s likely to offer.

Understanding that, let’s consider how older whiskies are constructed. Whisky makers generally (not always) blend more first-fill re-used barrels in their older whisky. Not only is the Highland Park 18 aged for at-least 18 years, it also contains a higher ratio of first-fill European Oak giving the whisky a nuttier and sweeter characteristic compared to the 12. This added quality is not advertised on the bottle, but it is there.

It’s worth repeating: Not only are bottles with a higher age statement matured for longer, but they’re also often blended with a higher ratio of first and second-fill barrels responsible for additional flavour compared to their younger counterparts. The same is often true with NAS whisky. The more expensive the bottle, the higher likelihood of first-fill barrels were used. How would the consumer know, however?

Age-statements do provide a stated value. There’s an assumed investment by the distillery that if they matured barrels for 18 years, it’ll be the better barrels. With NAS whisky, consumers no longer have a cheat-sheet to help determine the value of the whisky. Instead of depending on the age-statement, NAS whisky has one obvious distinguishing factor: The Price.

Pricing luxury items is greatly dependent on the value of the brand. While whisky is definitely a luxury item, pricing whisky at higher valuations based on brand value doesn’t sit well with many whisky drinkers.

NAS whisky has been a controversy most whisky writers agree on. Scotch Blog ripped into The Macallan 1824 NAS whisky, preferring the older line with age statements. Curt, at All Things Whisky, makes the excellent point that distilleries, if they’re interested in educating the consumer, should note the ages of all the barrels that go into the final product. More bluntly, Oliver Klimek adds this straight-forward reasoning:

Yes, of course there are notable exceptions like the Aberlour A’bunadh or the Balvenie Tun 1401. But especially in Travel Retail (oh no, not again…) NAS bottlings often smack more of cost optimization and problems with dwindling stocks of properly aged whisky than they please the palate.

NAS whisky, on its own, is not a bad thing. Cost optimization, however, combined with NAS whisky is a challenge. Consumers were previously given some security that older whisky meant better whisky. Now they’re being told that price and branding are the only obvious factors that indicates the quality of the whisky.

That’s kind of ridiculous, isn’t it? I agree with Curt. If you’re going to sell NAS whisky, give us some idea of where that whisky comes from (Balvenie TUN 1509 does this quite well!). The lack of information on the bottle combined with high prices creates uncertainty. This uncertainty alienates consumers, and alienated consumers will take their money elsewhere. And as trendy as whisky is today, there’s always the next alcohol (already I’m seeing pro-vodka articles!).

High demand, low supply, and commercializes rarely increases the quality of the product. Scotch whisky is no exception.

If there is a bright-side to this, on a whole, there’s a lot of incredible whisky available out there. With all this competition and demand, distilleries are doing incredible things. It does, though, take more research on the consumer’s side when making purchases. Sure, prices are going up, but that’s going to happen with any high-demand product. We can’t help market pressures, but with well-researched purchases, you can continue to enjoy whisky whether or not there’s an age-statement on the bottle.

My book, The Whisky Cabinet, talks about this and many other topics on whisky. It also includes whisky recommendations that are often priced under $100, and easily available. It’s available for the holiayds in Canada, or for pre-order world-wide.

Straight American Bourbon Round-up

Although the recommendations of my Spotlight Toronto piece are more directed at Ontario readers (where one government corporations sells all the whisky), it's still a good piece to brush up on American whisky, and the subtle labeling differences that make all the difference with how the whisky is made:

Each country regulates the requirements for whisky, and these regulations have a big impact on the final product. In Scotland, single malt scotch is defined as being from one distillery, and made of 100% malted barley. The only additives allowed are water and a touch of caramel for colouring. In the United States, “Straight Bourbon” is even more heavily regulated than single malt scotch. Without “straight” on the label, however, the bourbon might contain additional flavouring.

The Best And Worst Of No-Age Statement Scotch

The Bruichladdich Octomore series and Ardbeg Supernova series hold a special place for me. As a peated whisky fan, I purchased the 2010 releases on my first trip to Scotland, and have been following their progression since. There are similarities between these whiskies. They’re both pushing the boundaries of extreme peat levels, and they’re both bottled without an age statement. They both also have a big cult following with consumers willing to pay high price for them.

In 2010, these whiskies were ahead of their time. High-priced no-age statement (NAS) was a rarity saved for special releases. Today, that’s no longer the case. Expensive NAS whiskies are becoming the norm. The debate around NAS whisky comes down to price. Are you getting the same quality for the same price compared to whisky with an age statement? Revisiting Bruichladdich and Ardbeg peated NAS whiskies in 2014, I’m seeing the best and the worst of this debate.

One would think that NAS whisky and high levels of peat are a natural compliment. The assumption can be made that lengthy barrel maturation isn’t necessary with a whisky that is overpowering with smokiness. In many ways, the opposite is true. Flavours that come from barrel maturation (vanilla, spice) are necessary for balance. Otherwise you’re just drinking peated white dog. And that’s not a thing (Though I’m sure someone will make it a thing).

No-age statement whisky is a challenge to pull-off. NAS whisky was an important part of Bruichladdich’s strategy when reopening in the early 2000s. Octomore generated revenue from 5 year matured whisky, moving this young whisky into a high-priced range. They pulled it off beautifully, and while I haven’t had each edition of Octomore, the ones I have had I enjoyed a great deal. Ardbeg Supernova, on the other hand, had two releases in 2009 and 2010 and then went dormant leaving whisky fans pining for its return. In subtle ways, Ardbeg Supernova 2010 was a better product compared to Octomore’s release at the time.

But what about today?

I did several blind tastings of Octomore 6.1 and Supernova 2014. If their flavours were comparable to sports cars (work with me on this one), the Ardbeg is a deep throttling Mustang that bursts in heavy off the line with volume and speed. It dies, however, quite quickly toward the finish in a heavy slow loud mess. The Octomore bursts in with high-revving gear changes that take it through into a beautiful long finish like a well balanced sports car that takes turns beautifully.

To be fair to the Supernova, its biggest fault is it pales next to Bruichladdich’s Octotmore 6.1. To also be fair to other whiskies, I enjoy the much cheaper (and also NAS) Laphroaig Quarter Cask far more. Supernova 2014 does get better through the start and middle when allowed to sit in the glass for over 10 minutes, but I can’t get over the flat unpleasant finish. Maybe I purchased a spoiled bottle, but the reviews for Supernova 2014 have not been overly positive.

These drinks represent today’s whisky world. They’re both expensive. They’re both bottled without an age statement. The Bruichladdich represents an excellent example of a no-age statement whisky that’s rewarding in flavour. Ardbeg Supernova 2014 is an example of the concern around scotch whisky. High-priced, high-demand, and in my opinion, lesser quality. Ardbeg Supernova 2014 is a commercial success, but will it hurt the Ardbeg brand?

Tasting Notes:

Ardbeg Supernova 2014

It’s fairly pale in colour. On the nose, the charred wood is unmistakable but not terribly intense considering the peat levels. Lots of cereal notes, and high on vanillas reminding me of cake. The longer your wait, the more happens, ranging toward the scent of distant darker fruits.

Lots of citrus notes to start on the palate, with heavy vanilla, but these flavours almost immediately are overrun by high levels of smoke. The smoke is more on the nose, and less on the tongue. The spice levels increase the longer you wait, but toward the extremely long finish there’s an unfortunate turn. There’s a start of this beautifully balanced finish, but just when you think the drink is done, the bitterness settles in. It’s like having an old dried steak that’s got no flavour, but all of the chewy unpleasant texture.

Overall, it seems like something went wrong.

Bruichladdich Octomore 6.1

Slightly darker colour compared to the Ardbeg. The nose is bright, peppery, with high levels of citrus that perk you right up. “Pay attention to me!” I’m hearing. There’s more depth here than just that, though, and the most interesting scent I get is that of recently sanded fresh oak. Dusty, (again) bright, attention grabbing. Oh yes, and it’s peaty like a bonfire in your face. Nicely done!

It’s hard to get the right adjective for the palate. I can tell you what it feels like. It feels like the best of a cold light beer on a cool fall day. Like the nose, it’s bright and welcoming, with lots of spice. The caramel notes are fresh—these aren’t the caramel candy that you found in your jacket from two years ago. Instead, this is artisan caramel just solidifying from its liquid form. The heat comes through. The smoke is present on the nose as you taste this drink, and settles beautifully on the toung wrapping it up. The finish is dry, smoky, and vibrant with spice.

A really excellent example of peated scotch that goes beyond the gimmick of peat-levels, and a stand-out in my whisky cabinet

The Rye Index, And Canadian Club's Entry To the Market

Like with IPAs and extreme bitter hops (which I love, by the way, so keep them coming), rye flavouring is a divide among whisky drinkers. Some love rye, some hate it, and some just would prefer life without it. The tide is changing, however, and it’s for the benefit of the whisky world.

Rye is not the Pinot Noir of the whisky world. Instead it’s quite the opposite with bold flavours that I consider an acquired taste. Rye is a key component in almost all bourbons. As I explored earlier when writing about Pappy Van Winkle, bourbons without rye are quite rare. Most of the peppery spice middle and part of the finish common to bourbons comes from rye. Now, imagine a drink that’s focus on just that spice.

Rye has a long history in North American whisky making, though the grain originally came from Europe. Canadians were the first in North America to add small amounts of distilled rye to their whisky. This distinct flavouring gave Canadian whisky the nickname of rye. Unlike most grains, rye can have two harvests a year and it grows in areas corn and wheat wouldn’t dare. Early settlers, as an example, used rye for the first few seasons to prepare the soil for other grains such as wheat and corn.

The point I’m getting at here is, rye isn’t necessarily a loved grain. However, trends are trends, and rye whisky has been swinging back in the last 5 years. Bulleit Rye, Knob Creek Rye, Wild Turkey Rye–Name a distillery or brand, and they’re likely producing a rye product that didn’t exist five years ago.

Canadian Club has entered the market with an extremely affordable ($25.45 for the time being, though $27.45 in the future) option. In Ontario, it’s priced around Canadian Club Classic pricing and several bucks cheaper compared to Wild Turkey 81 Rye. It’s much cheaper than American rye favourite Rittenhouse Rye or newcomer Bulleit Rye (not to be confused with long-time running Bulleit Bourbon).

When it comes to drinking rye, the big question is ‘how rye-ish’ do you want your rye? There really should be a rye index. Newcomer Canadian Club’s 100% Rye in not the biting rye of a Rittenhouse (let’s say 8 out of 10), or the developed rye of a Masterson’s (let’s say 7) or a sweeter enveloped rye of a Bulleit (6). It’s more of a 5. The flavour is there, but this is a soft drink bottled at 40% ABV that’s more forgiving on the unaccustomed taste buds. This is an approachable rye that I can drink straight.

This does introduce a new market for Canadian Club, especially in the area of mixed drinks. I’m not a big fan of mixing drinks with Canadian Club Classic, as an example. It has that distinct flavour that, for someone like me that doesn’t often mix drinks, can be hard to balance. However, that isn’t true for Canadian Club 100% Rye. Manhattans are my go-to cocktail at home (I’m perfecting my recipe), and Canadian Club 100% Rye makes for a very affordable alternative to the other ryes in my whisky cabinet.

Canadian Club is sourcing this rye through Alberta Distillery which is distilling for such rye brands as Alberta Premium, Masterson’s Rye, and Alberta Dark Horse. I’ve tasted these ryes side-by-side and each brings a unique expression to the market. One of my favourite ryes, Mastersons (At a $75 price point), gets more complex wood-based flavours, and the Dark Horse is sweeter and more muted in complexity. Canadian Club 100% Rye hits a good place in the market at an excellent price-point.

Rye is an essential part of any whisky cabinet. Much like comparing scotch to bourbon, rye has a different feel from the rest. It is an acquired taste that opens up your palate to an entirely new element in the whisky world. In fact, up to a few years ago, I had little love for rye. That has since changed greatly, and I quite welcome these new rye offerings.

Originally published on Spotlight Toronto

Flavoured Whisky For Frat Boys

But in a time when society is trying to move away from sexism and 1950s-era female stereotypes, Piehole is a huge fail. In its marketing, Diageo says Piehole is inspired by grandma. If that’s the case, why are there mid-20th Century strippers on the label? If we’re really trying to sell grandma’s recipes, how about a tasteful image of a grandma? Oh, yeah, that’s not going to appeal to Johnny Frat Boy.

I agree with Fred. Sure, you can argue that marketers are catering to an already existing market. Some see this as justification enough, but by using out-dated imagery on cheap flavoured whisky, they're just helping to maintain bad behaviour. Piehole Cherry Pie Whisky. Really? 

The Definition of Craft Whisky

Adam Quirk (co-founder of Cardinal Spirits) has an excellent post on craft distilleries:

The shelves at any given liquor store are full of bottles that appear to be very different products, made in different places by different companies.

But peek behind the curtain, and the majority of the “craft spirits” in those bottles are manufactured at a handful of huge distilleries.

Whisky makes an impression. Part of that is the bottle, marketing, and the story behind the drink. Sometimes those stories are made-up. In this way, whisky is no different than any other other industry--to succeed you need an excellent product with fantastic packaging and marketing.

Adam makes the point that by not having a definition of craft whisky, the consumers are going to loose trust over labels shared by big whisky manufacturers and true small craft distilleries. In this case, the burden is on the consumer to do additional research beyond what's written on the bottle.

Review: Amrut Portonova


I could barely finish the generous pour of Amrut Portonova I first poured. This isn't an everyday drink. The thick oaky texture was on par with Icewine. Instead, it's a drink for special occasions with flavour you won't quite experience anywhere else. 

Amrut Distillery is located in Bangalore, India. The distillery has a long history of distilling various spirits, but it wasn't until the last few decades that they started to focus on producing whisky. The first  whisky from the distillery to get international notice was the Amrut Fusion–one quarter peated barley from Scotland, the rest Indian barley–fully aged in Bangladore.  I covered it back in 2011.

The hot Indian weather changes the formula for whisky barrel maturation. Winters in Scotland and Kentucky slow down the chemical process during colder months. In India, maturation never slows, and this makes age statements irrelevant. While molecules are more excitable at higher temperatures, the humid weather means less water evaporates compared to alcohol. The results make for a different type of whisky.

While I'm simplifying the challenges of whisky making in warm climates, Amrut fully understands this complexity. Instead of producing whisky that tastes familiar to scotch drinkers, they make excellent whisky with their own character.

The distillery has the luxury of using different types of barrels over the maturation of the whisky. Amrut Portonova took a journey back and fourth between new oak barrels and barrels that were previously held in bourbon. This back-and-forth process was done to taste. The whisky was then transferred into 40 year old sherry pipes for 9 months before the whisky finally went back to the bourbon barrels again to balance out the flavours.

When tasting Amrut Portonova, one needs to acclimate with cautious nosing and small sips. The nose is surprisingly light considering the flavour, though there's plenty happening. You'll get forward dried fruits and distant burnt orange citrus, along with spice. There's a lot of new oak to this drink, such as with a well aged bourbon, and that'll become apparent on the nose. The palate accelerates in flavour. The taste starts sharp with caramel sweetness that's nearly entirely masked by the heat and spice of this drink. You'll get the expected vanilla and caramel, sure, but the peppery spice is out of this world. The sweetness evaporates off the tongue toward the middle of a taste. The finish is long, spicy, with some dried fruit.

Amrut Distillery managed to create something new with this one. This is a no-age statement whisky, and a really great example of how little age matters in the high-end whisky world.

Originally published on Spotlight Toronto

Single Malt Scotch and Chill Filtration

Whisky makers tend to obsess over the colour of their product. That’s why some whisky makers add a touch of caramel to whisky in hopes that the darker spirit will lead to more sales. With chill filtration, the goal is to produce a liquid that sparkles with colour. 

Chill filtration removes fatty acids, esters, and proteins that  clump together at cold temperatures. When clumped together, the molecules are visible in the form of a cloudy tinge. This cloudiness is especially apparent when the alcohol content is below 46% ABV. Add ice to an unfiltered bottle of scotch, and you’re likely to see it. The argument against chill filtration is simple—chill filtration removes molecules that contribute to the flavour of the whisky. Further, it prioritizes vanity over flavour. 

While this is not likely to settle the issue, a new study has concluded that chill filtration does not affect the taste of whisky. sent 12 whisky samples to 111 whisky experts in Germany. The samples were paired into 6 groups where one was chill filtered and the other was not. The pairs of whiskies were  otherwise identical. Not only were these whisky experts unable to pick-out which whisky was chill filtered, they ranked the paired whiskies the same for quality and flavour.

Chill filtration is more of a barometer for the character of the distillery, than the taste of the whisky. Distilleries that use chill filtration are meeting the visual expectations of a richly appearing whisky. Distilleries that do not filter their whisky tend to bottle at a higher alcohol content to an audience less likely to mix with ice. 

I will admit that I am a touch surprised chill filtration had no affect on the flavour as observed in this study. There are many important steps in the whisky making process, and this is just one. There are plenty of excellent distilleries that do and don’t chill filter. This is neither good nor bad. When it comes to this label, it tells me more about the distillery and their target audience than the flavour profile of the whisky. 

For more in-depth information on factors that affect the flavour of whisky, labels, and what they mean, order my book: The Whisky Cabinet. 

Three Ships Whisky

The problem with most affordable (cheap?) blended scotch comes from the utterly boring base flavour. While single malt scotch is made strictly from malted barley, blended scotch is mixed with distilled corn and possibly wheat. The result is a cheaper drink, with a dull vanilla flavour that's common among many brands in the $30 range.  

With the introduction of Three Ships at the LCBO, I may have found my "cheap" drink. It's not a scotch, but it is a South African distilled whisky that has been blended with whisky from an unmentioned distillery in Scotland. The blend of Scotch whisky with South African whisky is no gimmick. There's a light smokiness present here that no-doubt comes from Scotland.

The whisky has been aged at minimum of 5 years. While that's young for a Scottish whisky, in South Africa the climate is significantly warmer. This hastens the chemical process of whisky maturation compared to the cold climate of Scotland where aging is near dormant during the cold winters. Faster isn't always better. Different components (water, alcohol, etc..) evaporate at different rates and the wood is less challenged by warmer climate, but in the case of this blended whisky, the results are fantastic. 

I've put this drink up against many single malt and blended scotches of double the value in a blind taste test, and this whisky enters the category of 'Not quite as good as these others, but damn it's good!' At half the price for nearly as good of a product, this drink is an easy favourite. The praise from my blind tasting with friends is not unique. Three Ships has been earning many awards internationally including praise from Jim Murray of The Whisky Bible. 

Three Ships Whisky has a history going back to 1850 when Captain James Segwick landed in South Africa. By 1859 he started a company in his name that provided liquor and tobacco to the area. In 1886, he purchased the distillery in Wellington South Africa located about an hour outside of Cape Town. The distillery has since been upgraded, and currently there are over 70,000 casks of whisky maturing. 

As mentioned, Three Ships 5 Year Old Blended Whisky is a blend of Scotch and South African whiskies in combination of malted barley and grain whisky, which could be wheat or corn. While the distillery is vague on the details, we can assume that the slight peatiness comes from Scotland. It's nice to see this drink bottled at 43% ABV. For me, when a distillery bottles at a higher alcohol content, often they're demonstrating their faith in the strength of flavour of their product. While 40% ABV is the minimum for whisky, too many distilleries see this as the default alcohol content. 

Tasting notes:   

The nose starts with mildly charred wood for peat, with the brightness of a freshly peeled orange, and some raisin-like sweetness. If you wait long enough, you'll get shoe polish notes.  

On the palate, the flavour hits immediately with sweet notes of caramelized orange peel and a touch of vanilla. Just as you think you'll settle down for a normal blended whisky, nice levels of oaky spice ramp up. There's an almond fattiness to this drink, and while the complexity builds up, the charred wood smokiness settles down through the middle and fades nicely into the finish. The finish is a combination of peat, spice, and dark chocolate. If there's any complaint, it's the bitter notes that come out the longer you wait. 

By many standards, Three Ships whisky is not going to be as good as blends double the price, but it's quite possibly close enough that you won't care. The LCBO has a limited supply of Three Ships Whisky. I recommend stocking up.

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

Black Bull 12

Duncan Taylor is an award winning independent bottler in Scotch, and the maker of Black Bull Blended Scotch. I had a chance to visit them earlier in the year, not realizing at the time that their rather modestly size bottling facility was among the largest among Scottish independent bottlers.

Independent bottlers purchase barrels of whisky from distilleries. They then age these casks in their own facilities, and bottle the product based on when they feel it is ready. Bottlers like Duncan Taylor have a wide range of Scotch available. They have barrels from most of the large distilleries, and they also have barrels from distilleries that have long-since closed. Duncan Taylor specifically is said to be one of the largest private owners of whisky casks, including barrels of Scotch that are over forty years old.

They're also the maker of the award winning Black Bull 12 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky. While single malt Scotch must be 100% malt barley, blended Scotch is typically part malt barley, and part grain, offering a smoother, sweeter whisky. In the case of Black Bull 12, the blend is 50% malt and 50% grain. While sweet, it is also bottled at 50% alcohol.

Black Bull quickly became a favourite go-to in my whisky cabinet, so much so that its quantity has declined quickly since my purchase. I have a feeling this will have a regular appearance in my whisky cabinet (Sidenote: As with most products I seem to review, this one is also on the 'limited supply' list at the LCBO).

So how does it taste? The nose is a little sharp, but quite welcoming with milder notes of vanilla, cereal, and caramel. The latter scent reminded me of a light bourbon. On the palate the nose carries through with similar flavours, but with more depth. There's a nice spice to the drink, and you can taste the woodiness. The palate is heavier with caramel and dried fruits, and the finish is long and sweet with a touch of bitterness. As mentioned, it is bottled at 50% but I don't feel that is obvious when drinking it.


I have an admitted soft spot for Tullibardine. I toured their distillery last year and sampled a wide variety of their single malt offerings. It wasn’t a Scotch that I fully appreciated at first, but I purchased a 1993 vintage which had been aged in muscatel barrels. It was sweet, nicely balanced with oak, and quickly became my favourite easy-drinking Scotch.

Sadly it wasn’t available at the LCBO at first. That changed earlier this year when the LCBO brought in the regular aged 1993 vintage as a limited release. At $65 this is a fantastic purchase, and it’s already almost entirely sold out.

I was pleasantly surprised when I had my first sip of this vintage. You’ll get a hit of alcohol on the nose, but the taste is surprisingly mild by comparison. On the palate you’ll get more of the zesty flavour with a bitter finish, almost like that of a not-quite-ripe green grape (though not nearly as sweet). The after-taste is pleasant and mellow.

Tullibardine has an interesting history. The distillery was largely closed down in the 1990s and it moved quickly between a few buyers. These latest releases are from their old barrels (distilled by previous owners but left on-premise) that have been well aged. Their primary business is small-lot exports, and they’re not as well known within Scotland relative to other distilleries. Tullibardine Scotches offers a fantastic value, considering the evolved and multi-layer flavours.

If you’re ever near the distillery in Perthsire, Scotland, I recommend you take the tour. And if you happen to pick me up a bottle of the muscatel 1993, I’d be extremely appreciative!

Note: Originally published on Spotlight Toronto