Enjoying Whisky Events

Whisky events are rarely affordable, but they’re an excellent way to research your next purchase. It’s important to be choosy with the event, and select one that has a number of distilleries pouring. This week on The Whisky Topic, Jamie and discuss whisky event etiquette, and highlight our favourite drinks from Spirit of Toronto. You can subscribe to The Whisky Topic directly through iTunes, or check it out via the web

Whisky Labels. Truth. Fiction. Exaggeration.

Check out Spotlight Toronto for my article taking a deeper dive into whisky labels:

In writing The Whisky Cabinet, I developed a fascination with whisky labels. One would assume that alcohol, being such a tightly controlled drink, would have every word held to high legal standards. Instead, beyond the term whisky and the alcohol content, few words on the bottle are defined.

Perhaps the best bottle to demonstrate this is the George Dickel whisky bottle. It’s a beautiful label that takes you back to the late 1800s, but what do they all mean?

Read the full article on Spotlight Toronto.

Smoked Cocktails are Trending

For a peaty whisky drinker like me, smoked cocktails are a natural extension. I prefer my cocktails slightly bitter, without (much) syrup, and balanced for flavour. Smoked cocktails add that extra enjoyable dimension for my senses. This is especially true for sweeter drinks.

While cocktails made with craft bitters are hitting an all-time high all over Toronto, smoked cocktails have become a speciality over at King West's Portland Variety. A smoked old fashion, negroni, or manhattan take on new characteristics while remaining true to their flavour profile. 

There is a difference, however, between smoky cocktails and smoked cocktails. Smoky cocktails are often made with peated single malt scotch, or mezcals. In both instances, the grain or plant is smoked before fermentation. This characters carries through the distillation process, giving you a smoky spirit which adds hints of smokiness to the mixed drink.  Smoked cocktails are smoked during the making of the cocktail, and they can get far more intense in their smoky profile. I met with Jody, bar manager at Portland Variety, to get more insight on how the delicious drinks are made at Portland Variety. 

There are two main ways Jody smokes cocktails. The first involves using a hand-held smoker with a tube that takes smoke from lit wood chips, and pumps the smoke into a container. If you have the Tequila Bong at Portland Variety, you can see the smoked cocktail getting poured through a smoke-filled decanter. It makes for a great show!

While visually appealing, smoked cocktails are quite mild in smoke after the initial pour. You'll get hints of charred wood, but otherwise the drink is quite mild in smokiness and makes for a perfect introduction to smoky drinks. 

If you're really into smoked drinks (like I am), smoking the glass is an entirely new experience. In this case, Jody torches a block of wood until it burns red hot. At that point, the glass covers the wood and is allowed to sit. The cocktail is then poured into the glass immediately afterwards. 

In this instance, depending on the length of time the glass was smoked, the delicious smoky characteristic will last throughout the drink. This method works better with sweeter spirits such as rum because of the heaviness of the smoke. 

Jody has been matching different wood types for different types of drinks. Applewood is most often used with the smoked gun, and hickory for the block of wood. In addition to wood, smoked drinks can include herbs and teas for added complexity.  

Cocktails at Portland Variety are taking on a very competitive bar scene in the area. While they're not the first to smoke cocktails (Bar Chef offered a $45 smoked drink), Jody and Portland Variety are taking a lead in Toronto on a delicious trend that's just starting out.

Originally posted on Spotlight Toronto

Craft Whisky vs Wine Industry

Despite all the controversy around craft distilleries, and small batch whisky (both written about in my book before they even became controversies), the whisky industry remains relatively true to the craft. There are a few exceptions to this, certainly, but many whisky enthusiasts are outraged over just a few drops of caramel additive to adjust the colour of whisky. Meanwhile, the wine industry deals with things like this:

The reality is that modern day winemakers have an arsenal of tools at their disposal to make their wines. Some of these are relatively innocuous and are considered as much a part of making wine as crushing grapes. Cultured yeasts are used to do such things as boost aromatics and finish ferments of high alcohol wines. Sulfur Dioxide and sterile filtration stabilize the wine by removing any lingering bacteria. Tartaric acid is added to adjust over-ripe grapes, as is powdered tannin. Sugar is used to raise alcohol levels (chapitalization), or simply sweeten the wine.

But there are many others which are even more intrusive. Enzymes are added during fermentation to do everything from help clarify the wine to boosting aromatics. Water is used to dilute over concentrated juice, woodchips and oils are employed to flavour the wine. Gum arabic adds texture. Products like Mega Purple colour, flavour and alter the texture of the wine. I could go on and on. And this is not even going into more mechanical interventions such as reverse osmosis (used to concentrate wines), de-alcoholizing machines, and micro-oxydation (adding oxygen during fermentation to soften tannins).

With all the press around bad whisky practices, at least we’re not micro-oxidizing and chapitalizating our alcohol (whatever that means).

(Via Chris Nuttal-Smith)

Does Whisky Have Terroir "A Sense of Place"?

Excerpt from Mark Bylok’s upcoming book, The Whisky Cabinet, is revised as a stand-alone piece posted for feedback. 

Terroir’s definition is often simplified as “a sense of place.” Used when describing wine, the broader definition of terroir touches on the geography, geology and climate—the environmental factors that influence the way wine tastes. Less spoken of are the historical influences of terroir. While many traditional wine regions enjoy the benefits of a warm climate and rolling hills, many whisky regions are born out of harsh winters and the necessity of using and reusing local cheap grains and products. In whisky making, historical practises used out of necessity define each regional whisky. 

When it comes to wine, it’s easy to see how terroir romanticizes the notion of regional wines. Burgundy red wines are often made from Pinot Noir grapes. Burgundy Pinot Noir grown from the same genetic material is planted throughout the world, but red Burgundy remains the benchmark for Pinot lovers because it tastes unique compared to Pinots from other regions. The explanation for what makes that difference is the terroir of Burgundy. While wine and terroir are commonly brought up, it’s not the only agricultural products identified with a sense of place. Terroir is used to describe coffee, hops, tea, tomatoes and even processed products such as cheese. In fact, it makes for such an appealing story that it can often be skewed.

This is especially the case when we speak of the terroir of whisky making. Scotland, for example, has flavour profiles associated with each region. The most obvious examples are whiskies made on the island of Islay. There’s an expectation for them to be smoky. That is true of most Islay whiskies, but certainly not all. Many Islay distilleries choose to smoke their barley with peat (decaying vegetation) to keep with this regional character. 

To understand why Islay whisky is smoky, one must look at the history of Scotland. Islay is punished by a tough, windy climate that limits tree growth. Instead of wood, inhabitants of the island used peat as a fuel to cook their food. When it came to whisky making, the barley needed to be dried, and so out of necessity they turned to the cheap local fuel source peat to do it. This was true for whisky made through-out much of Scotland. 

The peat had the side-effect of smoking the barley, which gave the final product a distinctive smoky scent. Today’s Islay whisky makers use cheaper fuel sources to dry the barley, and they smoke the barley using peat and a smoker. It’s not a necessary step in the making of the whisky, but rather a decision made by the distilleries in order to produce a specific style of whisky. While much of Scotland’s whisky industry does not use peat or only lightly peated barley, most Islay distilleries have retained the traditional heavy peat since the second coming of Scotch in the 80s and 90s. 

Unlike grapes used by estate wineries, most distilleries source barley from various providers both local and distant. Many distilleries even have centralized the aging process, storing barrels off-site. There’s not a lot of terroir caused by close proximity to the distillery in Scotland, when it comes to the grains or aging of the barrels. Rarely are varietals of the grain mentioned, but distilleries do care about the grains used. Bruichladdich, specifically, comes to mind. The distillery is focused on local barley, local peat, local water and local bottling. For Bruichladdich, they spell it out clearly: “We believe terroir matters.”

Canadian whisky makers came from Ireland and Scotland. They were often traditional farmers with large plots of land. The by-product of malted grains is high on protein, and benefited their farm animals as an excellent protein-rich feed before the harsh Canadian winter. Many whisky makers also made wine, and small amounts of wine were often added to their whisky to create a sweeter, easier-to-drink product: historical terroir.

Manufacturing choices are not terroir, but when manufacturing choices were made hundreds of years ago out of necessity, and continue today out of tradition, to me that’s terroir. It is a sense of place. This is, perhaps, the best argument for peated whisky from Islay and Canadian whisky additives as being examples of a sense of place and history of the region, even if in today’s world, they are optional manufacturing choices.

There is evidence that the water used during production matters. Many Scottish distilleries talk about the way water influences their product. Initially Mike Miyamoto, master distiller for Suntory in Japan, had trouble making his whisky taste in the intended style of Scottish whisky. Japan models itself around the scotch industry, and so the end goal is to produce whisky with a similar taste profile. Mike Miyamoto was using the same varieties of grain, making and aging whisky just as in Scotland and yet when the product was ready, something was still off. After much testing, he realized it came down to the water. When water was imported from Scotland, the whisky was in the style of Scotch. This influenced Suntory to carefully choose the sources of water they use in their whisky making.

Perhaps a more obvious influence than water is the weather. Earlier I mentioned the way temperature and climate changes the chemical interactions within a barrel. Scotland has milder weather variation bringing about more predictable results, while Kentucky and Tennessee both have extremes in hot and cold weather. India’s climate is quite hot, and whisky made there will more age faster for this reason. Water and alcohol evaporate at different rates. That’s why alcohol content decreases over time; water evaporates more slowly than alcohol. Water evaporation is affected by climate—it evaporates far faster in dry climates than humid climates. This difference between evaporation rates provides its own regional challenges. It also demonstrates how terroir can be caused by climate.

In many ways, the law defining whisky is the biggest influencer on a whisky’s flavour profile compared to another whisky from a different region. Bourbon is aged in new oak because that’s what the law requires in the United States. This was initially done for economic reasons, to support coopers that were losing work in a world that had moved away from transporting everything in barrels. Single malt scotch is made of 100% barley because that’s the legal definition in Scotland, and traditionally it is made of previously used wood because trees were an expensive commodity (compared to the readily available trees in the United States), and reusing barrels was a common practice.

These legal definitions are based on the historical needs of the region. In the same way the Pinot Noir grape matured in the Burgundy climate became a benchmark, so too did the culture of whisky making in the different regions. When one looks at terroir from this historical point of view, there is absolutely terroir in whisky making. The regions are far larger, and often based on legally defined borders, but that sense of place is there.

As an example, American whisky is made with corn because that’s the predominant crop grown in the region. Single malt whisky is made of barley because while there are cheaper crops that grow in Scotland, whisky made with barley is more suitable to whisky making when barrels are reused. Canadians started adding rye to their whisky because it was cheap to grow in Canada, and it ended up adding a unique flavour profile that differentiated it from American whiskies at the time. Japan, while modelled after Scottish whisky, could only replicate a similar flavour by using similar bodies of water in Japan.

Wine drinkers often scoff at there being terroir in such a manufactured product as whisky. Today’s whisky industry is well controlled, sourced at a distance and legally defined. Rarely do historical influences make it into wine terroir discussions, but this is the mistake made in these discussions. In wine, history is less of a differentiating factor. In whisky, however, history has greatly influenced the drink we enjoy today.

Taste bourbon, single malt scotch, Canadian whisky, Irish whisky, and Japanese whisky. The borders are broader, but the sense of place is achieved. Whether or not you’re interested in specific regions of whisky, you can delve deeper into what makes those regions unique and enjoy them for their sense of place.


Pappy Van Winkle - Elusive, but with alternatives

The elusive nature of Pappy Van Winkle is part of its charm. Pappy Van Winkle is released in such limited quantities that a bottle listed at $300 will sell for three or four times that price. More importantly, it's almost impossible to find unless you know someone, or happen to be at the right place at the right time. The one time I enjoyed a full sampling of Pappy Van Winkle was entirely by chance, when the bar I happened to be at did a one-night-only flight tasting. 

For those that have had Pappy Van Winkle, they often mention that it is a rare smooth quality to the whisky not common in many bourbons. To be considered a bourbon, American whisky needs to have corn as its first ingredient (51% minimum). Corn gives the bourbon the thick, sweet notes. Most bourbons have rye as their second ingredient. Rye adds spicier tones to a bourbon that are predominant toward the middle and finish of a taste. Bourbons are often made up of around 10% rye, but rye-heavy bourbons (such as Bulleit) have up to 28% rye. Malted barley is the third ingredient, and it's used to aid fermentation. 

In place of the rye, Pappy Van Winkle's second ingredient is wheat. Wheat tends to mellow out the drink, bringing balance to the sugars of the bourbon, and cuts out much of the spice.  In terms of tasting, wheat smoothens out the middle of the palate just after the initial sip and before the finish. For those that find rye too harsh, wheat is an excellent alternative. 

Pappy Van Winkle is not the first wheated bourbon, but it shares a lineage with the first. W.L. Weller makes the claim of being the original wheated bourbon. The company started as a whisky reseller, and later W.L. Weller distilled their own alcohol. A salesman by the name of Julian "Pappy" Van Winkle worked for W.L. Weller, and eventually he purchased the company along with a co-worker in the early 1900s.

Julian Van Winkle released Old Rip Van Winkle wheated bourbon for the first time in the late 1910s. The whisky was distilled by W.L. Weller, and was considered a premium product from W.L. Weller's standard wheated bourbon. Unfortunately, prohibition put a quick stop to Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon when all whisky production halted in the United States. 

While W.L. Weller changed ownerships and rebuilt after prohibition, the Old Rip Van Winkle brand was largely dormant (with a few exceptions) until later in the century. W.L. Weller whisky continued to be distilled in the Stitzer-Weller distillery up until 2002. Buffalo Trace (its newest owner) moved all production to the Buffalo Trace Distillery, and closed down the Stitzer-Weller distillery at that time. All new releases of W.L. Weller whisky have since been made at Buffalo Trace Distillery. 

Before closing the old distillery, the last of the distilled alcohol from Stitzer-Weller distillery was purchased by the Van Winkle family (among others). This remaining supply of whisky goes into Pappy Van Winkle 23 (though likely not true for much longer), and it is the only original Pappy available from the the now-closed distillery. Otherwise, the rest of today's Pappy Van Winkle product is said to be distilled at Buffalo Trace distillery in agreement with the Van Winkle family. 

To put simply, Pappy Van Winkle was born of W.L. Weller's wheated bourbon. The mash bill (the ratio of corn, wheat, and malted barley) for Pappy Van Winkle is likely identical to that of W.L. Weller's 12 Years Old bourbon. The marketers will tell you that W.L. Weller gets rejected Pappy Van Winkle barrels. In all likelihood, Pappy Van Winkle barrels are aged at premium parts of the warehouse where conditions are warm enough to keep the whisky aging even through Kentucky's winters. This added maturation gives the whisky a smoother texture.  

These factors affect the quality of the drink. So does the alcohol content of the drink. Pappy Van Winkle 15, for example, is cask-strength whisky--it's not watered down. W.L. Weller's 12 Years Old is watered down to a respectable 45% ABV. W.L. Weller is sometimes referred to as "Poor Man's Pappy" because of its similarities. There are some that claim that mixing W.L. Weller 12 Years Old and W.L. Weller Special Reserve will give you a similar profile to Pappy Van Winkle 15. You can google for various recipes, though only W.L. Weller 12 is currently available at the LCBO. 

While Pappy Van Winkle is impossible to get, W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is available at the LCBO for $44.95. Aged for a minimum of 12 years, W.L. Weller is an excellent buy for the price (sidenote: this is even truer in the US, when you can find it for under $30 a bottle). It's made from the same distillery, using the same recipe (likely), and it is aged only 3 years less as compared to the Pappy Van Winkle 15. 

How does W.L. Weller 12 Years Old taste? On the nose there are familiar bourbon, vanilla and caramel notes, but there's a nice dusty hay sort of scent that comes through. If you dig a little too deep, you'll get leather-polish notes. On the palate, the drink is surprisingly complex. The wheat tempers the heavy sugars, providing for a nicely soft but interesting drink. It begins with light caramel, with the sugar mingling lightly on the tongue. The spicy notes are there, and they draw up through into the finish with a nice balance from the oaky sugars. For those that find bourbons too forward-facing on flavour, W.L. Weller will hit the spot. 

W. L. Weller isn't your only option for wheated bourbon. The original Maker's Mark and Maker's Mark 46 are both wheated bourbons. I'm especially a fan of the 46, which uses staves within the barrel to provide more oak surface area as the whisky ages. The results are excellent, especially if you like a deep oaky bourbon. The Heaven Hill distillery releases wheated bourbons under the Old Fitzgerald label (which actually has a history going back to W.L. Weller as well), but few of these make it into Ontario. 

It's hard to call Pappy Van Winkle over-rated. Rare luxury items are impossible to compare to their more available counterparts. From my brief tasting of Pappy Van Winkle, the 15 Years Old one wins out for me. Pappy Van Winkle 15 perks the palate by tempering the caramel and vanilla-forward flavours found commonly in most other bourbons. The longer-aged Pappy Van Winkle bottles take on too many oaky-vanilla notes, erasing any hint of wheat. They taste more like an old bourbon than a wheated bourbon, and while that's not a bad thing, it's a miss for me because the wheat is no longer being expressed.

I have no plans buy Pappy Van Winkle for my whisky cabinet. W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is a far more affordable and available. Maker's Mark 46 has the thicker mouth-feel that you'd find in Pappy. Both of these are relatively affordable at the LCBO. Comparing the two, Maker's Mark 46 wins out for me for its younger more chaotic nature, but W.L. Weller 12 Years Old is a welcomed addition to my cabinet as a smoother more mature wheated bourbon.