Compass Box Oak Cross

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Compass Box Whisky Company is no stranger to controversy within the sometimes staid world of Scotch whisky. Whiskymaker John Glaser has been not only challenging popular attitudes toward blended whisky but his innovative approaches to maturation has also ruffled some feathers. In 2005, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) threatened legal action to halt the production of Compass Box's wildly successful "Spice Tree" blend. The whisky had undergone a secondary partial maturation stage in casks containing additional, flat French oak inserts (also known as 'inner staves') which violated the SWAs interpretation of the laws regarding traditional practice in the production of spirits in European Union countries. In response, Compass Box altered the production process for subsequent releases of "Spice Tree" wherein the secondary maturation stage takes place in casks containing toasted French oak heads instead of using the new inner staves.

But opportunity can appear at the strangest times, even in the depths of defeat. With the green light from the SWA on the use of new French oak heads, the conditions were set for the development of the Oak Cross blend. Made up of Highland single malts from Alness, Brora and Carron, the blend is subject to two maturation processes. The first occurs in a mix of first-fill and re-fill American oak ex-bourbon casks before a portion is selected for additional maturation in the Oak Cross marrying casks that contain new French oak heads on American casks. Adding new heads to a cask doesn't sound like a big deal, this type of maturation happens all the time in the wine industry, but for whisky - especially blended whisky - this remains an oddity. To date, Compass Box remains the only company to release a blended Scotch whisky matured in this fashion.

Bottled at 43% ABV, free from colouring additives and non chillfiltered, Oak Cross is billed as a food-friendly whisky capable of performing double duty as an aperitif with a splash of chilled water in the winter and "full enough" to act as a digestif in summer months. 

The Macallan "M"

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The Macallan M- Box Open.jpeg"Conspicuous consumption or classic construction?" 

This is what I pondered hustling downtown on a typical Toronto November night. Frankly, I was a touch surprised, albeit pleasantly so, to be invited back to another event for The Macallan after what many have called a rather scathing indictment of The 1824 Series. While I stand resolutely by those statements, I must confess that the concept of the evening makes sense, and is something that I genuinely feel should become more common in our local and national experiences.

Rather than stepping into a bar, cellar, or restaurant surrounded by the typical trappings of whisky tastings such as old wood, leather seats, and dim lighting, Ryan and I stepped into Harry Rosen's store in First Canadian Place in the heart of Toronto's financial district. Known for being Canada's carrier of top-end men's attire, this co-branding exercise was designed to launch The Macallan Lounge experience.

The core concept: enjoy a fine dram while shopping for fine clothing, thus simultaneously achieving sartorial and sensory advancement. Aside from the obvious gender-specific intent of the marketing, I must say that the idea of imbibing while shopping is one that appeals to me on a personal level, as well as making great business sense. After all, what better way to add value to the act of shopping while also loosening a man's financial restraint mechanisms to aid in the sale of a Canali suit?  

For those of you looking to enjoy The Macallan Lounge and its "Scotch and Shop" experience, it runs daily at the First Canadian Place location until November 21, 2014 each weekday from 3pm to 6:30pm. For those looking to find out what it's like to indulge the pinnacle of the 1824 Series, read on.

Booker's Kentucky Straight Bourbon

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In 1987, legendary Jim Beam (now Beam Suntory) Master Distiller Booker Noe introduced his own signature bourbon to the Small Batch Collection. His Kentucky Straight Bourbon was one of the first widely available straight-from-the barrel, uncut, unfiltered and unadulterated bourbons to hit the shelves. Unlike many other cask strength bourbons, Booker's bourbon is subject to slight batch variation and can therefore appear between 59% and 67% ABV and may be aged between 6-8 years. It is this commitment to "authenticity" of product in an era of flavoured whiskies and bland, watered-down, non-age-stated whiskies that has kept connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike enamoured with now deceased Master Distiller's namesake bourbon for over twenty years. 

We've loved every bottle of Booker's that's ended up in our collective glasses and so a review of this whisky is long overdue. The bottle in this review is from Batch No. C06-K-8, was aged 6 years and was bottled at 65.2% ABV. 

Ardbeg Supernova 2014

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Ardbeg Supernova.JPGTo say that there is a buzz surrounding this whisky would be to call Toronto's ex-mayor Rob Ford moderately unfit to lead. Rarely has there been such fever-pitch clamour for a newly released whisky, so when we were offered the opportunity to wade into the fray to get our noses on it with a media sample, how could we say no? 

For those that have yet to get swept up in the peat and PR tornado, Supernova was originally released in 2009 with an eye to being the most heavily peated whisky of all time; a title quickly usurped by Bruichladdich's Octomore series. It all seemed to be an experiment in chest puffing pavonine posturing, except that the whisky was quite good from any point of view. This naturally led to its own sub-cult following, which promulgated enough allegiance to warrant a second release the following year. 

However, from then on the cries for more fell on deaf ears, until now.

Recap: Whisky Live 2014 Toronto

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On Saturday, October 18, 2014 I attended Whisky Live Toronto at the Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel. The all-inclusive event featured dozens of booths pouring several whiskies each, a delicious buffet, live entertainment and masterclass sessions available for purchase. The well-attended event seemed mostly geared to those who are new to the world of whisky but there were a few gems available on-site for long-time whisky enthusiasts.

Compass Box Asyla

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Compass Box Whisky Company's founder and chief whiskymaker John Glaser is on a mission to change whisky enthusiasts' perception of blended scotch whiskies. The American ex-pat, based in London, has been making "small batch, artisinal," blended whisky since 2000 and has evolved a core product range of 5 different blends. 

Asyla is the lightest tasting offering in the range and is a 50/50 blend of malt and grain whiskies married up to 24 months in first-fill American oak casks reportedly from bourbon-maker Buffalo Trace. The natural coloured and non-chillfiltered blend is made up of 40% malt whisky from Diageo's Teaninich distillery,10% from Glen Elgin with the remainder of the recipe coming from the Fife mega-distillery, Cameronbridge.

Marketed as "the ideal Sunday afternoon-in-the-garden whisky," the aperitif styled Asyla is bottled at 40% ABV and is Mr. Glaser's proverbial "desert island dram." Playing on the plural for "asylum," the whiskymaker presents Asyla to the drinker with series questions to ponder while enjoying his dram: "Is whisky an asylum? A refuge from the vagaries of the day? A sanctuary? Can it transport us from one to the other?" 

The act of enjoying whisky as a gateway to relaxation and contemplation is a familiar trope among enthusiasts and the marketing departments of distilleries alike; yet I think Mr. Glaser, by way of his label, is providing us with some instruction on how to approach Asyla. A mindset hewing to a sort of reflection or "engaged" relaxation rather than a passive drinking experience is necessary to contemplate Asyla. There's no doubt that whisky can offer refuge, or mental escape but the shuttle to sanctuary and tranquility is not one fueled by alcohol alone. 

W. L. Weller 12 year old Bourbon

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Since 1849 W.L. Weller's "original" wheated bourbon has been prized by critics and conoisseurs alike. Now produced by Buffalo Trace Distillery, the new owners have remained faithful to the Weller recipe and the classic slogan, "Honest Whiskey at an Honest Price." Highly-awarded, the 12 year old expression has often been thought-of as "poor man's Pappy" among bourbon enthusiasts as it offers a similar hit of quality wheater at a significant savings thanks to the similar mash bill both product lines share. Bottled at 45% A.B.V., it's back on LCBO shelves for a limited time. 

Nose: Beautiful aromas reminiscent of baked cherries and vanilla buttercream icing. A touch of walnut oil provides added depth to the soft and inviting nose of this whiskey.  

Palate: Great body with a smooth, almost buttery-caramel richness. Flashes of fruit; a twist of orange and then maraschino cherries rise from nutty toffee pudding flavours. A gentle spiciness crackles throughout the palate but never overtakes the dessert-like qualities of the whiskey.

Royal Challenge

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Perusing the shelves at the LCBO my eye was caught by a new bottle tucked in among the wall of blended Scotch whiskies bearing the name "Royal Challenge." My curiosity piqued, I read the label, "Royal Challenge Finest Premium Whisky. A blend of rare Scotch, select grain and matured Indian malts." Turning the bottle over confirmed that it was actually made in India and that the 42.8% ABV spirit contained "permitted natural colour." Intrigued, I purchased the bottle to share with the club. After all, "what's life without a Royal Challenge!" 

Visiting the website on the label of the importer, AA Impex Ltd, affixed to the side of the bottle; I would later learn that Royal Challenge is a very popular blended whisky enjoyed primarily in India and in a few ex-pat communities around the globe. In fact, as soon as I opened the bottle and saw the speed pour cap, I got the picture: this is India's go-to bar rail whisky.

Produced by United Spirits Ltd. RC (as it's colloquially known) lead the Indian "premium whisky" segment, by volume of sales, throughout India, during the 1980s and 90s; it's domestic popularity rivaled by a Seagram's / Pernod Ricard whisky, "Blender's Pride." There's no question that RC continues to maintain a large market share in India and part of it's fame is due in no small part to the brand's relationship as a title sponsor of the Royal Challengers cricket team.

Indian whisky, while loved by the domestic populace, has drawn criticism from the global whisky connoisseur community as the blended product is commonly based on neutral spirits that are distilled from fermented molasses with only a small portion (around 12% of this blend is estimated to be malt) consisting of traditional malt whiskey. The criticism being, that anywhere outside of India, their "whisky" would be considered rum with malt flavouring.

Already feeling a little suspicious about the quality of the blend from the speed pour cap I decided to investigate what does "permitted natural colour" mean? A few minutes of searching led me to a product description of RC for the domestic market asserting that "varying proportions of selected Indian Malt Spirit, Clean Extra Neutral Alcohol, Plain Caramel, FDA and State Exercise approved flavours and essences are blended under close supervision and strict quality control so as to get overall roundness and typical organoleptic characteristics to the blend." I had no luck finding out what those "approved flavours and essences" might include but I figured it must be safe to drink, right?

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Bernheim Original Kentucky Straight Wheat Whiskey is produced at it's namesake distillery in Louisville, Kentucky and should never be called a bourbon.

Legally, bourbon must have a mashbill that contains 51% corn. Since Bernheim's Wheat Whiskey contains a higher amount of wheat than corn, it must simply be called American Whiskey. The "straight whiskey" definition means that the spirit in the bottle was distilled at less than 80% ABV, aged a minimum of two years in new, charred oak barrels, and contains no coloring, flavoring or blending agents.

Bottled at 45% ABV, this small batch whiskey is the creation of Parker and Craig Beam who were inspired to use soft winter wheat as the main grain in the mashbill when trying to use up leftovers from a newly completed run of wheated bourbon for the Old Fitzgerald brand. The result, as the bottle necktie declares, "is a sweet yet smooth whiskey." According to the website, because Bernheim's whiskey is made primarily with wheat, it has a more mellow taste profile than typically found in that of a traditional bourbon, "wheaters" included. This smoothness, they say, makes it the perfect base spirit in a "high quality" cocktail and the site features no less than 12 recipes to showcase the whiskey's mixability and versatility.

As this small batch whiskey appears to be only available in limited runs at the LCBO and I'm a fan of wheat-forward bourbons, I decided to take a gamble and pick up a bottle of this American wheat whiskey. 

Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old

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Although the term "pure malt" was discarded from the Scotch whisky lexicon in 2009 by the SWA in favour of the term "blended malt whisky," the meaning is the same: a blend of single malts from more than one distillery.  The age statement refers not to the age of the blend, rather it tells you the age of the youngest whisky in the blend; in this case, 12 years. The Taketsuru Pure Malt 12 year old is a blend of single malt whiskies from Nikka's Yoichi and Miyagikyo distilleries. 

Named after the company's founder and Master Distiller, Masataka Taketsuru, the 12 year old Taketsuru bottling is a perfect introduction to Nikka's two malt whisky distilleries in a single bottle. Yoichi, with its coal-fired pot stills, produces spirit known for its rich, smokey and peaty flavours. Miyagikyo, with its taller stills, by contrast produces spirit that's lighter, fruitier, and softer than Yoichi. Blended to showcase the features of both spirits and bottled at 40% ABV, this highly awarded pure malt is guaranteed to please both newcomers to Japanese single malt whisky and conoisseurs alike. 
RonBurgundy-front.jpegReleased as part of the massive promotional campaign behind the sequel to Will Ferrell's movie "Anchorman", some minds inside in the marketing machine felt it would be a good idea to commission Old St. Andrew's Distillery to assemble a blended Scotch whisky to coincide with the film release. Purporting to be a blend of 60% malt and 40% grain whiskies from Speyside, The Highlands, and Islay it is bottled at 40% ABV. 

Acquired as part of a sample trade, I have decided to offer my thoughts on this whisky so that others may not suffer the fate of labouring through it the way I have. Altogether disappointing, the most interesting thing about this whisky is that it does so in such a surprising number of ways.

Gordon and MacPhail Tasting at The Dock Ellis

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Back in February, when it was obviously too cold to upload pictures to the internet, ScotchBlog hosted a very special tasting led by Derek Hancock and Richard Urquhart of Gordon and MacPhail.  Attendees were treated to Benromach and excellent G&M selections available at the LCBO as well as a cask strength Caol Ila and a spectacular Glen Grant 1966 vintage.  The Dock Ellis chef, Trish Gill applied her sublime talent to the pairings for each glass.  

Please enjoy this photo gallery of the evening. 




Collingwood 21 Year Old Canadian Whisky

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Collingwood Canadian Whisky 21 Year Old
Inspired by the success of the original Collingwood Canadian Whisky, produced by the Canadian Mist distillery in Collingwood, Ontario, This new 21 Year Old expression is distilled from 100% malted rye. Matured in oak, and finished in a wooden vat built with toasted maplewood staves, this whisky is much richer and darker than its younger sibling.

Collingwood 21 Year old is the result of an experiment by an intrepid master distiller. Back in 1991, the Canadian Mist distillery was producing no 100% rye whiskies, yet master distiller Harold Ferguson decided to squirrel away 50 barrels of pure rye spirit. This experiment had no plan, no decided outcome, and yet 21 years later it has produced a whisky of remarkable richness and complexity.



Going Beyond the Bottle at Glenfiddich

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In the galaxy of Scotch whisky distilleries there are many stars, but few burn as brightly as Glenfiddich. Nestled in a valley bordering the small village of Dufftown, its 1,200 acre estate sprawls out over rolling hills under endless skies in such a way that at times it feels like there is no need to venture anywhere else ever again. Arresting in its beauty, nearly flawless in its construction, and operating with an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive; it leaves one with little wonder as to why its whisky has gone on to win more awards than any other. 

From the moment of arrival it becomes clear that this is one slick operation. Pulling into a proper car park with well manicured grounds and a glorious visitor centre is not something one is likely to encounter at too many of Scotland's distilleries, then again there really isn't much that is like this distillery anywhere. The cafe in the visitor centre is offers some of the best food that we had on our trip, and is likely only rivaled by Ardbeg's cafe for honours of the best distillery to grab a bite at. But what really matters is what goes on in the buildings surrounding the public entry point. Those buildings have been producing some of the finest malt whisky to ever come out of Scotland's vaunted stills, and for over 125 years have done so with such consistency that most whisky fans take it for granted, some even considering it boring.  

But consistency in execution is no accident. It is what separates superstars from all the other players in the league, and it was with this thought in mind that we set out to discover just what sets this distillery apart from the rest.

Glenmorangie Ealanta

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Glenmorangie Ealanta 1.JPGMatured in heavily charred virgin American oak casks for 19 years, this expression essentially answers a "what if" scenario whereby a Scotch distiller has subjected their raw spirit to a bourbon-style maturation rather than using an ex-bourbon cask. The key difference being that instead of ageing in the warmer climate of Kentucky in a racked warehouse, this whisky spent its slumber in the cool environs of the Northern Scottish Highlands allowing for slower activity inside the casks thus preventing the wood from overpowering the spirit after so many years.

Since 2009 Glenmorangie has been issuing an annual release under their Private Edition banner, and the Ealanta is 2013's edition. Finally arriving at the LCBO last week, and available through its Vintages Online system for the time being, there has been considerable anticipation from many awaiting its release. 

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