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

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

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



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?

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

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

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

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

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. 

On Retailers, Scores, and the Human Condition

Isn't the point of life to live it through one's own actions and experiences rather than trudging along blindly behind those that have gone before? Surely there is some merit in using the findings of others as sign posts to avoid the worst potential pitfalls, but a life without individualized experience is hardly a life worth living. With its etymological origins rooted in the notion of the "water of life", whisky is inexorably tied to the notion of experience; either as a vehicle for it, or as an experience in and of itself.

So why are people allowing others to limit their experiences in life and in whisky? 

The Black Grouse Alpha Edition

The Black Grouse Alpha Edition contains a higher proportion of aged malts from The Macallan and Highland Park to the aged grain whiskies than what's found in the standard Black Grouse. Male Tetrao tetrix, (Black Grouse) engage in a mating ritual known as a Lek to determine the alpha position or dominancy in the flock by presenting the best display for females. Festooned with a black feather, the bottle and packaging of the Alpha Edition serves as a nod to the company's interest in positioning this version of the Grouse as a premium offering in the product line and was originally launched exclusively for the travel retail market in 2011 before becoming more widely available in 2012.  We love the original Black Grouse, in fact it won our Battle of the Blends series, so we had no hesitation in sampling a new spin on an old favourite even if we were a tad disappointed to see it bottled at 40% ABV despite the higher malt content.

Bruichladdich Octomore /5_169

Bruichladdich-Octomore-5169-169-ppm-07-Liter.jpgAn imposing figure on any shelf, this offering from Bruichladdich is a veritable titan of peat.  In fact the Octomore product line currently stands as the world's heaviest peated, often north of 140 parts per million (ppm) phenols.  For a frame of reference, Ardbeg and Laphroaig typically contain about 54 and 40ppm phenols respectively.  Octomore is made in limited runs, and there is considerable batch variation, so the version number naming convention is for the sake of whisky enthusiasts as a quick reference to track the years aged and various ppm levels. There are rumours of an Octomore release in the pipeline for Summer 2014 that clocks in above an unthinkable 300 ppm.

The name pays homage to the Octomore distillery which was near to Bruichladdich and closed in the 19th century.  Bruichladdich has been kind enough to elaborate further here.  Aside from having a package design that seems based on the B2 Bomber, this particular whisky was aged 5 years in ex-bourbon casks, is offered at cask strength (59.5%) and its malt was measured at 169 ppm phenols.

Lot No. 40 is a Canadian Rye Whisky produced by Corby at the Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. in Windsor, Ontario. Unlike most widely available Canadian Ryes, Lot No. 40 is an all rye whisky is distilled from a mash of 90% rye grain and 10% malted rye in small batches in a single copper pot still instead of the traditional column still. While there's no age statement on the label, the whisky is rumoured to be around 7 or 8 years old. 

The story goes that the recipe for Lot No. 40 dates back to Joshua Booth, an 18th century miller, distiller, and politician from Millhaven, Ontario. Over a century later, a modern day relative and distiller at Hiram Walker, Michael D. Booth helped revive the recipe in the late 1990s before it was discontinued by Corby's. Thankfully, for those of us who missed it the last time around, Lot No. 40 was re-launched in October 2012. Clearly we can expect some variation between bottlings as the label distinctly references that this 43% ABV whisky is part of the "2012 Edition Release," suggesting that there is something unique about this run that may not appear in successive batches. Regardless, the present release has received high praise from enthusiasts, conoisseurs and writers alike, with Canadian Whisky authority Davin de Kergommeaux claiming that it's "become the Holy Grail of Canadian whisky, the quintessential Canadian rye."


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