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Stalk & Barrel Single Malt Canadian Whisky

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A few weeks back I happened upon a massively marked down bottle of Stalk & Barrel Canadian single malt whisky at an LCBO in Ajax. While I can recall enjoying some of the Stillwaters Distillery's whiskies in the past, I could never really go in on the price point. It always seemed to be too high for such young spirit given what else is available. 

But this time I had a sign; I had to try it! 

The Concord, Ontario micro-distillery has taken a real hands-on approach to their whisky-making and do everything: mashing, fermenting, distillation, and warehousing on site. The single malt is made from 100% Canadian two-row malted barley and is aged in ex-bourbon casks for at least 3 years. Each barrel is bottled individually as a single cask offering in individually numbered bottles, offered at either cask strength or at 46% ABV. 

My bottle was number 128 from cask 109 at 46% ABV, it's natural coloured and non chill-filtered.

Crown Royal Bourbon Mash

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Crown Royal's Bourbon Mash made a bit of a splash when it was first released a few weeks back owing to the fact that the Canadian whisky giant was perceived to have committed a faux pas by using the word "bourbon" in the product name as a descriptor of the whisky's mash type. American and Canadian whisky bloggers alike leapt into the fray and, within days, parent company Diageo announced a compromise of sorts: in the USA it will be re-branded as "Blender's Mash" and it'll remain Bourbon Mash here in Canada.  

Controversy aside, this first release from Crown Royal's new Blender's Series was selected to showcase one of the  component whiskies that make up the iconic Canadian whisky brand. Don't let it's affable, easy-going style fool you into thinking it's a "simple" whisky; making Crown Royal is a surprisingly complex bit of blending!  The company's team of Master Blenders select from 50 or so whiskies of differing ages, barrel conditioning, and grain types, to create each batch of Crown Royal. 

These whiskies are divided into two main "streams": base whiskies and flavouring whiskies. The base stream is derived entirely from all-corn spirits made either by continuous distillation or by batch process in a column still after a longer fermentation time and are aged for various time periods in a variety of barrels thereby creating a range of options from which the blenders can draw.

The flavouring stream contains a high rye whisky (the same found in Northern Harvest Rye) and two other whiskies made using a mash bill style typically employed by American producers whereby different grain types are combined, mashed, fermented, and distilled together. Like the base stream, the flavouring whiskies are also aged in varying barrel types for different durations.

As you've probably guessed by now, the Bourbon Mash is sourced from one of the flavouring whisky streams. Made from a mash bill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye and 4.5% malted barley, it's distilled by way of a short column still then aged in a combination of new charred American oak and ex-bourbon barrels for at least 3 years. The whisky was then blended with a number of other vintages from this stream and bottled at 40% ABV.

So, while it may not be a bourbon per se, it's certainly made in that style.

J.P. Wiser's Triple Barrel Rye

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Recently awarded "Best Canadian Rye" at the 2017 World Whiskies Awards and a Silver medal at the 2017 Canadian Whisky AwardsJ.P. Wiser's Triple Barrel Rye is the creation of Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore. Responding to the demand for more "rye-forward" expressions of Canadian whisky, Dr. Livermore formulated a blend of 5 whiskies aged in 3 different barrel types for maximum flavour and smoothness.

Using a combination of virgin American White Oak to bring out vanilla and caramel flavours, first-fill Bourbon casks to emphasize dried fruit notes and Canadian whisky barrels to further express the grain characteristics, Triple Barrel Rye is the first of its kind in the Canadian whisky landscape.

Nose: Intense aromas of rosewater, green apples, rye spice and dusty grain.

Palate: Smooth and buttery, the medium-bodied dram shows toffee sweetness topped with melon, green apple and dried tropical fruit flavours spiked with cloves, cinnamon and cardamon pods. 

Finish: Lingering with warming spice, vanilla tones, dried fruit and nuts. 

Overall: Bottled at a respectable 43.4% ABV, Triple Barrel is an easy-drinking dram at a very affordable price. Showing big rye flavours with loads of zesty spice alongside green apples and rosewater all wrapped in mouth-coating vanilla and toffee notes; this whisky is delicious on its own or in a cocktail. Regularly $31.95 in the LCBO, Triple Barrel is on sale for $29.95 until the end of the month.

Jameson's Caskmates owes its origins to a chance meeting between the master brewer of the Franciscan Well craft brewery and the master distiller of Jameson's at a pub in Cork, Ireland. The brewer was looking for some casks to condition his latest stout and thought some ex-Jameson barrels would be interesting to test as a finish. By all accounts, the resulting stout was delicious and it led the distiller from Jameson's to ponder, "What might happen if we finished some of our whiskey in these stout casks?" 


Using the standard, triple distilled, Jameson's blended Irish whiskey, the newly "stouted" whiskey casks from the Franciscan Well were filled and left to finish for nearly 4 months. The result, as they say, was a whiskey "greater than the sum of its casks." The colour looked the same but a subtle stout influence appeared in the whiskey's flavour profile with new aromas of coffee, chocolate and butterscotch. 


From that experiment the idea for Caskmates took off and the folks at Jameson's recognized that they had a fantastic opportunity ahead of them. Not only could they innovate on their product line with a new beer cask finish but they would also reach out to select brewers around the globe to build new partnerships under the framework of the Caskmates program. Jameson's would provide their ex-whisky casks to brewers, who would in turn use them to condition their ales for a few months and then the brewers would ship the casks back to Jameson's to be used to when finishing the next version of Caskmates. 


Within months, Jameson's established a series of partnerships with craft brewers that would see the Irish whiskey giant loan out barrels on an unprecedented scale. For Jameson's, the appeal was two-fold: the possibility of developing more prosperous relationships in existing mature markets and the opportunity to experiment with dozens of styles of beer soaked barrels for future, limited runs of Caskmates unique to the brewer's country or region of origin. A partnership with a brewer in Kenya, for instance, would yield a beer conditioned in Jameson's casks for the local market and, later, a special version of Jameson Caskmates finished in those Kenyan ale-filled would be made available exclusively for Kenya. 


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So when Jameson's reached out to Steve Beauchesne, co-founder and CEO of Beau's All Natural Brewing Company, about participating in the Caskmates program he was understandably, "over the moon!" The chance to partner with a leader in the spirits business on a cask exchange program is the stuff of fantasy for most Canadian brewers; after all, Ireland is a long ways off and "what are the odds they'd look here for a partner?" mused Steve at a meeting in downtown Toronto earlier this year, "but I think they took notice of our use of organic ingredients and our experimental, collaborative approach to brewing and I think that spoke to them." 


To most Canadians, the eastern Ontario brewery is probably best known for their flagship "Lug Tread" lagered ale but the award-winning, innovative, craft brewery has a varied product line with upwards of 50 different beers made each year. But before fully committing the sole Canadian brewery to the partnership, Mr. Beauchesne and team "traveled to Cork and met with Jameson's fifth generation cooper Ger Buckley to learn more about their process.


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It was to be a meeting of the minds as Ger's experience and passion for his craft confirmed for Steve that the venture promised to be a fruitful partnership for both parties. "There's a bit of urgency to the process when you're working with beer casks," chuckled Ger at our meeting, "as the wood can go a bit funky if it's exposed to air for too long." Since the casks are broken down for transport, it's up to Ger to put them back together again for use at Jameson's, "there's no room for error when repairing and reconstructing a barrel...it has to be water tight as the cost margins are so narrow!" said Ger in between the bangs of his hammer as he assembled a barrel for my education.

For the Caskmates partnership, Steve had just the beer: a seasonal Irish Red ale named  "Strong Patrick"they've produced every year since 2012 in honour of St. Patrick's Day. All organic and brewed to 6.7% ABV from roasted malt, Pilgrim hops and Irish Red yeast, about a sixth of the total volume of beer was finished in Jameson casks for about 4 months before being re-introduced to the rest of the beer prior to bottling. According to Steve the result was "really the best [version] we've ever made," with its bold take on the style, brewed stronger than usual, and with a creamy texture, with flavours of toasted caramel, coffee notes and a mild bitterness at 24 IBU.

Redbreast 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey

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Redbreast-12YO-SinglePotStill.jpgConsidered by many to be the quintessential expression of the single Irish pot still style, Midleton Distillery's Redbreast 12 year old is named after the European robin; one of the few songbirds who overwinter in Ireland. 

For those of you unfamiliar with the style, it's similar to single malt with a key distinction: the mash must be made from a mixture of malted and un-malted barley distilled in a pot still and, interestingly, the mash may also contain up to 5% of other cereal grains.Traditionally, the whiskey is distilled three times but there is no legal requirement to do so. Like the Scottish single malt definition, there is a geographic requirement that the whiskey must be aged for a minimum of 3 years in a wooden cask, in Ireland, and the resulting bottling must contain only distillate from the same distillery. The story goes that Irish whiskey makers began the practice of mixing malted and un-malted grains in the early 1800s as a reaction against the "English Malt Tax" which imposed a levy on producers based on the amount of malted barley they used. Not only did Irish whisky become cheaper to make but the addition of un-malted barley added some key differences to the flavour profile of the whiskey; namely a creamy texture and a characteristic spiciness.

Redbreast is made using a mixed mash bill of locally sourced malted and un-malted barley that's triple distilled and matured in ex-Sherry casks before being bottled at 40% ABV. 

Ninety 20 Year Old Canadian Rye

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Ninety 20 Year Old Canadian Rye is the "ultra premium" offering from Highwood Distillers' "Ninety" whisky product line. While Highwood Distillers may not be an immediately recognizable name on LCBO shelves, fans of Canadian whisky may be more familiar with the Alberta distillery's other brands: Centennial, Century Reserve, Potters, or maybe even White Owl? 

Using the term Canadian Rye in the "traditional" sense, Ninety is a blend of mostly, if not all, corn whiskies aged for 20 years in charred oak barrels and is bottled at 45% ABV.

Nose: Quite sharp on the nose, especially for a whisky of this age and ABV, then a blast of wood shavings with custard and damp cardboard lingering behind. 

Palate: Medium-bodied and showing a slightly sweet mix of thinned honey and gingerbread studded with candied fruit on entry. But it's not long before this gentle sweetness is overtaken by woody spice that's both fiery and bitter with cloves, ginger and nutmeg. 

Finish: After the thunderous spice hit, the finish resonates with bitter heat before flattening out with muted toasted oak and vanilla tones. A splash of water certainly improves the flavour here by dampening the heat yet it does nothing for the bitterness and doesn't substantially change the finish. 

J.P. Wiser's 15 Years Old

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New to the Wiser's core range, J.P. Wiser's 15 years old is billed as "a complex whisky with a hint of rye spice," meant to be sipped and savoured. Bottled at the standard 40% ABV and, like many of Wiser's whiskies, this expression made from a blend of separately distilled and matured grain whiskies combined by Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore at the Hiram Walker Distillery in Windsor, Ontario.

Nose: Inviting aromas of toasted oak and spice atop a strong toffee note with a hint of green apple.

Palate: Full-bodied and smooth; like liquid dessert. Mouth-coating caramel, buttery toffee, and dried fruit notes are complemented by a hit of mint and clove-laden spice that keeps things from getting overly sweet.

Wild Turkey Rare Breed

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As a fan of Wild Turkey since my days in university, it was a special treat to visit the distillery a couple of years ago and meet the brand's affable patriach Master Distiller, Jimmy Russell. After a personal tour of the new visitor centre, the grounds and the grand, old, 6 story "Warehouse A", we returned to the centre where I purchased this bottle of Wild Turkey Rare Breed labelled Batch No WT-03RB

Bottled at 54.1% (108.2 Proof), Rare Breed is a highly awarded blended bourbon expression from Wild Turkey. While its alcohol content and taste may vary slightly from year-to-year depending on the blend, it's probably safe to assume any given version contains spirit from between 6 - 12 years old.

Nose: Heady aromas of marzipan, vanilla, brown sugar and roasted peanut shells burst from the glass. With a little time, fruity notes of cherry, purple grapes, and orange oil reveal themselves along with a light herbal, almost minty scent. 

Palate: Full-bodied and remarkably smooth for a whisky of this strength. Caramel sweetness with candied fruits, vanilla and a hit of camphor just before the finish.

Liquormen's Ol' Dirty Canadian Whisky

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liquormen-s-ol-dirty-canadian-whisky.jpgReleased in 2016, Liquormen's Ol' Dirty Canadian Whisky is a sourced whisky from an unnamed distillery in Alberta then bottled by Rock Spirits (a blending and bottling subsidiary of the Newfoundland Labrador Liquor Commission) for Dartmouth Spirits Inc. - the IRL drinks business side of the Trailer Park Boys media group. 

According to the label notes, the Trailer Park Boys launched this whisky to honour the legacy of liquor thieving bandits from the old West. Bottled at 40% ABV and aged for just three years in charred, white oak casks; it's a young whisky. 

While I was bemused by the idea of grabbing a bottle to play the home game, yet given the Boys' other attempts at making and selling booze I didn't have high hopes for the result

Ed. note: links might be NSFW...



J.P. Wiser's Dissertation

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J.P. Wiser's Dissertation is the distillery's latest release in their Rare Cask Series; a limited run of one-off bottlings put together by Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore. This one however, is particularly special to Dr. Livermore as the whisky in the blend came from 114 barrels he used during his doctoral research to develop a method of predicting the effect of wood on the maturation process.

"How do you know a barrel is any good?" asks Dr. Don somewhat rhetorically. "Well, typically, you look at the barrel and smell it...and then make a decision, but you won't really know until the spirit has had time to mature, and by only then would you know with any certainty if it worked out or if it was a loss." 

The so-called "wood character" of a barrel is one of the most important factors when it comes to producing whisky. Not only does the wood draw out unwanted flavour compounds in un-aged spirit like dimethyl sulfide - which displays a potent cabbage-like aroma even at low concentrations -  but it's also responsible for imbuing the liquid with all kinds of delicious and desirable flavours. One way that distillers attempt to alter the chemistry of the wood is through charring the barrel, but is more or less char on the barrel better when aging whisky? 

"Back in 2005 when I started the project, my thinking was a bit like 'Tim the Tool-man Taylor' you know? More Power! I thought deeper levels of char would give the best results," says Dr. Livermore with a laugh. 

In order to test his hypothesis, he created a method of using infrared sensor technology to determine exactly how much "wood character" would be extracted into the whisky after just a 30 second scan of an empty barrel. The result: less is more. A char level of just 2mm seemed to deliver the best flavour results. 

"I was surprised! We learned that 2mm was the right amount for our whiskies." After the experiment was over, he turned to writing his dissertation and "kind of forgot about the barrels." 

Twelve years later he and his colleagues re-discovered the barrels in the Pike Creek warehouse and decided to try and make something with them. "It evolved quite organically, there was a lot of interest in our other Rare Cask bottles so we wanted to see how these whiskies might work." Containing a mix of what would have been Red Letter, Lot 40 and a double distilled rye, Dissertation is bottled at 46.1% ABV, is non chill-filtered and shows natural colour.   

Given the title of the whisky, I ask if there's something he'd like people to take away when sampling this dram. "I think we're challenging the status quo of the category. We're not making caramel-flavoured vodka here.... so let's stop apologizing for Canadian whisky; other countries recognize our success before we do! We can make quality whisky that consistently wins international awards." 

Bastille 1789 Blended Whisky

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Bastille 1789 Blended Whisky is the creation of French Master Distiller Jean-Marc Daucourt whose family name is typically associated with Cognac rather than whisky. Building upon the family tradition of distillation, Daucourt studied Scotch whisky production in Scotland for a number of years before launching his own uniquely French whisky. 

Using a combination of wheat and malted barley grown in Brittany in the north west of France and limestone-filtered spring water from Gensac in Grande Champagne, the Master Distiller sought to make a whisky evocative of the French terroir. The spirit was distilled in an alembic still, traditionally used for Cognac, and then aged for 5-7 years in a combination of French Limousin oak, cherry and acacia casks before vatting and bottling at 40% ABV. 

Lot No.40 Single Barrel Cask Strength

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Last week I was granted access to Corby's Pike Creek warehouses just outside of Windsor with Dr. Don Livermore, the Master Blender responsible for Lot No. 40, acting as guide. The sixteen rectangular, cinder block built, flat-topped warehouses aren't much to look at from the outside, but behind the walls of these utilitarian structures stand some 1.6 million barrels of whisky.

Inside, the warehouse is a delight to the senses of any whisky geek. Stacked to form a corridor from end to end of the building with cells branching off laterally, the barrels stand 6 high upon wooden palates. The damp, musty, smell of earth and wood sweetened by boozy apple and butterscotch is both figuratively and literally intoxicating. In fact, anyone working in a warehouse must wear a monitoring device that measures the ambient alcohol content in the air. While that may sound like a fun rush, you're more likely to pass out or worse from rapid asphyxiation. Only after the warehouse has had time to "air out" from opening the large rolling doors at either end of the building will Maturation Supervisor, Donald Campbell allow entry. Since the warehouses were purposefully built without electricity or heating so as to mitigate the risk of fires and allow the whisky to seasonally age there's no way to speed up the process by using conventional powered air ventilation. Without electricity there's no background hum of lights or rumble of vents and, for me, a sense of tranquility in that quiet space. Would that I could write all of my tasting notes from inside a whisky warehouse...

It was there, among the barrels, in an unexpected stroke of good fortune that Dr. Don offered us a special sample of Lot No. 40; non chill-filtered, straight from the cask without any added colouring or water and bottled at the robust strength of 55.8% ABV. 

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye

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crownroyalnhr-001.jpgFor a few weeks in late 2015 Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye whisky was making headlines around the world as Jim Murray's "World Whisky of the Year 2016" in his yearly Whisky Bible. His pronouncement sparked controversy in the industry and curiosity among consumers to seek out the whisky from Gimli, Manitoba. While Murray was criticized roundly by "whisky experts" and afficionados for being intentionally "controversial" as a way to both garner attention for himself and sell copies of his book, his full-throated praise for Northern Harvest Rye was readily received by the general public who were eager to try the latest and greatest on the Canadian whisky landscape. 

In a classic rhetorical reversal, Mr Murray opined: "to be honest, I had been considering actually demoting Canadian whisky from having its own chapter in the Bible The quality of Canadian has been disappointing me for some time with too many non-whisky products, like fruit juice or wine, being added to give a softer flavour...Then Crown Royal Northern Harvest pops up out of nowhere and changes the game..To say this is a masterpiece is barely doing it justice." Made with a higher proportion of rye than typically found in mass-market Canadian whisky, Northern Harvest Rye boasts an impressive 90% rye content and is bottled at a respectable 45% ABV.

Within days, shortages of Northern Harvest Rye were being reported all across Canada as seemingly everyone wanted to get a bottle or two for the upcoming holiday season and see "what all the fuss was about." Here in Ontario, 96,000 bottles of the stuff were sold in December and it wasn't until February 2016 when stocks were replenished in the LCBO. While we gave it a mention as a "topical conversation piece for your whisky-loving friend" in the 2015 Gift Buyer's Guide as we weren't able to give it a full review at the time of publishing. Now that the dust has settled and the fervour has cooled, it's time to give this whisky a somewhat sober second look.

Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Straight Bourbon

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A couple of weeks back an American friend visiting from Detroit came into town with a bottle of Hirsch Small Batch Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey for us to try. It's not available in the LCBO and has never been listed, so naturally I was curious. The label puzzled me further as it offered up a rather convoluted pedigree of the whisky which was "inspired by the quality of A.H. Hirsch" and distilled in Indiana before being bottled in Silverton, Ohio for San Francisco-based Anchor Distilling Co.

"Huh? But it says Kentucky? Whose whisky am I drinking anyway?"

Turns out that Anchor Distilling (a non-distilling producer) acquired the Hirsch brand in 2011 as part of their pivot into the spirits market. Partnering with Berry Bros. & Rudd, England's oldest wine and spirits merchant, the new owners at Anchor Distilling expanded into the thriving global premium spirits market and Hirsch was to be part of their "super premium" line. In their own words, the new A.H. Hirsch whisky brand is, "an inspired reflection of the legendary A.H. Hirsch Reserve 16 Year Old that many consider to be the finest expression of American bourbon ever produced." If you've never tried this fabled release, you're likely not going to get the chance to do so. The last of this whisky was sold in 2009 and although you may find a few floating around online; expect to pay top dollar.
 
Bottled at 46% ABV, this version of Hirsch comes from an unknown distillery and is a blend of bourbons ranging from seven to nine years old. A little digging reveals some evidence that points to Midwest Grain Products (MGP), formerly known as Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana (LDI), a massive industrial distilling operation on the Indiana side of the Ohio River as the source of the distillate. While Anchor is keeping the producer a secret, they're remarkably upfront about the composition of the mash bills of their spirit. Using rye grain sourced from Northern Europe and corn from Indiana and Ohio, the producer makes two different spirits with differing levels of rye grain which are then married for an unspecified time to make a final product with a rye content around 26%. 

Gooderham & Worts Canadian Whisky

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Established in 1831, the Gooderham & Worts distillery in Toronto was a major producer of alcohol in the province of Ontario for over a hundred years. Nearly a century later, the distillery was bought out by Hiram Walker & Sons Ltd. (now Corby Ltd.) in 1927 and has been closed since the 1990's, the facility and its accompanying buildings are regarded as an important historical landmark in the city. Boasting the largest and best preserved collection of Victorian Industrial Architecture in North America, the distillery found a second life as an in-demand shooting location for filmmakers. Now a listed property on the register of Canadian National Historic sites, the aptly named "Distillery District," boasts an impressive roster of tenants. Chock-a-block with galleries, restaurants, breweries, boutique shops and a theatre for the performing arts, the Gooderham & Worts Distillery District routinely attracts crowds on weekends. Strolling along its brick paved laneways amidst its ruddy brown historic buildings, it's hard not to be charmed by this quaint throwback to an earlier time in this city of steel and glass. 

In homage to this iconic distillery, Corby Ltd. has released a whisky bearing an appropriately "old-timey looking" G&W label. Gooderham & Worts' Four Grain Blend contains corn, rye, wheat and barley whiskies bottled at an auspicious 44.4% ABV.


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