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Lot No.40 Single Barrel Cask Strength

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

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

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

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.

J.P. Wiser's Hopped Whisky


Hearing Master Blender Dr. Don Livermore speak about his latest creation, J.P. Wiser's Hopped Whisky, it's hard not to get swept up with his enthusiasm. A dedicated student of flavours, he's got advanced degrees in both brewing and distilling and his passion for whisky-making is palpable. At a media event at CC Lounge & Whisky Bar in Toronto, a few weeks back he explained that the idea for a hopped whisky was born from a conversation he had nearly ten years ago with a friend in the brewing sector that grows hops; "looking at how the hops were used, we realized there's an opportunity to use them in a different way, with whisky."

Made with a blend of five- to nine-year-old Canadian whiskies aged in three types of barrels: previous Canadian whisky fills, once used American bourbon casks, and brand new virgin oak casks , J.P. Wiser's Hopped Whisky is "dry hopped" at the end of its aging process. This technique is the same employed by makers of the ubiquitous and highly-popular IPA style wherein dried hops are steeped in the beer, imparting the juicy aromatics of hops without as much of the bitterness that's obtained from hops in the boil. 

"We went through 158 prototypes to make [it] before I hit upon dry hopping our whisky post maturation, like some of the best IPA's do...and I think it's going to be a game changer for Canadian spirits!" Flavoured whisky is a growing trend in the market and, according to Wiser's Master Blender, "it's partly a reflection of our [Canadian] palette. We're eating spicier foods, or trying things from different cultures, and so we're looking for something bold in whisky, too. But flavoured whisky isn't like flavoured vodka; the amplified flavours-whether honey, maple or toffee-are authentic to whisky. In other words, we're taking what's already in Canadian whisky, and just ramping it up a bit." 

With a new spirit came the need for a new bottle. Just as the hops in beer sometimes can go "off" and produce a skunky aroma with prolonged exposure to light if it's stored in a green or clear bottle, so too did the hopped whisky when it was put in a the standard Wiser's bottle. This led Dr. Livermore to continue innovating to make a specially tinted bottle to prevent "skunkification." 

For those of you who are imagining a clumsy mash of rye whisky and bitter hops, rest assured that the similarity of this whisky to IPAs ends with the dry hopped process and the coloured glass.

Hibiki Japanese Harmony

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Earlier this week we were invited to attend the Canadian launch of Beam Suntory's latest premium blended whisky, Hibiki Japanese Harmony, at Kasa Moto restaurant here in Toronto. Assembled media guests were treated to a component tasting of 5 of the main whiskies from Suntory's Yamazaki, Hakushu and Chita distilleries that were blended to make this expression of the Hibiki blend. Hands down, this was definitely one of the best component tastings and elemental deconstructions I've had the opportunity to enjoy.

Led by Suntory Brand Ambassador Gardner Dunn, we sampled the following cask strength whiskies in the order below before moving on to the main event: 

  • a sweet, almost Bourbon-like, 100% grain (corn) whisky aged in 1st fill ex-Bourbon barrels from the Chita distillery; 
  • a malt whisky aged in American white oak barrels made at the Suntory cooperage with a slightly oily body
  • a rich single malt whisky aged in a cask that formerly held Oloroso sherry and was reminiscent of a classic Macallans
  • a single malt whisky aged in a rare Mizunara oak cask that imbued complex flavours of sandalwood, estery fruit, with an interplay of new leather and smoke;
  • and finally, a single malt velvet hammer of buttery vanilla and smokey peat from Hakushu distillery. 

These aforementioned whiskies, along with at least 5 others, were blended by the Suntory Whisky blending team to produce Japanese Harmony. A family affair, the blending team is led by third and fourth-generation Suntory family members: Master Blender, Shinjiro Torii, who is the great-grandson of Suntory founder Shinjiro Torii; and, fourth-generation Chief Blender, Shinji Fukuyo. As explained by Mr.Dunn, the American White Oak malt whiskies are used for the base note, the Mizunara and sherry cask malt whiskies act as "the dressing" while the smoky malt whiskies provide subtle accents to create depth and further complexity. Finally, the grain whiskies may be considered as the "dashi," or broth and constitute between 60-65% of the blend. 

Bottled at 43% ABV, Hibiki Japanese Harmony will soon replace the 12 year old expression of the Hibiki blend and will serve as the "introduction" to the existing 17 year and 21 year bottles.  

Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey

irish_tee3.jpgTeeling Whisky is a relative newcomer to the Irish whiskey scene. Brothers Jack and Stephen Teeling "resurrected" their ancestral family brand in 2011 as a small batch craft distillery. In fact, theirs was the first new distillery in Dublin in over 125 years. 

With corn making up the bulk of the mashbill, the single grain whiskey is distilled through a column still and, in a bold move, is fully matured in ex-Cabernet Sauvignon red wine barrels sourced from California. After an unspecified period of maturation, the non chill-filtered whiskey is bottled at 46% ABV.

Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve

It should come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, that we at are very fond of Forty Creek and it's ever-innovative whisky maker, John Hall. Since launching his distillery in 1992 he's brought new life to the Canadian Whisky landscape and has arguably been responsible, in large part, for its renewed interest among consumers.  His whisky even caught the attention of global drinks giant Gruppo Campari who purchased Forty Creek outright for a whopping $185.6 million with the condition that he stay on as Chairman and whisky-maker. In short, if you're not drinking Forty Creek whisky yet: what's wrong with you?

Fans of the brand are likely familiar with the Barrel Select and Double Barrel Reserve editions, but what about the Copper Pot Reserve? According to John Hall, "it's made in the same style as Barrel Select  but it's 'amped' up in flavour, delivering a bolder and richer taste profile."  The Copper Pot Reserve begins it's life as component grain spirits.  Corn, rye and barley spirits are distilled separately in a traditional copper pot still and then each spirit is aged in white oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years. After sufficient maturation it's time to mix and marry the blend. It is in the selection and blending of these separately aged barrels that this first generation whisky-maker's versatility and artistry shine. 

In addition to the "amped up flavours",  the Copper Pot Reserve also boasts a higher ABV of 43% compared to the other two, which are bottled at 40% ABV.

The 2014 Gift Buyer's Guide to Whisky

Regardless of whether you celebrate anything at this time of year or not, it is highly likely that you or someone you know will be looking for a few tips on what to get a whisky lover. Be they friend, family, coworker, or neighbour, your intended recipient should receive something that fits your budget and that they enjoy. It is with that in mind that we delve once again into the mire of the LCBO's "selection" to choose a handful of bottles in three price ranges with the aim of enabling you or whomever you share this with, to walk away with just a little extra smugness that you absolutely nailed it when choosing that gift. 

Prior to embarking on your shopping trip, there are a couple of steps one should take in advance whenever possible:

  1. Examine your intended recipient's existing collection as I will do my best to provide you with some benchmark bottles to provide a frame of reference in determining which palates a particular whisky will likely appeal to. 

  2. For Ontario readers, make use of the embedded links to check stock before heading out to your local store. It is important to remember that as one of the last redeeming features of its existence, the LCBO does provide for free inter-store transfers of bottles, though delivery times will vary from 3 to 7 days depending on distance between your store and the store of origin. So you may not need to drive several hours to get a bottle. Lastly, for any locations showing one bottle of something, be sure to phone the store confirm availability. 
For those lucky enough to reside elsewhere, there will be links provided at the end to other shops in select cities that will likely offer these bottles, and in the event that the specific ones listed are not there, their whisky knowledge is sound enough to provide a viable alternate. Should you not have the most educated personnel at the ready in your location, please do not hesitate to reach out to us in real time on Twitter, via email by using the address supplied to the right, or any other form of communication you feel will be effective. We truly are always here to help! 

Before we get going, please allow me to offer some advice on what not to buy: whisky stones. Every year whisky drinkers the world over are gifted these cubes of soapstone meant to provide cooling effects to glasses of whisky without diluting them. While the intent of the product is admirable, their usefulness is highly suspect as we have written about before; and to top it all off, if your intended recipient has been drinking whisky for more than a year or two, the odds are quite high that they already have several sets from previous well wishers. Please don't buy your loved ones whisky stones this year. I'm sick of... I mean they probably already have a set or three.

Alright, let's get to what should be bought, shall we? 

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend

The Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Limited Edition Canadian Whisky was created to celebrate the brand's history and its relationship to British royalty. Seventy-five years ago, in 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth journeyed across North America and were gifted a bottle of Crown Royal to enjoy as they toured the continent by train.

Seeking to commemorate the occasion, Crown Royal Master Blender Joanna Scandella was asked to hand-select whiskies from the brand's extensive stock including a special whisky from the historic Coffey rye still, residing in the company's distillery in Gimli, Manitoba to make this one-time-only blended Canadian whisky. Our bottle, generously provided by North Strategic for Diageo Canada, is encased in a gold and silver coloured carton with a magnetic enclosure. The bottle itself, which is taller and broader than the standard offering and topped with a large plastic gold crown cap, is contained within a soft silver bag embroidered with gold accents and is a variation on the iconic purple bag long associated with the brand. Along with the deluxe packaging is a certificate of registration indicating the batch lot and bottle number which, in our case, reads 0008 and B47R4 respectively. 

Booker's Kentucky Straight Bourbon



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. 

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

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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. 


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