Canadian Whisky: My First Foray

Mail time!

The best kind of mail.

Sometimes I forget how short a time I’ve actually been drinking whisky. For the record, I first tasted whisky in December 2007 as a freshly-minted 21-year-old, and I hated it. I probably offended my friend’s kind father who had generously poured a flight of three different Scotches to try. I wasn’t ready yet.

But in September of 2011, I had just moved to Edinburgh and wanted to fully immerse myself in my new surroundings. Simultaneously, I was re-entering student life and didn’t have much disposable income for new hobbies. Luckily, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society came through with a massively good deal: buy a £10 membership and, twice a month, taste 5-6 whiskies for only £6. Thus, it didn’t take long for me to fall deeply in love with Scotch whisky and, since then, it feels as if I’ve always been enjoying it. Each tasting with the Society was a new adventure, as we never repeated drams, and I continue to approach my whisky drinking in this way, as an education, preferring to try something new rather than stick with what’s familiar. (Though, to be sure, I do have bottles of some of my favorites.)

Since returning from Scotland last August, I’ve been casting about for ways to keep learning. I love New York City, but it’s not a town for whisky lovers on a budget. Even the cheapest tastings run upwards of $50 or more, making them an infrequent treat. And while New York’s bars and liquor stores have probably the best selection and availability of Scotch whiskies in the country, eventually you get around to trying them all (except those that are $150 per pour). I haven’t gotten to that point yet, but the day is coming.

What’s a drinker who craves the novelty of varied drams to do? Expand my palate, not with just Scotch, but with other whisky iterations. Bourbon is the obvious first choice, and I’m slowly feeling my way down this long and interesting path. But North America produces other whiskies, too. Recently I got the opportunity to venture north of the border and begin exploring Canadian whisky, using Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux as my guide. Paired with “mystery tastings” on Twitter led by Davin and Johanne McInnis, I spent four weeks reading, re-reading, nosing, tasting, and asking questions about the complex spirits made up north.

A brief review of the book: If you ever wanted to know anything about Canadian whisky, this is the resource for you. Davin has spent years mapping out the distillation process, visiting distilleries (not a mean feat in Canada, where distillery access requires security clearance due to post-9/11 US import regulations), researching the history of great Canadian distillers, and learning boatloads about chemistry. He expressly dispels well-accepted myths about Canadian whisky (e.g. it always contains rye) and he takes the reader from grain to glass in a clear, detailed yet understandable way. The book is a pleasure to read. You can choose to plow right through from A to Z (or zed if you’re Canadian) or jump from a chapter on enzymes to one about the Seagram family. Historical and contemporary photos and helpful diagrams support the text and provide helpful visual references.

I learned some things that surprised me, like Canadian whisky is (nearly) always a blend—even single cask bottlings, as the spirit can be blended before it goes into the barrel. The blending process is pretty fascinating: most distilleries have recipes for “base whisky” and “flavoring whisky.” Each has a different grain profile and ABV, as the spirit interacts differently in the barrel depending on what sort of congeners (aka flavor makers) are present. (Typically, more distillation=higher ABV=fewer congeners.) Depending on what grains are available in a given year (crops vary, of course, according to weather and growing conditions), distillers must adjust their recipes to account for any differences that could show up in the finished product. I can’t even imagine what their formulas look like, but I have an immense respect for the people who do this job.

Also of note is the importance of yeast in making Canadian whisky. Obviously, all whiskies require yeast to carry out  fermentation, but I’ve never heard anyone in the Scotch world discuss yeast with as much emphasis as here. Especially for flavoring whiskies, yeast really matters, and each distillery carefully cultivates and “fingerprints” its yeast to ensure the right fermentation takes place. Such a tiny micro-organism makes such a big difference!

One of the best features of the book is its extensive tasting notes, covering 100 expressions on the market at the time of publication. (The notes, organized throughout the book to match up with the chapters about their respective distilleries, are handily indexed so you can easily locate them, which I found a thoughtful touch.) It was from these notes (with one exception) that Johanne and Davin chose the mystery whiskies for each week’s tasting. Although I never guessed correctly, it was great fun to try!

Below are my notes for each whisky. If I had to pick a favorite, it was the Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve. Every one of these was exceptionally delicious, though, and I’d go back to any of them in a heartbeat.

Lot No. 40
Nose: Caraway galore! And gingersnap.

Palate: Sweet like a dark butterscotch, spicy with cloves and cinnamon. Fresh herbal notes too, especially mint. Adding water reveals white pepper, ginger, and dried orange peel.

Alberta Premium Dark Horse
Nose: Fruity and floral with cherries, plums, notes of peony, lavender, and lilac. Also a hint of rubber or slate, not unpleasant.

Palate: Cloying with cherry cough syrup and cigar smoke. Water opens up a more nuanced profile with spice notes, notably fenugreek.

Danfield’s Limited Edition 21 year old
Nose: Big fruit, especially cherry at first, then brown sugar, fresh sawdust and something earthy like slate.

Palate: Warm butterscotch with zesty citrus peel and bitter pith. Floral topnotes and lingering spice (white pepper, cinnamon bark) finish. Adding water brings out more herbal notes but mutes the spice.

Forty Creek Port Wood Reserve
Nose: Tons of spice (cinnamon, black pepper) and herbs. Wet earth and a slight mustiness, like a mushroom. Over time it picks up fruit and flower notes, too.

Palate: Sweet and spicy in a perfect mix, with cooked ginger, leafy greens, and birch syrup.

I am so grateful to Johanne and Davin for inviting me to participate in this project. Their passion for Canadian whisky really shines, and they are dedicated and fun ambassadors. Furthermore, Johanne’s organization of the event and Davin’s willingness to thoroughly answer each and every question showed off the famous Canadian generosity of spirit beautifully. Huge thanks to both of them, and to Davin’s publisher, McClelland & Stewart Ltd., for the book. I learned so much and I feel like it’s only the beginning. I can’t wait to see (and taste) what comes next in my Canadian whisky explorations.

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Tasting Notes: Water of Life Society Annual General Meeting

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The other night, the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society held its Annual General Meeting and final (formal) tasting of the academic year. Knowing we would all be on the brink of depression over the summer hiatus — for some of us, the forever hiatus as we leave Edinburgh — the committee selected a cracking line up of truly superb drams, each member getting one selection which made for an unthemed but nevertheless delicious tasting.

Balblair 2001
Balblair doesn’t do age statements, opting instead for vintages. This one was probably bottled in 2010 or 2011.

Nose: Very light and subtle with both toffee and caramel, brown butter, hay. Deepened to include chocolate notes after some time.

Palate: Incredibly smooth and balanced — nothing too complex here but still an enjoyable whisky to roll around a bit on the tongue.

Finish: Like everything else, very subtle. A perfect starter dram to the evening.

Blair Athol y.o. 12 Flora and Fauna
Nose: Lots of desserts here: caramel shortbread, sticky toffee pudding, some light marshmallow notes and something green I couldn’t put my finger on at first — perhaps watercress?

Palate: Not quite as sweet as the nose would have me believe; mainly nutty and a bit leathery with, yes, a hint of watercress.

Finish: Spicy, short, and satisfying. This was my favorite dram of the evening.

Cadenhead’s 15 y.o. single cask (Ord distillery)
One assumes that by Ord they mean Glen Ord…?

Nose: The first thing I thought was, This smells like a granola bar! And indeed, there’s lots of toasted oats and honey.

Palate: Spiciness hit me like a swarm of bees, but once that settled down I got dark plum with some bits of apricot and nice heavy oak. Adding a drop of three of water allowed the fruity notes to really blossom.

Finish: I neglected to note the finish but from what I remember it was quite lengthy and rich.

SMWS 26.77 “Church Pews and Hymn Books” (Clynelish 27 y.o.)
Nose: I didn’t get the name from the nose at all. To me it was a meadow of sun-warmed wildflowers, with hints of vanilla and some sea-saltiness.

Palate: Here I did get some mustiness of old books and dark wood, but also lemon and rosemary, some other light fruits as well.

Finish: Again, no notes, but it continued in the same fashion as the palate. The dram as a whole definitely improved in balance and depth with water.

Good things come in threes.

Mortlach 16 y.o.
I recently had the 15 year old and found its older brother to be worlds apart in terms of nose and taste. I much prefer this one.

Nose: Quite briny with a bit of cream soda and very light orange — almost Irn Bru-y, come to think of it.

Palate: Lots of cherry and other dried fruit; some vague hints of cough syrup, but not unpleasant.

Finish: Warm and slightly spicy.

Kilchoman 4 1/2 y.o.
Nose: Smoke, brine, and gorse — very pleasant indeed.

Palate: Quite peaty, naturally, with some oatcake and, oddly enough, green lentil. I also got some nice spearmint notes and plenty of oak.

Finish: Still nicely smoky/peaty and not heavy. A really nice final dram to the evening.

During the meeting we conducted business, like electing a new committee for next year, and also held an auction — timed towards the end of the night, as we were all quite steamin’ — for WaterAid. Although I’d have liked to pick up several of the lovely bottles up for auction (like the Wemyss Honey Harvest or a liter of The Dalmore 15 y.o.), I had to think  of luggage restrictions — and all the other bottles I have to take home in August — so I contented myself with one bottle of Compass Box’s Great King Street, a fantastic blend which seems to be rapidly growing in popularity.

I’m trying not to think about leaving Edinburgh and WOLS, overwhelmed as I am with work, school, and wedding planning; but when it does cross my mind that there will be no more Thursday night meetings, no more silly banter, no more opportunities to taste amazing whiskies with awesome people at an insanely low price — I feel a little ache, one I’m certain will deepen over time.

One of my biggest personal flaws is my inability to live in the moment, my tendency to feel nostalgic for things before they’ve even passed, but this time, I think it’s warranted.

Thanks for an incredible year, WOLS. Slàinte!

Tasting Notes: Balvenie

As a member of the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society, I am lucky enough to have some really nice whisky on a regular basis for a much cheaper price than I’d ever find elsewhere. Most weeks there’s a theme — Sherry and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day, or International Whiskies, or — the best so far — five different batches of Aberlour A’bunadh. Other weeks, we’re visited by ambassadors from various distilleries and bottlers. In the past year, I’ve enjoyed lovely tastings from Wemyss Malts, Bruichladdich, Glenfiddich, and last night (for the second time this month, actually) Balvenie.

The beginning of a very good evening

Starting with a ‘welcome dram’ of Monkey Shoulder (always a nice drinkable delight) and progressing through the Balvenie range, Andy described the history of the distillery, its innovations, and especially the genius of one man, Mr David Stewart, Malt Master for Balvenie and Glenfiddich. David is responsible for coming up with nifty little ideas like finishing whisky in a different cask than the one it’s aged in — hence beautiful drams like the 21 year old Portwood.

Balvenie Signature
Andy described this as his ‘quaffing whisky’ and I quite agree. It’s not too complex, goes down like juice, and could easily be enjoyed during a lively party.

Nose: Honey, grapes, grass, a bit of brine.

Palate: Very honeyed and sweet with some light dried fruits (more dried apricot than raisin) and citrus and a nice silky mouthfeel.

Finish: Pleasantly balanced with oak and spice.

Balvenie Single Barrel 15 (Cask # 1566)
Nose: Honey, of course, and vanilla, pear, apple, hints of gorse.

Palate: Lovely spicy-sweet interplay with vanilla, honey, hard fruits.

Finish: Very clean with the best notes of spice saved for the end, and just a hint of coconut.

Balvenie Doublewood
Andy called this a ‘gateway whisky’ — the kind of whisky that gets novices hooked. It starts its life in bourbon casks and finishes in sherry — hence the name.

Nose: Deep, rich, full of cooked apples, figs, bread pudding, butter, cinnamon.

Palate: Well fruited just as the nose suggests, but balanced by the rich vanilla of the bourbon casks.

Finish: Continuing the sweet warmth of the palate, it tapers off ever so gently.

Portwood 21
As I mentioned, this whisky (some of which is likely older than 21 years) is finished for several months in port ‘pipes’. It’s stunning.

Nose: Full of grapes and fresh rain, notes of plum.

Palate: Fruity with plum, grape, and a wee bit of rhubarb. Unbelievably silky mouthfeel.

Finish: I never wanted it to end, and it nearly didn’t. Goes on forever with a delicate nuttiness.

After enjoying all those beautiful whiskies, what better way to end the night than with a mysteriously green non-whisky concoction?

‘The Seaweed Experience’?

My friend Calum delights in buying obscure spirits from a German auction website. Evidently Celp is quite popular among the Danish. It’s put out by Lagavulin and actually doesn’t taste half bad, for all that it appears to be Kermit the Frog’s bathwater. I’m sure you’re not surprised to find out that it’s heavily peated, very briny and oily and tastes like a clam salad. You might be surprised to learn that I actually thought it quite nice! Not something I’d drink often, of course, but the kind of spirit I could see myself pouring on a chilly day when I need reminding of beaches and summertime…