Thursday, 11 January 2018

Iconoclasm: A Better Whisky Makes A Better Cocktail

Don Draper
You think he only uses cheap whisky
 in cocktails?
Cocktail culture has been back in vogue ever since retro TV shows like Mad Men hit the airwaves. The origins and history of cocktails is interesting, though it's difficult to discern truth from fiction. Since most distilling was illicit in the beginning and even legitimate liquor production was often in legal limbo, the veracity of our received cocktail history is questionable. It's entirely possible that people began mixing their liquor with juices, sugars, syrups, honey, and bitters because their rum, vodka, gin or whisky was of dubious quality. We've come a long way, yet many enthusiasts are loath to use quality spirits to make a cocktail. I've fallen prey to this line of thinking at times, using only the cheapest whisky to make my drinks. It's a shame, since better ingredients almost always produce better results. Below, you'll find some of my favourite cocktail recipes along with my preferred whisky recommendations. Though my choices are not always expensive offerings, some of these recommendations are not for the faint of heart. Ye be warned !

The Old Fashioned

This one is near and dear to my heart. It's probably my favourite cocktail and I often judge the quality of a rye or bourbon by its competence in this cocktail. It's also the go-to cocktail of Don Draper and of Ron Swanson, when he isn't drinking Lagavulin. The official recipe, according to the International Bartenders Association is as follows:
  • 4.5 cl (1.5 oz) Bourbon or Rye whiskey
  • 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
  • 1 sugar cube
  • Few dashes plain water
  • Place sugar cube in old-fashioned glass and saturate with bitters, add a dash of plain water.
  • Muddle until dissolve. Fill the glass with ice cubes and add whiskey. Garnish with orange slice and a cocktail cherry.
There are heated debates online about fruit vs fruit rind, muddling the fruit vs using the fruit as a garnish and much much more. I'm a fan of the IBA version, but experiment to find your prefered version and let the purists argue over the details. I'm a fan of rye in my Old Fashioned (or high rye bourbons), but any bourbon is just as acceptable.
Recommended whiskies: Four Roses Single Barrel, Rittenhouse Straight Rye, Masterson's 10 Year Old Straight Rye

The Manhattan

A runner-up to the Old Fashioned in my list of personal favourites, the Manhattan calls for a more rye-forward whisky to balance out the sweet vermouth. I'm not a huge fan of bourbons in a Manhattan, as the sweetness takes over the whole drink. This is the drink of choice of Sugar Kane Kowalczyk in Some Like It Hot.

The official IBA recipe is as follows:
  • 5 cl (approx 2oz) Rye Whiskey
  • 2 cl  (approx 3/4 oz) Red (Sweet) Vermouth
  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters
  • Pour all ingredients into mixing glass with ice cubes. Stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.Garnish with cocktail cherry.
Recommended whiskies: Wiser's Legacy, Stalk & Barrel Rye, Knob Creek Rye

The Boulevardier

I've only recently discovered this one, but I shan't soon forget it. I've long been a fan of the Negroni, a gin-based cocktail, when I'm not enjoying whisky. An acquaintance dared ask the question: why not have both? The Boulevardier is a Negroni made with whisky instead of Gin. Brilliant !!! The easy-peasy recipe is as follows:
  • 3 cl rye or bourbon whiskey
  • 3 cl Campari
  • 3 cl Sweet Red Vermouth
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir gently.Garnish with half orange slice.
*Note that Campari is quite bitter (very grapefruit-esque), so you may want to start with 2 parts whisk(e)y, 1 part Campari and 1 part Sweet Vermouth. But if you like grapefruit juice and/or hoppy beers, you'll probably like the "official" version just fine.
Recommended whiskies: Lot No.40 Rye, Eagle Rare 10 Year Old, Blanton's Original

The Rusty Nail

So many great choices
So now we get to some more controversial choices. Why? These next 3 cocktails are made with scotch whisky. And using a better scotch generally yields a better cocktail. I know, scotch is expensive. But trust me when I say you won't regret using a better whisky. Traditionally, the Rusty Nail uses a blended scotch whisky, but you don't have to limit yourself. This cocktail is one of shady lawyer Saul Goodman's favourites. The recipe is:

  • 4.5 cl (approx. 1.5 oz) Scotch whisky
  • 2.5 cl Drambuie (approx. 0.8 oz)
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old-fashioned glass filled with ice. Stir gently. Garnish with lemon twist.
Recommended whiskies: Johnny Walker Green Label 15 Year Old Blended Malt, Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend, Highland Park 12 Year Old Single Malt

The Godfather

He'll make you a cocktail
you can't refuse
Like the Rusty Nail, this is a great digestif, that is, an after-dinner cocktail. Rumour has it this was Marlon Brando's favourite cocktail, though I can neither confirm nor deny this. The Amaretto is quite sweet, so you want to make sure your scotch is not cloyingly sweet. (though as always, you do what you want). I'm a fan of using a moderately smoky scotch for this one, as I feel the smoke of the scotch plays nicely off the sweetness from the liqueur, but any scotch will work. Here is the IBA recipe, though note that Disaronno recommends a 2:1 scotch to amaretto ratio. Experiment to find what works for you.

  • 3.5 cl Scotch
  • 3.5 cl Amaretto
  • Pour all ingredients directly into old fashioned glass filled with ice cubes.
  • Stir gently.
Recommended whiskies: Bowmore 12 Year Old Single Malt, Compass Box Peat Monster Blended Malt, Johnnie Walker Double Black

The Smoky Coke

How some people react to the Smoky Coke recipe.
Now we come to the most controversial cocktail around. A simple highball? Controversial? Yes, yes it is. Peruse any Facebook whisky group or message board and you'll find strong opinions on the smoky coke. Why? Well, as I've mentioned, single malt scotch is expensive, and many people consider it uncouth to mix it with anything, let alone the cola of the proletarian masses. Now nobody is suggesting you drink these all night, but as a single cocktail, it's really good. Don't let anyone tell you how to drink your whisky. The IBA does not have a recipe for this, so I recommend you start with the recipe below and adjust to your taste:

  • 2 oz Scotch (preferably a smoky Islay Single Malt, but a smoky blend will work too)
  • 5 oz Coca Cola
  • Pour all ingredients into a highball glass filled with ice cubes. Stir gently
Recommended whiskies: Laphroaig 10 Year Old, Lagavulin 16 Year Old, Ardbeg 10 Year Old

Any whisky can work in a cocktail. You're probably used to using cheap whisky in your cocktails, regardless of who's making them. If mixed drinks are your thing, you owe it to yourself to try using better ingredients, even if it's just to test the perceived difference. Civilization didn't get to where it is today by sticking to the tried and true. Try something new, something daring. Experiment a bit. Do it for science!

Slainte !!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

A Great One? A Review of Wayne Gretzky No.99 Red Cask

I'm not a fan of celebrity worship, celebrity obsession, celebrity endorsements, or celebrity-themed anything. But there are exceptions to every rule. I've put off buying Wayne Gretzky wine and Wayne Gretzky whisky because I'm cool like that. Let the mindless masses buy something simply because the Great One's name is on it; I can't be swayed that easily. Or so I thought. More than a few people I know and trust had positive things to say about the wine...and about the whisky. So I gave in and sampled some Wayne Gretzky No.99 Red Cask. But why not call it Hat Trick or M.V.P. or Slapshot, or something hockey themed? I mean, we're talking about the greatest hockey player of all time, right? (Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux fans, your objections are noted) Perhaps they wanted to be taken more seriously.

Wayne Gretzky Estates

The Great One has been in the wine business for awhile. He launched his winery with Creekside back around 2006, and then partnered with Andrew Peller Ltd. in 2011. In 2016, they decided to get into the whisky business. When Gretzky and company decided to release a line of whiskies, they weren't content to put out a generic Canadian rye whisky. By all accounts, Wayne Gretzky Estates invested in top-notch stills and equipment. The grains used in No. 99 Red Cask (rye, malted rye and corn) are locally sourced. Master Distiller Joshua Beach has been trained in Scotland. So he is a master. Really. He has a Master's degree in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. This is not kitschy celebrity branding. WGE put some serious work into this whisky. In their own words:

Wayne Gretzky No. 99 'Red Cask' Canadian Whisky is made in small batches from grain (rye, malted rye and corn) that has been individually mashed, fermented and distilled. After aging, the whisky is finished with red wine casks from the Wayne Gretzky winery.

The whisky doesn't carry an age statement, so you can only assume it's 3 Years Old, since those are the legal requirements for whisky in Canada. Are there older whiskies in here? Maybe, maybe not. But how does it taste?

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): Dark Brown sugar, maple syrup, a hint of roses, a touch of leather. Give it time to rest in the glass and some red grapes, apples and citrus notes appear.

Palate (undiluted): surprisingly rich for a whisky bottled at 40% ABV, some oakiness, more maple notes, some vanilla-infused (toasted oak?) red wine notes become apparent with time, as does a touch of rye spice

Finish: medium-short finish, with some red grapes and oaky red wine notes initially and a touch more rose/perfume reappearing with time.

Adding water didn't really improve this whisky. Nor did adding ice, unless you find it a bit too sweet when sipped neat. Ice toned down the maple and brown sugar sweetness and brought the floral and wine notes forward a bit. This one develops complexity when it's given the chance to sit in the glass for awhile. The vanilla and oak notes become more prominent. Letting it sit may prove a tall order, however, as this is a very easy-drinking whisky.


It's easy to be cynical and dismiss celebrity-branded products. I'm guilty of walking right past this whisky several times and scoffing (internally) at those marveling over "a Wayne Gretzky whisky". As much as I try not to be a snob, I was guilty on this count. This whisky is very easy to drink. If you like big, oak-rich red wines, you will like this whisky. In fact, this whisky made me want to try some of Gretzky's red wines. I'm curious to see if these notes are present in his Baco Noir or Shiraz Cabernet. It is rich, complex, affordable, and let's face it, a Wayne Gretzky whisky makes a great conversation piece. It may be a love it or hate it whisky when it comes to tasting, though, as the oak and red wine notes become more dominant with time. You should try before you buy.

Rating: 3/5 moustaches

Cheers, eh!?

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The First Annual Totally Subjective Whisky Awards

As the year draws to its end, we're encouraged to reflect on the year that was, the year to come, goals achieved, opportunities missed or seized, and so on. I'm not really into all that. Instead, I'm looking back on the different whiskies I've tried, though not necessarily owned, and choosing champions for 2017. This could prove a difficult task so let me be clear on my completely subjetive criteria. The winners are not specialty bottlings, independent bottlings or hand-filled from the cask in the warehouse (not that I've ever been to an actual distillery). The whiskies need not be new for 2017, these awards are based on my experiences with them. The categories are completely made up and I will define them how I see fit. Winners are awarded a mention on this blog and are thus encouraged to send its author many bottles of free whisky. Without further ado, here are the winners:

Canadian Whisky of the Year, limited release: J.P. Wiser's Dissertation

I'm not sure what else I can say about this whisky. Dissertation really opened up the world of Canadian whisky for me. It's the whisky that proved Canadian whisky deserves just as much respect as single malt scotch, Irish single pot still and quality bourbon. There are still, as of this writing, bottles available in Ontario. If you haven't tried it, you really are missing out. It's 87% rye, so expect some bold spices (cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves). It's aged entirely in virgin oak barrels (casks) so it's bottled at its natural colour. No E150a here. After the bottle has been opened and exposed to air for awhile (more than 6 weeks), a beautiful sweet coconut note develops on the finish. Dissertation is the John Tavares of whisky. Many folks overlook Tavares (and Dissertation) because of the media's obsession with perennial champions like Sidney Crosby (the Single Malt Scotch of the hockey world), or flashy upstarts from non-traditional hockey markets like Auston Matthews (the Japanese or Taiwanese whisky of the hockey world). Don't make the same mistakes, folks. Dissertation (and Tavares) is worth your time and undivided attention. 

Canadian Whisky of the Year, standard release: Lot No.40 Rye

Another no-brainer. A bottle of this 100% rye whisky is always in my liquor cabinet and it should always be in yours. Lot 40 is better than any other 100% rye I've ever tried (full disclosure: I haven't tried every single rye in the world). It's not even close. Comparing Lot No.40 to other ryes is the whisky equivalent of comparing Steven Stamkos to the best player on your local beer league hockey team. Stamkos and Lot 40 are in a different league. Corby's flagship rye is bold, complex, spicy, oaky and warming. Lot No.40 works beautifully neat, in a cocktail and, like Stamkos, it's incredible on ice. The fact that it's readily available for less than $40 is a real bonus, a hometown discount.

Bourbon of the Year, standard release: Old Grand Dad 114

This one may surprise a few people. OGD 114 is not readily available in Ontario, so my sample was provided by a friend. Americans reading this might be surprised by a "budget" bourbon winning any kind of award. I've often said that price and quality are not always related and this bourbon is a prime example of a great whisky at a friendly price. The average price for this bourbon in the U.S. is $26. In case you're wondering, "114" refers to the proof, so you might think this Grand Dad ornery at 57% ABV. You'd be wrong. Nosing this bourbon was a shock. There was little to no "alcohol burn" on the nose when I had it. In fact, this was one of the fruitiest bourbons I've ever had. Lots of cherry notes and some lovely corn sweetness. If this were available in Ontario, it would be a mainstay in my collection.

Bourbon of the Year, limited release: Stagg Jr.

This one pops up every now and then at the LCBO, and it disappears very fast. This should tell you something. Stagg Jr. is a big, bold, and powerful bourbon. Stagg Jr. is the kind of bold whiskey you imagine cowboys using to do shooters in every Western you've ever seen. It's not cheap (about $85 CAD at the LCBO) but at about 65% ABV, it's a LOT of bang for your buck (pun intended). There's a ton of brown sugar, cherries, cinnamon, vanilla and oak in here. This is not a bourbon to sip casually. It slaps you in the face and demands your full attention. If the price doesn't put you off, I imagine this bourbon would make for a magnificent Old Fashioned. The high ABV can stand up to anything, but I can't imagine putting something this pricy in a cocktail. My sample was provided by a friend, so I didn't really have the option to try it in Don Draper's prefered drink.

Single Malt Scotch of the Year, age stated: Springbank 10 Year Old

Springbank is tough to find in Ontario; it's worth the chase. Springbank is the epitome of "craft distilling". Lest you think that naught but hipster-speak, I can assure you there are many differences between Springbank and big, corporate players like Macallan. Every step of the whisky-making process, from malting the barley to bottling the whisky is completed on-site at Springbank. Their 10 Year Old Single Malt is complex, with sweet fruit and spicy pepper notes, a little peat smoke and some brine as well. It is a whisky worth lingering over, and it gets better with time in the glass. If whisky drank whisky, it would probably drink Springbank. 

Blended Scotch or Blended Malt of the Year: Compass Box Great King Street Glasgow Blend

Blended scotch gets a bad rap. John Glaser is trying to change that, and he's slowly succeeding. From taking on the Scotch Whisky Association over its arcane interpretation of regulations to releasing a whisky with no tasting notes whatsoever (Phenomenology), Compass Box is shaking up the world of scotch. This blend, to me, redefines what a blended scotch can be. It's sweet and sherried but still has a good amount of smoke. The Glasgow Blend reminds me a bit of Johnnie Walker Black with the rough edges smoothed out and the complexity amped up. Johnnie Black on steroids, if you will. I recommend you try it for yourself. 

Irish Whiskey of the Year, Single Pot Still: Redbreast 12 Cask Strength

If you only have one Irish whiskey in your whisk(e)y cabinet, this should be it. This is the LeBron James of Irish whiskey. It's that much better than all the others. It's big and bold, sweet and spicy. Christmas spices, toffee sweetness, buttered toast; there's so much going on here that it's hard to sip casually. It isn't cheap, but a bottle of this whiskey can easily last you a year since you won't shoot it or sip it casually as a "background whiskey". Much like LeBron, you can't fully appreciate it unless you taste (or see) it (or him) for yourself.

Irish Whiskey of the Year, blended: Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition

Peanut butter and jam. Bacon and eggs. Michael Bay movies and big explosions. Some things just go together. This (seemingly gimmicky) experiment by Jameson sees their classic blended Irish whiskey finished in Stout beer casks. The result is fantastic. Irish whiskey and stout beer are a logical pairing and the flavours work together beautifully. The friendly vanilla and toffee sweetness of Jameson is amped up, with the stout finish adding chocolate and coffee notes as well as a slight hoppy tingle on the tongue. Don't let the low price fool you; this is a whiskey worthy of your attention.

Scotch Whisky of the Year, no age statement: Ardbeg Uigeadail

I've voiced my objections to no age statement scotch before and I won't rehash that here. That said, some NAS whisky is very good. Ardbeg Uigeadail (pronounced OO-gah-dahl) is excellent. It helps that I'm a fan of the "standard" Ardbeg Ten, but the "Oogie" (as it's popularly known) is a different beast altogether. My first bottle of Oogie was not what I expected. The first dram of any whisky is sometimes a bit “closed” but there wasn’t as much Sherry in Uigeadail as I thought there would be. This wasn’t a bad thing, just a surprise. 

Uigeadail has some flavours in common with Ardbeg 10 that feel “amplified” in this (chocolate, coffee and licorice notes) and there are some flavours here that aren’t in the 10 (blackberries, chocolate-covered raisins, walnuts, a bit of leather on the nose).It’s also surprisingly friendly for something bottled at over 50% ABV. A tiny little splash of water really brings a big, dark fruit note out of Uigeadail. I’m reminded of a blackberry tart with dark chocolate, paired with a cigar. The nice thing about this whisky is its tendancy to really develop on the palate. Simply put, it starts with the dark fruit, moving seamlessly to dark chocolate, then to rich cigar smoke before finishing on a dark coffee note with a touch of black pepper. I'm a fan of this whisky, age stated or not. That's why I'm also awarding it my World Whisky of the Year award.


There you have it, my choices for the best whiskies of the year. Do you have favourites? Have you made any new discoveries this year? What are your thoughts on my choices? I hope 2017 has been good to you and that 2018 will be even better.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Slainte !!

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Whisky Lover's Holiday Gift Guide: T to Z

Figure it out

This Letter(Kenny) thing is getting tougher. I'm trying to keep prices reasonable, but I can't ignore some nice, albeit higher-priced offerings. Finding a spirit for every letter of the alphabet is as tough as beating Wayne in a fight. Maybe I should stray away from whisky. Maybe I will. Well, here goes. Pitter patter.

T: Teeling Single Grain Irish Whiskey

Grain whiskies have a bad reputation among certain whisky snobs as being "inferior" to malt whiskies. Ignore those people. There are great grain whiskies, and this is a fine one. This whiskey has light aromas of toasted grain, spicy oak, and toffee. Like many Irish whiskeys, it has an almost oily texture. Teeling is fudgy-sweet and herbal-spicy and has a long and balanced finish. There's also a good deal of fruitiness here, as this whiskey has been aged in California Cabernet Sauvignon casks.
LCBO Price: $77.60

U: Ungava Premium Gin

Canadian Arctic sourced botanicals that include cloudberry, labrador tea, and rose hip give this gin its unique colour and flavour. Ungava features aromas of juniper, herbal tea, spice and tart fruit. It's dry and medium-bodied with a warm and spicy finish. Ideal for a nice Gin and Tonic, a Negroni or a Gimlet. This new-style Gin is great in an old-time drink.
LCBO Price: 34.95

V: Virginia Black

Virginia Black is the result of the collaboration between the creator of DeLeón Tequila and award-winning Canadian rapper Drake. It may appear a bit gimmicky in tha bottle, but reviews seem pretty decent. If you're looking for a whiskey that isn't overly bold or oaky, this may be the right one. Lots of buttery sweetness, a faint touch of rye spice and some maple syrup notes round this one out. Drake's whiskey is mild and friendly, like you might imagine the rapper would be. The bottle seems to divide people, as it looks sort of cologne-ish, but if this gift is for someone with fashion-forward tastes, it might do the trick.
LCBO Price: 49.95

W: Wayne Gretzky No.99 Red Cask

No list published in Canada can be complete without the Great One, regardless of its relevance to hockey. There's a lot to like about this whisky. Red Cask uses Ontario-sourced grains and red wine casks from the Gretzky Estates winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake as well as ex-bourbon casks. The resulting whisky is very approchable, and can be sipped neat or mixed in a cocktail. Red Cask includes aged rye, malted rye and corn resulting in a light, yet complex whisky with grape and citrus flavours, almond notes, a bit of brown sugar sweetness. It won't break the bank, and I fully admit that the Great One's name is a selling feature, for better or worse.
LCBO Price: $39.95

X: Xavier Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2012

Yes, a red wine. Hey, you try to find something that starts with X. This wine features Christmas spices (nutmeg, cinnamon), raspberry, and hints of mint. Made from 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvedre that was aged in equal parts foudre and barrel, drink it anytime over the coming decade. For those who don't speak French, a literal translation of the name of this village (that's what Châteauneuf-du-Pape is) would be "New Castle of the Pope". In case you didn't know, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a town in southeastern France. The village is about 12 kilometres north of the town of Avignon. A medieval castle sits above the village and dominates the landscape to the south. It was built in the 14th century for Pope John XXII.
LCBO Price: $37.25

Y: Yellow Spot 12 Year Old Irish Whiskey

I've written about this one before. It's a terrific whiskey and a great example of a wine-finished single pot still. It features a 12 year age guarantee, which is always nice to see. It isn't a dealbreaker if there isn't an age statement, but it's nice to see one. There's Something to be said for maturity. Yellow Spot has been matured in three types of cask: American Bourbon cask, Spanish Sherry butts and Spanish Malaga casks for a sweeter flavour. It is more wine-influenced than its little sister, Green Spot. This dram explodes with lemon, butterscotch, cinnamon, peaches, vanilla, almonds, grapes and apricots. And at 46% ABV, this whiskey packs a bit more punch than Green Spot. The finish is longer and the bite is firmer. It's a bit tough to find at times, but it's well worth the effort.
LCBO Price: $100.10

Z: Zaya Gran Reserva Rum

More rum? Yes, more rum. This one features aromas of caramel, citrus peel, vanilla, spice, nuts and toasty oak. It has a rich and mouthfeel with lots of spice, clove, caramel, vanilla, orange and a slight scent of banana. Its long finish will keep you warm on a cold Christmas night. Or morning. No judgment. We're all friends here.
LCBO Price: $74.95


I hope your Holiday season is fantastic. I hope my suggestions have given you ideas on what to pour into your "cup of cheer". (PSA ALERT) Make sure you enjoy responsibly and please, be safe; never operate a motor vehicle after imbibing alcohol. Have a great one !!!

Slainte !