Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Lot To Be Thankful For: a review of Lot no.40 Rye

It is striking how history, when resting on the memory of men, always touches the bounds of mythology
Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886)

I think she's older than 9
I love history. It was my major during my undergraduate studies. It is fascinating to discover the past "as it really was", devoid of any modern romanticism. That's the way it's done in an academic setting. Historical fiction can be interesting, yet many such novels and Hollywood movies present a very rosy picture of the past. At their least offensive, historical fictions change certain facts and ignore others to tell entertaining stories. I loved the 1995 movie Braveheart. There is very little historical accuracy in Mel Gibson's portrayal of the Scottish rebellion lead by the hero William Wallace; Scotland's King Alexander III died in 1296, not 1276 as suggested in the movie and there had been peace between England and Scotland for 60 years. The Scots of the time period would not have worn plaids. Primae Noctis (or droit du seigneur) was never a real thing. At the time of Wallace's rebellion in 1297-1298, Princess Isabella would have been about 9 years old and she was living in France; it is highly unlikely that she would have looked like Sophie Marceau and even more unlikely that she had an affair with William Wallace. But I can forgive these "liberties" more than I can forgive what I consider greater offenses: mythologizing and idealizing the past to suit our current beliefs and projecting our modern attitudes onto the past. Medieval Europeans did NOT believe the Earth was flat. The French, not George Washington, were largely responsible for the tactics and strategies that won the American War of Independence (links here and here), feminists NEVER publicly burned their bras. Historian Leopold von Ranke argued that the past should be studied "as it was", that is to say, in its own context. This does not always sit well with people, but it is logical. When someone claims they would have loved to live in another time period, they often assume their modern attitudes and opinions would still form the base of their character. This is a mistake, and it is why I'm thankful I live now. I'm not trying to judge or condemn the past, but I would NOT want to return to the days of prohibition. Sure the fashion was great, the music was swingin', there was no reality television, but dying of tuberculosis, measles or smallpox was probably not a good time. More superficially, trying to get some decent hooch (i.e. alcohol) was probably more difficult than Hollywood would have us believe. So while I had to drive to an LCBO a whole 20 kilometres away to find my bottle of Lot no. 40 Rye, I can't really complain too much.

What is Lot no.40?

The original Lot 40 (circa late 1990s) was the brainchild of then Master Distiller Mike Booth. It was an attempt by Hiram Walker to create three different premium whiskies known as the Canadian Whisky Guild. The success of these whiskies was limited, probably owing to the snobbishness of consumers when it comes to premium Canadian whiskies. Lot 40 was discontinued, much to the chagrin of Canadian whisky enthusiasts. In 2012, Corby spirits (which had acquired Hiram Walker) re-released Lot no.40. To ensure that they weren't just selling a venerated name and capitalizing on the (recent) past, Master distiller Dr Don Livermore consulted with the retired Mike Booth to ensure the recipe was authentic. This was the right move. Some companies would have been happy to cash in on a name, but Corby decided to produce a spirit worthy of its much vaunted reputation. Lot no. 40 is a 100% Rye whisky and rye can be tricky to work with, so we're lucky to have Dr Livermore contributing to this one. Lot 40 is produced in a single, 12 000 litre copper pot still at the Hiram Walker facility in Windsor, Ontario. Lot no. 40 won Canadian Whisky of the Year in 2015 (Canadian Whisky Awards) as well as Connoisseur Whisky Of The Year Multiple Markets and a Gold Medal in 2017 (Canadian Whisky Awards). So I guess you could say it's kind of a big deal. I'm often asked how Canadian whisky compares to single malt scotch or bourbon, and I can only come up with the following analogy:

Which is better?

  • Apple pie
  • Chicken pot pie
  • Tourti√®re (a traditional French-Canadian meat pie)
You can't fairly compare an apple pie to anything other than apple pie. Ditto for the other pies. Each must be compared on its own terms. And so it is with whisky. I hope this makes sense. There's a time and place for every whisk(e)y.

Tasting notes

Lot no. 40 Rye
Boozy apple pie

Nose (undiluted) : rye bread, oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper
Palate (undiluted): medium-bodied, rye spice, toasted oak, lots of baking spices, cinnamon hearts, hints of apple and caramel
Finish: medium-long, spicy, slight vanilla note, black pepper with oakiness lingering.

Adding water allows more complexity to shine through. Lot 40 may seem like straightforward at first, but it deserves your full attention. With water, more herbal notes come through and some pipe tobacco makes an appearance. There is also a citrus note that becomes more evident with water, perhaps oranges. This whisky is even great in an Old Fashioned tumbler on the rocks. Hey, not every whisky needs to be sipped from a Glencairn all of the time. If a vessel can deliver whisky to my mouth, it is an appropriate vessel. Nick Offerman drinks his whisky from an Old Fashioned tumbler, so it's acceptable in my books.


Nostalgia can be tricky. When a discontinued item is brought back, there will always be those who claim "the old one was better" or something along those lines, yet there are a whole lot of reasons to be thankful for the return of Lot no. 40. I never tried the old version, but this one is fantastic. It is another whisky which makes me reconsider what I thought I knew about Canadian whisky. At $40 CAD, it is quite affordable and the flavour profile is a nice change from single malt scotch. Not better or worse; different. I strongly urge you to try it. I like it almost as much as Dissertation, so much so that I can't even rate it a half a moustache lower, and that's saying a Lot !

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Cheers, eh !

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Doctor is In: A review of Wiser's Dissertation

Not a doctor I'd trust

Higher education is a wonderful thing. With post-secondary and graduate studies becoming more accessible, human knowledge is advancing at an exponential rate. For all the negative effects of globalization (which I will not prattle on about here), there have been positive effects as well. Experts can come from anywhere on the planet, they can be any gender, sexual orientation etc. Scientists, for example, need not conform to the Eastern European milquetoast archetype; they can be as diverse as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jane Goodall, Chen Ning Yang, or Yoichiro Nambu.   And with rigorous competition in most fields, there are fewer fraudsters who can fleece the innocent, √† la Dr. Nick Riviera (HI everyBODY !!!!). Now there are still hucksters out there but the scientific community is global and pretty good at sniffing out the fakes. When I read that Don Livermore, Master Distiller at J.P. Wiser's had a Ph.D. in Distilling, I had to investigate further. I had always thought of Wiser's as a mixing whisky and hadn't given their premium offerings a second glance. What I found changed the way I think about Canadian Whisky.

Meet the doctor

He knows more about whisky than you
Don Livermore was born in Fordwich, Ontario, a small town just north of Waterloo. He earned his Bsc in microbiology from the University of Waterloo and earned his M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. Yes, THAT Edinburgh. So Dr Don earned his Ph.D. in Distilling from a Scottish University. Let that sink in for a minute. I believe the kids call this "street cred". Livermore has pioneered analytic techniques in the industry through the use of infrared sensors. His technique measures and quantifies the wood extracts left in a barrel. This allows him to calculate how 3, 6 or even 12 years in a barrel will affect a whisky. He states in an interview (here) that 60 days of aging in virgin oak casks will impart more vanilla, caramel and toffee notes than 18 years in first-fill bourbon casks (the industry standard for single malt scotch). Livermore has even authored a chapter in The Alcohol Textbook, 4th edition, which is apparently an industry standard reference book for scientists and engineers. While I will likely never read this book, I'm thankful that people who produce my liquor of choice take it seriously enough to warrant not only a textbook, but four editions of said textbook. Most impressive.

What is Dissertation?

Wiser's Dissertation Canadian Whisky
Yes, that's my paw holding MY bottle
Before I get into tasting notes, I should point out that Dissertation has won World’s Best Blended Limited Release at the World Whiskies Awards, and a Gold Medal at the 2017 Canadian Whisky Awards. So while our opinions and tastes are highly personal, some serious experts have concluded (like me) that this is a damn fine whisky while doing blind taste tests. Heady praise indeed. According to the Toronto Whisky Society (article here) Dissertation is:
  • Approximately 12 years old (all barrels from 2004/2005), but non-age-stated. I've been opposed to NAS whiskies for reasons unrelated to taste and flavour, but rather relating to the way they are marketed. However, I'm becoming a BIT more open-minded where NAS whisky is concerned. Yet more information is always a good thing.
  • A blend of 60 barrels, all virgin oak using #2 (88%) or #4 (12%) char.
  • The blend is 87% rye, mostly column & pot-distilled (distilled to ~80%) plus some column distilled Rye (distilled to ~70%). The rest is double column distilled corn (distilled to ~94%).
  • 46.1% ABV: the science fiends among you may recognize 46.1 as the atomic weight of an ethyl alcohol molecule. I did not recognize this; I read it somewhere and verified it. Seems legit.
  • Non-chill-filtered: I have written about this before and I'm very pleased to see this.
  • No colour added: I've argued that E150A (a.k.a caramel colouring or spirit caramel) is NEVER necessary,  but the use of virgin oak imparts so much colour that even marketing people are ok with leaving it alone.
  • Limited Release: only 60 barrels were used for this LCBO-exclusive release, BUT there are another 54 barrels from Don’s PhD left in the warehouse! Whether they get released as a “Dissertation 2.0” or used in other blends is unknown at this point.

Another difference between the Canadian and American approach to whisky-making:

  • When making bourbon (U.S.) the mash bill (grain mixture) is determined and then the grains are cooked, fermented, distilled and aged together.
  • When making Canadian Whisky, the grains are cooked, fermented, distilled and aged separately and blended during the finishing stages. This allows the blenders to create specific flavour profiles.

This isn't a hard and fast rule for Canadian whisky, but it is the standard procedure.

Tasting notes

Nose (undiluted): very rye forward, toasted oak, maple sugar, some baking spices, mint in the background

Palate (undiluted): surprisingly smooth arrival, medium bodied, rye spice, vanilla, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, red apples

Finish: medium length, more rye spice, vanilla, some charred oakiness lingering

Adding water to Dissertation allowed the spices, particularly cloves, to come through a bit more, but the rye and oak were still quite present. In addition to the toasted oak, water brings a freshly-cut oak note to the nose. The rye is very pronounced in this whisky and that's a great thing. If you associate rye flavour with inexpensive mixer whiskies (e.g. Wiser's Special Blend, Canadian Club), Dissertation can show you just how good rye whisky can be.


Is this our National confidence level?
Canada regularly produces greatness, yet Canadians are reluctant to boast. Sure, if it's hockey-related, we proudly rhyme off names like Orr, Lemieux, Gretzky, Yzerman, Roy, Crosby, or McDavid as proof of our nation's ability to be among the best in the world. Perhaps we simply like to appear humble. Perhaps we worry too much what other nations think of us: we feel like we're Milhouse and the U.S.A. is Bart Simpson. When it comes to whisky, Canada is producing some of the finest spirits anywhere. It isn't scotch, it isn't bourbon; it is uniquely Canadian. We've been producing a lot of whisky for a very long time, and we're pretty good at it. Wiser's Dissertation proves that imaginative Canadians like Don Livermore can combine art and science in a way that should make us proud. I can't recommend Dissertation highly enough. If you can find a bottle, buy it. You won't regret it.

Rating: 4/5 moustaches

Cheers, eh !

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Taming the Beast: A review of Lagavulin Distillers Edition 1999/2015

I believe this is what the kids call #LifeGoals
Everyone has something they love to an absurd and irrational degree. And this love is often bizarre and incomprehensible to others. Like those who love The Grateful Dead. Seriously, what's the deal? Who wants to listen to a bunch of stoners tuning their guitars and noodling around aimlessly for three and a half hours? I kid, I kid. Sort of. I love Lagavulin. What can I possibly say about Lagavulin that I haven't already said or written? If you know me, or if you have ever read this blog, you undoubtedly know about my somewhat obsessive love for this nectar of the gods. It is also the preferred drink of moustachioed libertarian extraordinaire Ron Swanson and, not coincidentally, the drink of choice of Nick Offerman who portrayed Ronald Ulysses Swanson on Parks and Recreation. Offerman even teamed up with Diageo (corporate owners of Lagavulin, Talisker, Oban, Caol Ila, Dalwhinnie, Johnnie Walker and more) to produce a series of YouTube videos entitled "My Tales of Whisky". The collection includes "The Treasure of Lagavulin",  "That's Not Lagavulin", "Lagavulin-Scented Holiday Gifts" and even an uninterrupted Yule Log video wherein Offerman sits by a fire whilst sipping Lagavulin. This may not appeal to everyone, but it's the kind of humour that tickles my fancy. However, Lagavulin Distillers Edition is different from the "standard" Lagavulin 16 Year Old. How you ask? Read on, friend.

What is Lagavulin?

Lagavulin distillery is one of the three "heavy hitters" of the peat-heavy southern Islay distilleries, alongside the excellent Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Lagavulin has a long and storied history of feuds with Laphroaig that you can read about here (be sure to click on "discover more"), if you're interested. Lagavulin's range of whiskies is not extensive, but it doesn't need to be. The most common Lagavulin is the 16 Year Old, though Lagavulin usually releases a 12 Year Old Cask Strength malt almost every year. Diageo released an 8 Year Old Lagavulin in 2016 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the (legal) founding of Lagavulin. So what is "Distillers Edition"? While Lagavulin 16 is mainly aged in refill European Oak casks, Distillers Edition is Double Matured. That means that some of the spirit is aged in European Oak while another portion of it is matured in Pedro Ximenez (sherry) casks. This is not sherry-finished, but double matured. This leads to a different flavour profile.

Tasting notes:

Lagavulin Distillers Edition 1999/2015
Liquid cigar, in a good way
Nose (undiluted): classic Lagavulin smoke and peat, with that maritime (brine, seaweed) iodine note, developing some sweet sherry with dark fruit (dates) and fresh tobacco (cigar)

Palate (undiluted): rich and full-bodied, sweet arrival and dates developing quickly to classic Lagavulin smoke and peat, a bit of leather and black pepper, with more cigar notes

Finish: long, smoky, some dark chocolate and coffee notes, with brine and tobacco lingering

Adding water initially brings out much more maritime character on the nose. You get hit with the briny, iodine smell of seaweed washed up on the shore, and more sherry fruitiness. Left to sit for another 5-10 minutes, the brininess gets toned down a bit and the big sherry nose is back, mingling with the beach smells. The flavour on the palate is not as immediately sweet once water is added, but is just as rich and unctuous. The first thing you taste by adding water is wood smoke, developing to sweet sherry, dark fruit and chocolate. The finish is a touch less smoky with water, but the dark chocolate is far more apparent. As odd as it sounds (or pretentious, depending on your point of view), adding water didn't change the aromas and flavours as much as it re-ordered and re-focused them. Either way, this Distillers Edition is a dram to linger over. A 1 1/2 oz. pour lasted me over an hour. Before you write me off as a snob (though the criticsm may be valid), know that I nose my Lagavulin as soon as it's poured, then again after 10 minutes sitting in the glass, then again after another 10 minutes. So the first 20 minutes features no tasting whatsoever. I then take a few small, baby sips neat. Then I add a teaspoon of distilled water, nose it immediately, let it sit for 5-10 minutes and nose it some more. Once you get past feeling silly about this process, it is very rewarding. The smells really do evolve, and no, it's not imagined. There is a scientific explanation for the chemical reactions that are occurring at the molecular level throughout this process, but I won't bore you with it here.


Lagavulin is like Duke Silver, your tour guide to bliss,
rapture and wonder
Lagavulin is revered by many malt enthusiasts. Unlike other distilleries whose near-mythic reputations are the product of marketing rather than quality (*cough Macallan*), Lagavulin actually delivers the goods. Others may have had different experiences, but I've never encountered a bad Lagavulin. It is as solid and predictable as Ron Swanson's social and political views. Is Lagavulin Distillers Edition better than the "standard" 16 Year Old? Different, not better or worse. It would be impossible to decide which alter-ego is Andy Dwyer's greatest. Is Johnny Karate better than Burt Tyrannosaurus Macklin? Who could pick a favourite between Duke Silver and Ron Swanson? So it follows that comparing Lagavulin Distillers Edition to Lagavulin 16 Year Old is a fruitless endeavour. Both should be appreciated for the treasures they are, much like Li'l Sebastian.

Rating: 4.5/5 moustaches

Slainte mhaith !

* I only kid about Macallan. I'm not a fan, though I know many people are. It's just a little humour, folks.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Get It While You Can (that's what she said!): A review of Benromach 10 Year Old Single Malt

I love the television program The Office. The U.S. version, that is. (I'm unfamiliar with the U.K. version). The Office is funny, but not always in an over-the-top kind of way. Much of the humour is subtle, like a look from Jim in the background, or the presence of decorative items in Michael's office. Now there are some laugh-out-loud moments (pretty much any time Kevin speaks) and some awkward moments that are so unnerving, you can't help but laugh. The cast created a synergy that made the show more than the sum of its constituent parts. The funny thing is, I didn't really watch "The Office" when it originally aired. I caught an episode every now and then, but I didn't "get it". It's easy to miss nuance if you aren't paying attention. Luckily, the whole series is on Netflix and I can watch it all at my leisure (and I do). Sometimes, we aren't so lucky. Sometimes, by the time you realize something is great, it's gone or hard to find. That may be the case with Benromach 10 Year Old Single Malt. If you wait too long to try it, it might be more expensive by the time you get to it or Benromach may be so popular that finding it might be hard (that's what she said!).

About Benromach distillery

benromach scotch casks warehoused
99 barrels of scotch on the wall, 99 barrels of scotch

Benromach is the smallest distillery in Speyside. They employ only 3 people. Yes, you read that right. Three people. They only produce about 200 000 litres of spirit per year. That may sound like a lot of whisky, but consider this: Glenlivet produces over 10 million litres of spirit per annum. The Benromach distillery opened its doors in 1898 near the town of Forres. It has changed hands many times over the years and owners United Distillers (forerunner to Diageo) mothballed the Benromach distillery in 1983. In 1993, independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail purchased the distillery and in 1998, Benromach began producing spirit once again. The distillery's 10 year old expression hit the market in 2009. The Benromach website refers to their malt as a "classic pre-1960s Speyside". Now I don't know what this means exactly, since I was born at the tail-end of the 1970s and my financial portfolio does not permit me to purchase bottles from that era. I'll take them at their word. One of the unique features of Benromach is that they use a dunnage warehouse. A dunnage warehouse uses stone walls, an earthen floor, is not climate controled and allows the seasonal variations to affect the casks and the spirit contained therein. Does this impart a different flavour and character than warehousing in a large, climate-controlled industrial warehouse? I have no idea. You can watch this video (opens in a new window) to have it explained to you by a Scotsman from Benromach. What does Benromach 10 taste like? Funny you should ask.

Tasting notes

benromach 10 year old speyside
A pleasant surprise (that's what she said!)

Nose (undiluted): demerara sugar, malt (barley), peat smoke, red fruit (raspberries),  green apples, herbal notes in the background.

Palate (Undiluted): medium bodied and creamy, sweet vanilla, malt (barley), raspberries, biscuits (tea biscuits or grosses galettes, if you're French-Canadian), mild sherry note, charred oak, peat smoke

Finish: medium length, fruitiness returning, peat smoke, biscuits, very moreish*

Adding water really opened up this whisky. It is really good neat. It is incredible with a small splash of water. The nose becomes much fruitier and more focused. Grilled pineapple appears on the nose right after the raspberries. The vague "herbal note" on the nose becomes much more akin to cardamom. The taste becomes fruitier and "clearer" as well. You don't really lose any of the nice creaminess of the body, and the fruit becomes evident. Usually, sherried whiskies carry dates, figs or raisins on the palate. Not so with Benromach. The fruit is brighter and more vibrant. Now the maturation is 80% first-fill bourbon barrels and only 20% ex-sherry casks so this isn't a sherry-bomb by any means. However, the combination works brilliantly. This may be the best whisky bang for your buck I've ever encountered.

*moreish: refers to a food or whisky that you constantly want more of. Remember that Lay's Chips slogan? "Bet you can't eat just one" That's moreish.


Don't mess with the Schrute

I've often told people not to judge whisky based on its price tag. Benromach 10 costs $59 here in Ontario, the most expensive scotch whisky jurisdiction in the known universe*. That's not a lot of money for a very high quality single malt. If you are unsure about peated whisky, this might be a good place to start. The smoke and peat are present, but Benromach 10 won't burn your taste buds like Dwight Schrute burned Roy's eyes whilst protecting Jim Halpert. But Benromach definitely makes its wonderful presence known, albeit subtly, much like Pam Beesly. My only gripe, and it is an admittedly minor one, is that I'd like this malt at a slightly higher strength. Benromach does indeed make a 10 year old at British Imperial 100 proof (approx. 57% ABV) that I'd love to try, but I think the "standard" would benefit from being bottled at 46%. That said, this is a great malt and well worth the sixty bucks. Highly recommended.

*not a verifable fact

Rating: 3.5/5 moustaches

Slainte mhaith !!!