Category Archives: tastings

A Week of Whisky: Red Stag by Jim Beam

Right. So, my weekend off from writing means that what was supposed to be a week of whisky posts is now extended into a second week. Let’s just pretend, shall we?

I’ll start this one by stating right up front that I don’t hold much truck with flavoured versions of traditionally unflavoured spirits. I make an exception for booze that’s house-infused at fancy bars, since they’re generally working with natural ingredients, and doing interesting things with the end result. But store bought hooch that’s spiked with artificial flavouring? Call me crazy, but when I drink gin or rum or bourbon, I usually want to taste gin or rum or bourbon.

So when a bottle of Red Stag by Jim Beam (LCBO 198200 – $26.95/750 mL) arrived last week, and I saw “Black Cherry Flavoured Bourbon Whiskey” emblazoned on the label, I’ll admit that I was predisposed to dislike it even before I opened it. Seeing “Sugar” and “Artificial Flavour(s)” * on the ingredients list didn’t do much to alleviate my concern.

* Yes, the bottle in the photo above says “Infused with Natural Flavors”. It’s from the U.S. website. So either they’re using a different formula south of the border, or the rules about what’s “Natural” are looser down there.

But as always, I did my best to tamp down my prejudgment so I could approach and review this new-to-Canada product as fairly as possible.

(See what I do for you people? I really hope you appreciate it.)

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A Week of Whisky: Master of Malt – Drinks by the Dram

As I noted a couple of posts back, I’m far from being an expert on whisky, and a lot of that has to do with the limited exposure I’ve had to it.

Sure, I’ve been lucky enough in the past couple of years to attend a fair number of media tastings, and the samples that arrive at my door from time to time are appreciated as well. But even with all of that, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there in the wide world of whisky (and whiskey, and bourbon, etc.), and quite frankly, the main thing holding me back from becoming a serious whisky nerd is the cost. I’d love to have a cabinet stocked with all my favourite spirits from Scotland and Ireland and the Southern US and beyond – but until I win the lottery or find some other path to wealth, it just ain’t gonna happen.

The folks at Master of Malt, a whisky and spirits mail order service the UK, know that there are a lot of people like me out there. And while they can’t go so far as to start sending us free bottles of anything we want – because as nice as that would be, it’s really not much of a business model – they’ve done the next best thing with an initiative called Drinks by the Dram, in which they’re offering a selection of items from their inventory of 3000+ whiskies and spirits in 30 mL samples that start at £1.95 per cute l’il bottle.

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A Week of Whisky: The Macallan

While I do get around to writing about whisky eventually in this post, there’s a bit of meandering along the way. If you only care about the booze, feel free to skip to the last few paragraphs – but if you do that, you’ll be missing a good rant!

Also, sorry for the crap photos – I forgot my camera and was using my two-years-old-but-already-ancient iPhone.

And yes, I know that I’ve already missed a posting day in this supposed Week of Whisky. No need to rub it in…

Writing for TAPS Magazine, TasteTO, this blog and a few other places has put me in an odd position of being somewhere between a blogger and “real” media in the eyes of many PR firms and others who are looking to pitch stories. And believe me when I say that there can be a big difference between the way that some PR folks approach and treat bloggers versus more traditional or established media outlets.

In the case of blogs, pitches are often filled with loads of mumbo-jumbo about “tastemakers” and “social media outreach” and “influencers” and such. They can  also try to build a false air of mystery around whatever product is being promoted, saying only that we should “save the date” for the launch of an “exciting new high end spirit” at a “trendy downtown location,” or similar nonsense.

Pitches aimed at more traditional media, however, tend to be straightforward and to the point. The PR companies know that people who write for a living generally don’t have the time or the patience to deal with extraneous fluff and bullshit, so they simply say what’s going to be offered, where and when. Easy peasy.

A couple of months back, I was able to make a good comparison of these two approaches when I received invitations to a tasting event for The Macallan whisky from two different sources.

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A Week of Whisky: Gibson’s Finest

I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to my articles on Glenfiddich and Jack Daniel’s posted to TasteTO last fall, or just a general increase in the number of tasting events being held and promo samples being sent out. But whatever the reason, I’ve seen a serious spike in pitches to do stories on whisky recently – so much of a spike that I have quite a backlog of notes and samples to get through and write up.

While it might be a bit optimistic of me given my usual track record with these sort of things, I’m going to attempt to do a series of daily posts this week covering the various whiskies I’ve sipped and savoured in the past couple of months. I’ll note right up front that even though I love the stuff, I’m far from being a whisky expert, but one of the reasons I want to do this series and future articles on the topic is to help myself learn more about wide variety of whiskies and other related spirits that are out there.

First up is the series is Gibson’s Finest, a Canadian whisky that I’d never tried before a tasting a couple of months back. The history of Gibson’s is long and complicated, and rather than trying to recap it here,  I’ll just mention that the brand is currently owned by William Grant & Sons (also owner of Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and many other whisky and spirit brands), and direct those who would like to know more to this post on the excellent website Canadian Whisky that gives the whole story.

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Toronto Beer Week – Day 1: Tappin’ and Shuckin’

I feel it only proper that any city-wide beer festival should be kicked off with a ceremonial cask-tapping, preferably by a political figure of some sort. And apparently the organizers of Toronto Beer Week agree with me, as they put together a trade and media launch of the event yesterday at Mill Street Brewpub, with Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, MPP Steve Peters, doing the cask-tapping honours at 11:00 AM.

This is hardly the first time that Peters has been involved in a beer-related event. In fact, he’s a long-time fan and supporter of craft beer, and in his role as the Speaker, one of his initiatives has been an annual tasting at Queen’s Park to choose which Ontario craft beers will be served in the dining room and at catered events. So while his riding isn’t in Toronto, he was still a great choice to kick the week off.

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It’s the end of the year, a time when people can’t resist the urge to look back and review the last 12 months while anticipating the year to come. This is something I’ve done on this blog a couple of times, but given how infrequently I’ve posted here in 2009, combined with my piss-poor memory, trying a put together a comprehensive round-up of my year in beer would be a relatively hopeless endeavour.

There was my trip to Mondial de la Bière in Montreal, of course, half of which I managed to document. I also drank way too much in Buffalo; went to cask ale festivals at The Victory Cafe (which I wrote about) and Volo (which I didn’t); went to beer dinners featuring beers from Nørrebro Bryghus & Mikkeller (which I wrote about), Allagash (which I didn’t), and Innis & Gunn (which I sort of did); and I’m pretty sure I did lots of other stuff as well, some beer-related, some not so much.

One thing that I do remember quite vividly, however – if only because it occurred quite recently – is a very exclusive little tasting session hosted at beerbistro by Vlado and Liliana of import agents Roland + Russell, featuring perhaps the most infamous and coveted beer on the planet today: Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Scotland’s BrewDog Brewery.

I’m guessing that anyone reading this blog is familiar with TNP and the story behind it, given the flurry of blog posts and news articles that spewed forth when it was released a month or so back. But in case not, this amusing video will explain it all:

Given the beer’s price (£35 per 330 ml bottle if ordered directly, more on the secondary market) and scarcity (500 bottles, apparently), I had little expectation that I’d ever have a chance to try it. But as BrewDog’s representatives in Canada, Vlado and Liliana were able to score a few bottles, and last Tuesday they were kind enough to share some with a small group that included a several beer writers/bloggers and a few beerbistro staff members.

Like any big show, there were a couple of opening acts: Mikkeller It’s Alive! and Meantime London Porter, both from the R+R import portfolio, and both very fine beers that would be the highlights of any other tasting. But with TNP on the bill, they simply had to be relegated to the support slots.

As for the headliner… well, here’s what I wrote:

Deep brown-black colour with ruby highlights and a very still body. Aroma is outstanding – smoky, peaty, salty, soy sauce, toffee, and some alcohol heat, but not nearly as much as expected. Mouthfeel is smooth and supple, very nice! Flavour is deep and complex with notes of peat, salt, vanilla, licorice, burnt wood, whisky, smoke… and yes, of course, some boozy heat, but as with the aroma, not nearly as much as I anticipated from 32%. A truly unique and absolutely delicious beer that totally lives up to the hype. I would have no problem consuming a whole bottle of this over the course of a long winter’s evening, although it would be rude not to share…

Much respect to BrewDog, then, for creating something that is a whole lot more than just the gimmick it might appear to be. (If you don’t believe me, have a look at what Troy had to say.) And many thanks to Vlado and Liliana for their extreme generosity in sharing their very limited stash of this gem – in a business full of many wonderful people, they’re really a step above the rest.

To them, and everyone else, here’s to a great 2010. Cheers!

I Love Scotch. Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch. Here It Goes Down, Down Into My Belly.


A decade or so ago, I became interested in whisky as more than just something to mix with Coke or ginger ale, and started exploring the parallel worlds of single malts and quality bourbons. After buying a few bottles, I decided that getting serious about it would be too rich for my blood, and started paying more attention to beer instead. But I never lost my taste for the good stuff, and I’m always happy to get an opportunity to tip some back.

So I was pleased to be invited to the Canadian launch of The Balvenie Signature, a new limited bottling from the Balvenie Distillery marking the 45th year of service of Malt Master David Stewart. The event fittingly took place at a gallery in The Distillery District here in Toronto, and started with a talk and tutored tasting – uh, I mean “nosing” – presented by Balvenie’s David Mair, who flew in for a whirlwind visit to host the launch.


(Apologies for the strangely blurred photo – I was using an ancient digital camera in a darkened room, and this was literally the best of the bunch. Although I guess it fits nicely with the “whirlwind visit” comment above…)

The audience for the presentation was a mixed bag of food, drink and lifestyle media, so Mair gave a good overview of the whisky production process, placing particular emphasis on the fact that Belvenie is one of the few distilleries that still grows and malts their own barley (not enough to make all of their whisky, but about 10%-15% of their supply each year), and that has both a coppersmith and a cooperage team on staff.

Mair then explained that for the Signature whisky, David Stewart was asked to create whatever he wished, and he decided to bring together 12-year-old malts from three different casks – first fill bourbon barrels, refill bourbon, and sherry casks – to create a complex but easy drinking whisky.


Based on the nosing/tasting, he seems to have succeeded, as it’s a very enjoyable sipper with fruity notes from the sherry casks, spice and vanilla from the first fill bourbon, and a soft mellow woodiness from the refill. There’s also a faint but discernible smokiness in the finish of the flavour, even though the malt at Balvenie is only lightly smoked during kilning. Moderately complex and very drinkable, just as promised.

Following the media preview, there was a larger reception that I was unable to stick around for, but if I had, I would’ve been treated to an exclusive performance by The Sam Roberts Band (no great loss for me, as I’m not really a fan), and I would assume some food and more Balvenie. But alas, I had stuff to do at home, so off I toddled with a boozy belly and a loot bag containing a beautiful Balvenie glass created by glassblower Clark Guettel.


Should’ve been the end of the story, but when I got home, I found that my wife – who had also been invited to the event, but was unable to make it – had been delivered a consolation prize this afternoon: a small bottle of The Balvenie Signature, packaged with three small vials containing samples of the three cask types that were brought together for the finished product. A very nice little package, and it’s great to have some Signature on hand to break in the new glass.

I’m not sure what the distribution is like elsewhere, but here in Ontario, The Balvenie Signature is available at the LCBO for $72.95.