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Spirits to Sing About

The Spirits Review
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

For another man it would be a hard act to follow. When Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Sammy Hagar expanded his repertoire to launch Cabo Wabo tequila he struck it rich, very rich. The brand was inspired by his Cabo Wabo nightclub which opened in 1990 in Cabos San Lucas. It’s a rocking party place that’s a must go for everyone who visits the Baja California peninsula in Mexico.

Said Hagar, “Cabo Wabo is a lifestyle. Something that requires only a willingness to enjoy your life and embrace all that makes you happy.” And oh boy do people party there, I can attest.

Cabo Wabo Tequila was born in 1996 on the back roads of Guadalajara when Hagar went searching for a tequila exceptional enough to serve inside his cantina in Cabo San Lucas. He partnered with a tequila-making family with over 80 years of experience where the agave used to make Cabo Wabo is grown, cultivated and harvested by this same family.

In May, 2007 Hagar sold an 80% interest in Cabo Wabo Tequila to Gruppo Campari, the world’s sixth-largest spirits company, for $80 million. In in 2010, Sammy Hagar sold his remaining 20% stake in Cabo Wabo to Campari for $11 million.

Sammy's Beach Bar RumThat’s a pretty profit. The 66 year old now ranks among the highest-net-worth rock stars. So what’s he doing now? For act two in the spirit world, he’s launched a rum from Maui, Hawaii called Sammy’s Beach Bar Rum. Distilled from two year old Maui Gold Sugar Cane using unique column stills it’s bound to be a success.

When I asked Hagar, the multi-platinum former front man of hard rock champions Van Halen, if he was going to write a rum song, he said “After Mas Tequila, it’s a hard act to follow.” (Cabo Wabo Cantina was where the video for the 1999 hit song “Mas Tequila” from the Red Voodoo album was filmed.) I’m not sure I believe him. His next acts seem as strong if not stronger than the previous ones.

I had the pleasure to meet the fun loving Hagar in Toronto during his promotional tour for the launch of his rum in Canada. He quipped, “When you work for me it’s mandatory to drink.” Where do I sign up? For more on him go to: www.redrocker.com

Hagar’s right on target with today’s tastes. All deluxe white spirits are trending up: rum, vodka and gin.

Barbancourt 5 Stars 8 Year Old Reserve takes pride in producing rum from sugar cane juice instead of molasses which is the norm. Barbancourt rum produced in Haiti since 1862 is double distilled in pot stills and aged in French Limousin oak barrels. This well-aged version is lovely.

Appleton Estate ReserveRhum Barbancourt 5 Stars 8 Yo Special ReserveAppleton Estate Reserve rum is a smooth, full and flavoursome rum. Visiting the estate itself is more on the rough side. The distillery is in the picturesque Nassau Valley in St. Elizabeth in the interior of the island. Almost as soon as we left the protective walls of the Iberostar Grand Hotel Rose Hall (our base on the island), we were in what I like to call the un-sanitized Caribbean.

The narrow, twisting road had a raging case of potholes, with sharp edges that slashed at our tires (and did manage to puncture one). The verdant countryside was teaming with life: huge bamboo groves, towering palms, fruit trees of all sorts and fields of agricultural crops. Amidst the green were houses – many wood shacks in colourful shades of robin egg blue, chartreuse, bright yellow and the like with corrugated zinc roofs; others imposing cement McMansions with several storey’s either completed or in the works and not yet painted. Cows, goats and chickens scurried about the yards.

Along with schools, each town we passed had its share of churches, largely Seventh-day Adventist and charismatic types where singing and dancing are part of the service. Beside just about every church was a rum bar, many painted with the slogan “Show me the Wray”. (Wray and Nephew Ltd own Appleton Distillery.) “We like to sooth both spirits,” explained Joy Spence, master blender at Appleton.

This colourful countryside was a captivating prelude to our Appleton Tour and almost before we knew it we had arrived. Joy met us and began our tour by taking us up the hillside to gaze upon the over 4,000 hectares of sugar cane fields owned by the distillery. These fields supply the entire base product needed for Appleton Estate Jamaica Rum. This single estate in a small circumscribed geographic area makes Appleton one of the few rum brands in the world to claim a “terroir”.

And the “terroir” of the Nassau Valley is unique. The valley’s fertile fields enjoy a regular afternoon rain shower and warm sunshine – the optimum conditions to grow sugar cane – a giant grass belonging to the genus saccharum. The valley is also part of Jamaica’s world famous Cockpit Country, a Karst formation which was formed over millions of years. (Karst is a generic name given to limestone that has been eroded by the chemical action of rain.)  There are just three Cockpit Karst formations in the world; the others are in Montenegro and China. The hilly landscape looks like an egg carton turned upside down.

Once the cane is harvested, it’s brought to the factory where the sugar manufacturing process begins. Animals are not encouraged to go anywhere near this factory. We saw a sign that proclaimed “Goats will be shot, cows impounded.” When asked about that, Joy replied with a laugh, “Jamaicans like curry goat a lot more than beef.”

The cane is washed, chopped and milled to extract the cane’s sweet juice. The juice that is extracted is boiled to make a syrup. The fibres (bagasse) that are left behind after the juice is extracted are used to fuel the factory’s boilers. Sugar crystals are spun out of the syrup and molasses is left; the latter is what’s used to make rum.

Ten tons of sugar cane makes one ton of sugar and 0.4 tons of molasses. From that 30 cases of rum can be made.

As part of the tour we got to grind the juice out of some sugar cane and sample the result. We also tasted the syrupy mixture of sugar crystals and molasses. We toured the distillation area with its pot stills and continuous stills; a hot part of the plant filled with the aromas of molasses. We cooled down in the aging cellar, stacked with old barrels and intriguing smells of its own.  Then of course it was time to sip the range of rums. Joy called her seminar “The Joy of Rum” no pun intended.

We learned that sugar cane was brought from Papua New Guinea to the Caribbean in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. The first documented rum production at Appleton was in 1749. By 1893 there were 148 distilleries in Jamaica producing 73 million litres of rum. In 2011 there were just six distilleries left but they manage to produce 20.5 million litres.

Bacardi AñejoAppleton Estate VXThe secret to many exceptional rums is blending- a creative step that demands a true artist of the palate. Master Blender, Joy Spence, the first woman to be appointed Master Blender in the world, uses many different types and styles of rum to create each blend that has the Appleton Jamaica Rum name. Pot still rums are more aromatic and flavourful. Continuous still rums have subtle fruit notes and lightness. Aging in former American bourbon barrels adds notes of vanilla, coffee and toasted almond. Joy can pick from 240,000 barrels of aging rum at Appleton.

Of the Appleton rums available in Canada, the best all-rounder is Appleton Estate V/X, the flagship brand of the rum family.

Bacardi Anejo has a soft open style and light bronze hue. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I visited the Bacardi rum distillery. The company’s free distillery tour in San Juan includes two drinks per person so no surprise that it draws crowds from morning to closing. The Puerto Rico distillery goes 24/7 and produces 100,000 gallons of rum a day from imported molasses. Bacardi was founded by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó in Cuba in 1862. Now the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world, it set up distilleries in other countries (including in Brampton, Ontario) after the Cuban Revolution.

Let’s all sing to the success of rums throughout the world. Maybe if we pen the right words or create the perfect spirit we’ll make a fortune. If not, at least we’ll be happy.

 

Margaret Swaine

To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on the link below:

Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can read Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Cool White Spirits

by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Vodka in North America once was a colourless flavourless way to booze up orange or tomato juice. Then came the flavoured vodkas often used to add jazz to cocktails. Now along comes a Swedish vodka created specifically to max out flavour without the addition of flavourings. Just pure unfiltered distilled grain – albeit distilled 34 times – and best served unadulterated by anything but water.

Master Blender Thomas Kuuttanen travelled recently to Canada to present his Purity Vodka to bartenders and spirit writers. Kuuttanen who has worked for over 25 years as a distiller of whisky, eau-de-vie and liqueurs said “I didn’t like what vodka had become over the years – colourless, tasteless and odorless.”

He set about developing an old school style vodka that played by the rules (i.e. could not according to regulations be solely made in a pot still) but had texture, aroma and flavour. To do this he had to invent his own distillation method and his own distillation apparatus which took over a year to create (a pot still and two special distillation towers).

Purity VodkaVodka can be made with any agricultural ingredient however most use wheat. Kuuttanen used a combo of winter wheat and two-row organic malted barley (the same type used for whisky) for Purity. The 34 extremely slow distillations over several days are what make the biggest difference. He uses only the finest 10% distillate and he doesn’t filter his vodka (it’s so pure there’s no need he says).

The result is the first vodka to score a perfect 100 points (organic category, The Vodka Masters 2011) and is the most awarded ultra-premium vodka in the world with over 80 gold medals. At the tasting I attended we compared Purity with Smirnoff (the biggest selling vodka in the world), Grey Goose, Stoli Elit and Absolut Elyx. Smirnoff as could be expected was the most neutral, Purity the most aromatic and deep with flavour and Stoli Elit the prettiest and silkiest.

He presented a vodka flavour chart to demonstrate which vodkas fell where on the scale of neutral to complex and light to rich. In the quadrant of complex and rich were such vodkas as Stoli Elit, Ketel One, Belvedere Intense, Vermont Gold and right up at the top, Purity.

Kuuttanen’s signature cocktail for Purity is 3 parts vodka, one part water stirred over ice and strained out into a martini glass. To make a smoky martini he recommends using the same formula but swirling Laphroaig in the martini glass first. Then toss out the whisky, rub an orange peel on the top of the glass and pour in the vodka/water mix.

Spud Potato vodka is another interesting vodka to come to Canada. Made in Poland from distilled potatoes grown without chemicals or pesticides, its creamy texture works well in highball drinks. It’s also free of additives. (Many vodkas contain additives such as glycerine, sugars or softeners to make the vodka taste better.)

Spud Potato VodkaBroken Shed VodkaI Spirit VodkaGrey Goose VX

Additive free Broken Shed Vodka from New Zealand currently has a small distribution in British Columbia through Indigo Hospitality Solutions (www.tasteindigo.com) with a view to grow its presence throughout Canada. It’s also making a name for itself in the US. Its unusual twist is that it’s made from whey.

The Italian vodka, I Spirit Vodka debuted in 2009, a project of three Italians: Arrigo Cipriani of Harry’s Bar, Lapo Elkann (from the Fiat family)and wine producer Marco Fantinel.

Available only in Duty Free in Canada, Grey Goose VX is silky, smooth and exceptional.

Deluxe gins are trendy in Canada. In Ontario those in the over $32 category are up 80 per cent. That said it’s good to see value priced ($27.95) elegant and citrus crisp Hayman’s London Dry Gin on the shelves too. Hayman’s Old Tom Gin is a lovely old style juniper dominant, ginny gin.

Hayman's London Dry GinHayman's Old Tom GinBombay Sapphire East

From Islay in Scotland, The Botanist Dry Gin has nine classic gin botanicals plus an astonishing 22 local herbs and flowers to flavour it. Bombay Sapphire East has an addition of Thai lemongrass and Vietnamese black peppercorns to lend it an exotic flare. For a most refreshing G&T press 3 small bulbs of lemongrass and a lime wedge into the base of a glass. Add 1.5 ounces Bombay Sapphire East Gin, Fever Tree Tonic (less sweet than standard commercial sodas) and ice to the glass and stir. Garnish with a sprinkle of cracked peppercorn and a stem of lemongrass.

Auchentoshan 12 Years Old Single Malt Scotch WhiskyThose who prefer a brown spirit for their cocktails or just for sweet summer sipping on the rocks by the dock should stock up on triple distilled Auchentoshan.

For an alternative to a G&T; mix a good quality ginger beer with 1.5 ounces Auchentoshan in a highball glass filled with ice. Garnish with an orange slice. This single malt Lowland scotch is smooth yet distinctive. Ideal like those gins and vodkas above to mellow out and relax on a midsummer day.

Cin cin, salud, santé, cheerio, skål, slainte – whatever your toast – have a cheer filled summer.

 

Margaret Swaine

To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on the link below:

Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can read Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – June 2014

Rum and Summer Cocktails
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The rums are rolling in just in time for summer festivals and cool cocktails. Some rums are new while others are repackaged or reinvented to refresh our palates and our days. Rum has a slew of legendary drinks; the Daiquiri, Cuba Libre, the Zombie, Piña Colada and the Mojito to name several with long histories. Get on island time with these smooth spirits and join the festivities.

Bacardi is launching a new campaign “Bacardi Untameable Since 1862” to highlight their origins in Santiago de Cuba in 1862 and famous rum drinks such as the Cuba Libre, the original name given to the now ubiquitous rum and coke with a lime wedge. (According to various reports, the Cuba Libre was first mixed at a Cuban bar in August 1900 by a member of the U.S. Signal Corps.) Bacardi’s biggest seller is Bacardi Superior Blanco, a light bodied white rum that’s tailor made for cocktails.

Bacardi Superior RumJuly 3 – 6th sees the launch of Bacardi Festival Libre, a multi-day festival in Toronto followed by consecutive events in Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal. The five day kick-off festival takes place in Toronto’s Distillery District with live music, dancing, stalls of local artisans and vendors, samplings and Cuban food stations.

Bacardi’s bat logo has also been redesigned based on hand-drawn designs from the early 1900’s and the Bacardi word mark has been updated, influenced by the Cuban Art Deco style from the late 1920’s to 1930’s.

Mount Gay made in Barbados has also gone through a recent redesign. Barbados is called the birthplace of rum: it’s believed rum was made there as early as 1493. It’s often said that the spirit got its name in the taverns of Bridgetown, where life was “rumbustious”. The island still plays homage to its heritage. When I last visited Barbados they boasted 1,600 rum shops, about six to every square kilometre. Luckily Barbados is blessed with rum’s other vital ingredient; pure, clean and abundant water, naturally filtered by the coral which makes up its land mass.

Mount Gay Rum Extra Old RumMount Gay EclipseMount Gay was created by Sir John Gay in 1703 and for over 300 years the distillery has remained true to their signature style of aging and blending single and double distillates matured in toasted oak barrels. Eclipse has two to seven year rums and a distinctive banana aroma. Enhance the banana character by making a Rum Runner cocktail: one ounce Eclipse, quarter ounce each of blackberry and of banana liqueurs, two ounce orange juice and a splash of grenadine poured over crushed ice. Silky long aged Mount Gay XO just poured over ice goes down very smoothly indeed.

There’s also been a relaunch for the Dominican Republic’s Brugal rum range (including 1888, Añejo and Especial Extra Dry) with package redesign and new rums introduced. Those visiting Puerto Plata in DR should include a visit to nearby Brugal to taste on location. (Puerto Plata is much more of a real city with a history compared to the Punta Cana area that’s mainly a string of over 80 resorts spread along 60 kilometres of east coast beaches.) In the mid-19th century Spaniard Andrés Brugal Montaner settled in Puerto Plata and founded Brugal Distillery in 1888. His rum-crafting skills have been passed through five generations of Maestros Roneros in the Brugal family. Brugal rums have a distinctive dry, woody taste profile that have helped make them the number one selling rum in the Caribbean and the third largest rum brand worldwide.

BRUGAL ANEJOBRUGAL EXTRA DRYBrugal 1888 Gran Reserva Familiar RumIn the distillation process for all Brugal rums the heavy alcohols and congeners which give most rums their characteristic sweetness are removed. The rums are then aged in high quality oak casks – an element that’s important to brand owner Edrington which acquired the company in 2008 and also has top whisky brands such as The Macallan and Highland Park.

Brugal Añejo is aged two to five years in American oak casks. Brugal Especial Extra Dry is a white rum aged up to five years. Brugal 1888 is aged in medium-toasted American white oak for up to eight years, followed by a second maturation in Spanish sherry-seasoned oak. All the rums have the characteristic dry woody Brugal signature.

For refreshing summer sipping I leave you with the Golden Mojito recipe courtesy of Brugal. Ingredients: 1.5 ounces Brugal Añejo, ¾ ounce fresh lime juice, ½ ounce sugar syrup, 10 mint leaves, ginger ale and one lime wedge. Add lime juice, sugar syrup, mint and rum to a glass and muddle at the bottom of the glass. Fill with crushed ice and stir. Top up with ginger ale and garnish with the lime and a sprig of mint.

Salud!

Margaret Swaine

To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can read Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see critic reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – May 2014

Sip the Waters of Life
By Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Eaux-de-vie, the “waters of life” produced from distilling fruits, wild forest berries, flowers, tree buds, grape pomace and other sometimes very rare botanicals are the Cinderella’s of the spirit world. Hard to find but beautiful, waiting for their moment to shine. I search them out whenever I travel and encourage spirit lovers and our liquor boards to do the same. The treasure hunt is worth it.

There are the fruit and wild berry based eaux-de-vie of Switzerland, France, Austria and other European countries, the apple based Calvados from Normandy France, the schnapps of the German speaking countries, slivovitz (plum) of the Slavic regions, the marc based grappa of Italy and much more. These eaux-de-vie are the very essence of the plant from whence they come – no need for added ‘natural flavour’, lab made aromatics or the cloak of sugar.

Alsace in the northeast corner of France produces some of the highest quality and varied of all the eaux-de-vie. Getting there is simple now with a high speed TGV train which goes directly from Charles de Gaulle Paris airport to Strasbourg in two hours twenty minutes.

Wine lovers know the region for the Alsace Wine Route, one of the oldest, prettiest and most historic of such routes. The route, founded in 1953, starts outside of Strasbourg and meanders by medieval castles, vineyards and through picture-postcard villages for 170 kilometres. About one thousand wine producers are along the way, 100 villages and some 50 wine festivals take place from April though to October.

Route des Eaux-de-VieA good number of the wine producers also sell eaux-de-vie, though most often, even if under their own label, the spirit is made by one of the distilleries who dot the landscape such as G. Miclo in Lapoutroie, Massenez in Dieffenbach-au-Val, Metté in Ribeauvillé and Meyer in Hohwarth. There’s even a “Route des Eaux-de-Vie” in Vallée de Villé which takes in Boutique Miss Massenez, Distillerie Jos. Nusbaumer, Distillerie Au Feu de Bois and Distillerie Meyer.

I visited Distillerie Meyer, established in 1958 in the tiny town of Hohwarth, for my insight and tasting of what can and will be distilled in Alsace. The Meyer family makes over 30 varieties of distillates including from rarities such as elderberry, service berry, rose hips, pine tips, holly berry and bilberry. (They also make smooth pure malt whisky aged in sauternes barrels and pastis with a cumin punch.) On an annual basis they go through over 600 to 700 tons of fruit, mostly local.

G.E. Massenez Vieux CalvadosTree fruits are fermented an average of three to five weeks and then distilled. The small wild berries are macerated in alcohol. The top of the line such as their Poire Grand Reserve which has won many gold medals, are aged four years before release. Apparently the fruit flavour becomes more pronounced with time while the spirit remains crystal clear and colourless.

But this is a tease to my readers really as even though the distillery told me they export a third of their production, they did not believe any has reached Canada (something they would be more than happy to remedy if there’s interest).

There are thankfully other eaux-de-vie which have reached our shores. I have found products by Massenez in Canada – the best selection is in Quebec which has a dozen of their products including pear, apple, ginger and plum. The Massenez Vieux Calvados in Ontario, which has an apple imprisoned in the bottle, has truly fantastic cider apple flavours that linger intensely. I put a few bottles of this on the bar for my step-daughter’s wedding and everyone who tried it fell in love.

DOMAINE DUPONT FINE RESERVE CALVADOS DU PAYS D'AUGEG. Miclo Coeur de Chauffe Framboise SauvageG. Miclo Poire Williams Grande ReserveG. Miclo Poire Williams Grande Réserve Eau De Vie in Ontario’s Vintages has a true clean pear nose and distinct pear flavours throughout with a nice dry but lingering pear finish. Their Coeur de Chauffe Framboise Sauvage which I’ve found in Quebec is the very essence of raspberry, taken from the heart of each distillation of the wild raspberry.

From Normandy, Calvados Domaine Dupont Fine Reserve made from double distilled cider aged in oak, has subtle yet persistent cider apple notes with a cognac like character.

Italy is best known for distilling grape pomace into grappa. The distillate, created over 500 years ago by peasants as a way to make use of the grape pits, skins and stalks left over after wine making, had a past reputation for tasting like firewater.  Today many are as elegant as the finest cognacs; presented in hand blown bottles whose exquisite design are art forms in themselves.

Top producers craft their grappas often from single wines, or a single grape variety sometimes even from a single designated vineyard.  Some are aged in wood of various sorts for up to ten years, and others contain the distillate of much grape juice as well as the pomace; a modern aqua vitae which expands the expression of these spirits. Jacopo Poli, is one of the world’s most famous grappa producers today. His Po’ di Poli Morbida Grappa is a beautifully perfumed distillate of the pomace of orange blossom muscat and white muscat.

Pò Di Poli Morbida Smooth Moscato GrappaNonino Amaro QuintessentiaGrappa Distilla CamomillaGiannola Nonino of Percoto in Udine province has been called by friends “our lady of grappa”.  Married in 1962 to aqua vitae producer Benito, she decided to transform grappa into an aristocratic beverage with delicate, softness which women could drink without embarrassment.  To do this she used pot stills and fresh pomace which went against the current of the times when continuous stills were adopted to cut costs and pomace was stocked for lengthy periods after harvest.

In 1984, she made another innovation.  Called Ùe, it was the first ever distillate of the whole grape (skin, pulp and juice) which she packaged in a splendid hand-blown bottle of transparent crystal by Venini of Murano. Nonino also makes fruit distillates from pear, raspberry, plum and cherry. (I’ve found the pear on occasion in Quebec.) More available on our shores now is Nonino’s amaro. (Other of her grappas I will review in a subsequent newsletter.)

Nonino Amaro Quintessentia di Erbe Alpine is a medium-sweet bitter made from grape distillate aged in barriques and married with mountain herbs.

Italcoral Distilla e Camomilla Grappa is sweetened with sugar and thus I would classify it more as a liqueur but it’s an interesting infusion of grappa with camomile that’s sweetly harmonious.

You might well find it a sometimes frustrating search to unearth these eaux-de-vie treasures but here’s hoping we’ll see more of them in the future. Lucky for us some Canadian distilleries such as Okanagan Spirits in BC with its Poire Williams for example are coming on stream with their versions.

Nonino RecipeMeanwhile I leave you with a fine summer cocktail courtesy of Nonino. Put 3 parts Nonino Amaro Quintessentia with 1.5 parts pear eau-de-vie, two parts each fresh lemon and orange juice, 3 parts grapefruit juice and one part super fine sugar in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well and strain into a tumbler filled with ice cubes. Squeeze grapefruit zest over the cocktail and enjoy.

Margaret Swaine

To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – April 2014

Spring Seasonals and New Spirits
By Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Malibu rum sparkler, Sveva’s Orangella, Screech honey rum, Long Table London Dry and Ménage à Trois vodka are a sampling of what’s new popping up on the liquor shelves this spring. These diverse and flavour packed newbies are sure to find fans.

Sveva’s Orangella has quickly become one of my favourites. This intensely orange flavoured liqueur (like lemoncella only made with orange peels instead of lemon) from Sicily is delicious on its own served chilled or on ice. However I’ve found that made into a cocktail with prosecco and a splash of gin, it’s divine – like a grown up mimosa.

Sveva's OrangellaNEWFOUNDLAND SCREECH HONEY RUMFrom Rock Spirits in Newfoundland, Screech Honey Rum is a blend of imported Jamaican rums flavoured with honey and orange peel. These additions nicely round the sharp edges of screech.

Two premium rums from Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) in Guyana coming to our shores are El Dorado 8 Year Old and El Dorado Spiced rum. The 8 Year old is fantastic rum at a bargain price and the spiced version delivers flavours of vanilla pod and cinnamon in a nice dry style. All of the world’s fantastic Demerara rum comes from Guyana and from just one distillery, the Diamond Distillery of Demerara Distillers Limited. Demerara gets its name from the river that runs through the capital Georgetown and the region.

Demerara makes rum for dozens of other spirit companies. For their own brand, El Dorado, they produce about a dozen different, all deliciously good rums. All the rums are aged in former bourbon barrels, and they have about 90,000 barrels spread out between three warehouses.

BACARDI RESERVA LIMITADAEl Dorado Spiced RumEl Dorado 8 Yr Cask Aged Demerara RumRum is also made of course on most of the Caribbean islands. Each island produces its own distinctive style (though a number do get their young spirit from Demerara Distillers). On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I visited the Bacardi rum distillery. The company’s free distillery tour in San Juan includes two drinks per person so no surprise that it draws crowds from morning to closing. Between 850 and 1,500 people take the 45 to 90 minute tour everyday where the drinks start flowing no matter the time.

Bacardi was founded by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó in Cuba in 1862. Now the largest privately held, family-owned spirits company in the world, it set up distilleries in other countries (including in Brampton, Ontario) after the Cuban Revolution. The Puerto Rico distillery goes 24/7 and produces 100,000 gallons of rum a day from imported molasses. At a tasting with senior brand manager William Ramos I had the joy of sampling Bacardi Reserva Limitada, a spirited blend of 10 to 16 year old rum.

Love the taste of coconut? Then give Malibu Rum Sparkler made with coconut water and rum a try. Just chill and pour into a champagne flute for a festive bubbly refresher.

MALIBU RUM SPARKLERPOMMIES DRY CIDERCider, one of North America’s oldest drinks is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The number of Canadian cideries is growing with new ones coming on stream wherever apples are grown. Ontario has gone from two to 15 cideries in five years for example. Pommies Dry Cider crafted in Caledon uses the juice of five varieties of heritage apples.

Artisanal distilleries are also booming in Canada. Coming up Saturday, May 10, sixteen of British Columbia’s leading small-batch distilleries (plus one from the Yukon) will convene in Vancouver bringing their gin, vodka, whisky and other spirits and liqueurs for BC Distilled – the province’s premier micro-distillery festival. Spirit enthusiasts can buy tickets via Eventbrite at: BC Distilled Festival

Participants in BC Distilled include the Long Table Distillery which recently celebrated their first year of distilling in Vancouver. They just launched their London Dry Gin and Texada Vodka into Alberta and will be presenting soon to the Ontario Liquor Control Board.

Yaletown (the Mark James Group; British Columbia’s premiere collection of craft brewery restaurants) which has brewed fresh beer for close to 20 years and pioneered the craft beer movement in Vancouver is another participant. The company launched their production of handcrafted spirits on Repeal Day December 5th, 2013 marking the anniversary for the end of prohibition.  Yaletown Vodka‘s use of BC’s Peace River 2 row malt makes a distinctive vodka. Yaletown Gin is distilled with 8 botanicals.

Long Table Distillery London Dry GinLong Table Distillery Texada VodkaYaletown Craft VodkaYaletown Craft GinMenage Vodka overall 001

The Trinchero Family Estates out of California has expanded their Ménage à Trois line beyond wine to include Ménage a Trois Vodka, six times distilled and super smooth. All the spirits above give us lots of reasons to get excited this season.

Cheers!

Margaret Swaine

To find these and other picks at stores near you, click on: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find our Critic’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Spring Spirits

Bring on the White Spirits of Spring

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Spring launched with snow still on the ground in much of Canada (stop gloating Vancouver) but maybe finally it’s time to pop open the white spirits to herald in our late much desired true spring. Across Canada new distilleries are popping up like crocuses and globally new tequilas, vodkas and gins are making their debut.

Gin can be simply defined as botanically flavoured vodka. By law, juniper berries must be the chief botanical, but many others are added such as angelica, cassia bark, citrus peels and caraway. Modern gin makers have upped the ante with more and more interesting botanicals such as cucumber, rose petals, elderflower, lavender, cilantro and pepper.

Ungava, a fantastic tasting Canadian premium gin made by Domaine Pinnacle in Quebec is flavoured with indigenous Canadian botanicals of our far north such as Nordic juniper, Labrador tea leaf, crowberry, cloudberry and wild rose hips. It’s the most intriguing gin I’ve tasted and I recommend it be sipped simply chilled or on the rocks. Dillon’s in Beamsville, Ontario, makes their Gin 22, by passing vapour through 22 botanicals. It’s gentle, rounded and smooth. Perfect to make an easy going G&T. Victoria Gin, hand produced in small batches on Vancouver Island, is distilled from ten botanicals (natural and wild gathered).  Packed with personality, citrus peels come through on the nose as well as gentle juniper along with floral notes from rose petals.

Ungava Canadian Premium Gin   Dillon's Unfiltered Gin 22   Victoria Gin

Further afield, from London, Beefeater 24 in a bottle inspired by an early 20th century flask, is flavoured with 12 botanicals (including grapefruit peel, Seville orange and Japanese sencha tea) infused in grain spirit for 24 hours prior to distillation. The London #1 Gin also from 12 botanicals is a light turquoise colour derived in part from gardenia flowers and a final infusion of bergamot oil. No.3 London Dry Gin made in Holland but unmistakably traditional London Dry Gin has juniper at its heart to lend a characteristic pine and lavender overtone that I for one, absolutely love. Plymouth Gin has a higher proportion of roots such as orris and angelica in its recipe which gives it a smooth sweetness and a long finish. It’s flavourful with an array of bright distinctive lingering botanical aromas and robust power.

BEEFEATER 24  The London No. 1 Gin  No 3 London Dry  Plymouth English Gin

The original James Bond martini was based on gin and so was the first martini ever made. That being the case, a classic martini should use a gin where the juniper shines brightly such as Plymouth, Beefeater 24, or No. 3 London Dry. And easy on the vermouth. As Churchill once said “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini, leaving as much room for the gin as possible, naturally.” Chill a martini glass by putting ice in the glass. Add 2.5 oz gin and 0.5 oz (or just a few drops) dry vermouth to cocktail mixing glass filled with ice. Stir for 15 to 30 seconds to your desired dilution. Strain into cooled, empty martini glass. Garnish with lemon zest or olive speared with a toothpick.

Tromba Reposado Tequila Tromba Añejo TequilaAgave spirits have graduated in our markets from Jimmy Buffet songs and college parties to seriously delicious tipples. Tequila, produced primarily in the Mexican state of Jalisco is made from the Blue Agave plant. Blanco is unaged (but can be aged up to two months), reposado is two months to less than a year and añejo must be aged for at least a year but fewer than three.

Tromba Tequila (all 100% agave), founded by Canadian Eric Bass, Mexican master distiller Marco Cedano and others has recently got listings for their reposado and añejo in Canada. Tromba Reposado spent six months aging in Jack Daniel’s barrels and is silky smooth. Tromba Añejo was aged in Jack Daniel’s barrels for two years to give it a mellowed, honeyed agave character.

Dulce Vida Tequila is organic, 100% agave tequila that’s strong (50% alcohol) and powerful. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Blanco is intense and bright with peppery power. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Reposado is single barrel aged in American bourbon barrels for up to 11 months. Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Anejo isaged for 18 to 24 months in American bourbon barrels.

Vodka, the world’s second most popular spirit continues to evolve with new flavours and artisanal production. Canada’s Iceberg Vodka, made using harvested icebergs now has a cold sensitive label that reveals a Canadian Maple Leaf when chilled down.  A new recently introduced flavour is Iceberg Chocolate Mint. Prepared to find it too syrupy, I was surprised at how good it was – like a liquid spirited after dinner mint. I’m now keen to try their other flavours namely Cucumber, and Crème Brulée which are available only in Alberta and Newfoundland so far.

Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Blanco  Dulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila ReposadoDulce Vida Premium Organic Tequila Anejo Iceberg Chocolate Mint Flavoured Vodka Russian Standard Platinum Vodka

Russia may not be in our good books but so far Russian vodka still is. Russian Standard Platinum Vodka passed through an exclusive silver filtration system is ultra creamy and silky. Well chilled it makes a smooth sipping vodka martini. Let’s raise a glass to spring.

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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County in the City

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Mar 2014

St. Patrick’s Day Libations 2014

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Good news for Ontario residents this upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, Writers Tears has obtained general listing and will be available year round. This Pot Still Blend Irish Whiskey recently won “Best Blend in Ireland” at the Irish Whiskey Awards.

Evocative of the style of whiskey enjoyed during the time of Yeats and Joyce a century ago in Dublin, it’s a blend of pot still malted and unmalted barley, triple distilled and matured in American ex-bourbon casks. Velvety smooth, yet bold in flavour, with malt and bourbon notes, it has nuances of ginger, treacle and apple.

Writers Tears Pot Still Blend (700ml)It’s produced by an independent Irish company, owned by the Walsh family, who also produce The Irishman brands. The Irishman whiskeys are the creations of Bernard Walsh who enjoys special access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers. He came up with the idea for the Pot Still blend. All other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey/Column still.

Whiskey was first distilled in Ireland (not Scotland as may be common belief), around the 7th century. By 1802 Irish whiskey represented 90% of the entire world’s whiskey and Ireland boasted over 200 distilleries. Taxes, famines, the War of Independence, Prohibition and other factors lead to the demise of most of the distillers. However in recent years Irish whiskey has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity; historic brands have been revived, some mothballed distilleries reopened and the number of independent Irish bottlings has grown.

Kilbeggan Irish WhiskeyConnemara Peated Single Malt Irish WhiskyThe Tyrconnell Single Malt Irish WhiskeyCooley (now owned by Beam Inc.) is the distillery that shook up the market in 1987.  Founded by John Telling with the goal of reintroducing the North American market to quality Irish whiskey, Cooley departed from the accepted definition of Irish whiskey as being triple distilled and unpeated. He revived historic brands such as Tyrconnell and created a family of Connemara double distilled peated single malts. Part of the Cooley brands, Kilbeggan Distillery reopened in 2007. Kilbeggan Irish Whiskey has a sweet toffee nose and malty finish.

Bushmills can with fair authority claim to be the oldest distillery in the world. The royal licence to distil in the district of Bushmills was granted in 1608. Situated in the quaint town of Bushmills, Northern Ireland, it takes its name from the River Bush and all the mills that used to be on it. Bushmills 10 Year Old matured for a minimum of 10 years mainly in bourbon seasoned barrels has aromas of sweet smoky honey, vanilla and milk chocolate. Bushmills Black Bush has a high proportion of malt whiskey matured in oloroso sherry casks.

Midleton Very Rare Whiskey (one of the Irish Distillers brands which include Jameson, Powers, Paddy and Redbreast) is an expensive treat at $179.95 but worth the money.

Bushmills Malt 10 Year OldBushmills Black Bush WhiskeyMidleton Very Rare Irish WhiskeyThose who want to delve further into the link between Irish writers and drink might well visit Ireland and go on The Dublin Literary Pub Crawl. Irish pubs are much more than a place to get a drink. Part of the fabric of everyday life they are steeped in history, referenced in literature and full of lore. Dublin has 800 of them.

It’s fitting that in the “City of Words” the best pub crawl is a literary one. Actor and author Colm Quilligan started the Dublin pub tour in 1988 and figures about 300,000 people have taken it so far. Performance is part of the tour which is led by professional actors. The tour I took began at The Duke with a song by Colm and his partner for this night, Derek Reid. Those of us on the tour were encouraged to sing the fitting chorus, “I’ll have a pint with you.”

Then the two men launched into a (well-acted) piece from Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. The evening was filled with prose, drama and song as we followed the footsteps of literary greats into four of their favourite haunts. We learned juicy details about the lives of Oscar Wilde, James Joyce and Brendan Behan as we enjoyed a few good pints ending the evening at Davy Byrnes pub.

Davy Byrnes was the setting James Joyce chose for the Lestrygonians episode of his famous novel Ulysses. Cecil Salkeld, Brendan Behan’s father-in-law was commissioned to paint the murals on the right-hand side of the main bar. Colm filled us in on Behan’s excesses quoting him as saying “I’m a drinker with a writer problem.” The Irish have such a way with words.

Sláinte

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Hayman's Sloe Gin

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Jan 2014

Winter Warmers & Romantic Drinks

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

A number of great new whiskies appeared on Canadian liquor board shelves in time for Robbie Burns Day celebrations last weekend. Coming up in anticipation of Valentine’s Day are products with a romantic bent. Think red coloured, chocolate flavoured, bubbly or special “sexy” editions. Here are the best of the latest winter spirits bounty.

This year marked the first Burns Day that Canadians could enjoy the new Macallan 1824 series of single malts built on the strength of their natural colours: Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. The whole series, all aged in seasoned sherry casks, is dangerously smooth and seductive. So good and so sweetly gentle on the palate, this series is a velvet hammer that could have you polish off a bottle in one joyous night without thinking of the consequences. Better lock these out of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s reach.

All Macallan whiskies take 100 per cent of their colour from natural wood. This is what defines and drives the Macallan 1824 series. Whisky maker Bob Dalgarno searches the range of casks in the warehouse to select the different ones, all former sherry casks from Jerez Spain (filled with aged sherries and left to mature before receiving the new make whisky), to make each style in the series.

Macallan SiennaMacallan AmberThe Macallan GoldThe Macallan Gold is naturally golden in hue, and sweet in its approach. Aromas of honeycomb, sponge toffee and vanilla waft forth with a hint of flamed orange zest. The bronzed amber coloured, The Macallan Amber is mellow and smooth with an uplifting cinnamon, ginger and wood appeal. The Macallan Sienna, a reddish yellow brown i.e. sienna colour, is spiced, full bodied, deep and brooding. Alas I didn’t get to try The Macallan Ruby (it’s the most expensive at $299.95) but given the enjoyment factor of the other three, I’m sure it’s worth every penny. It’s the oldest and darkest of the lot.

Hart Brothers Finest Collection Clynelish 14 Years Old Single Malt 1998 is a lovely example of maritime influences and old cask notes. From France, de Montal Armagnac XO is velvety smooth on the palate yet with dramatic flourish.

Jack Daniel’s Sinatra SelectBuffalo Trace Kentucky Straight BourbonFrom the other side of the pond, comes Jack Daniel’s Sinatra Select. This classic bold, smooth whiskey is crafted to honour Frank Sinatra’s friendship with Jack Daniels. The legend goes that from the moment Jackie Gleason introduced Sinatra to JD, for the next 50 years the seductive crooner always had a stash of Jack Daniel’s in the hold of his private plane and at home. Sinatra’s drinking ritual became as famed as his detail in dress and his pre-concert catnap. His cocktail was always poured from a bottle whose seal was unbroken: always three or four ice cubes in a traditional rocks glass with two fingers of Jack and then water.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon’s robust nature makes it a perfect base for a hot toddy or to shine through in a strongly flavoured cocktail.

CampariRegarding romantic cocktails for this coming Valentine’s Day, there are several ways to a sexy drink. Red lingerie, red lips and red drinks are sensuous partners. Campari’s bright red-orange colour makes is a bartender’s favourite choice for Valentine’s drinks. To make a Campari Orange Passion place two slices of orange and 1 teaspoon of brown sugar into a tall glass. Crush to a pulp. Add crushed ice and one part Campari to two parts orange juice and gently stir. Garnish with a red cherry. Have for breakfast the morning after with your hot date.

Cupid’s Elixir, created by bartender Thomas Faux of Azure Restaurant in Toronto, gets its colour from raspberry. Pour one ounce each of Hendrick’s Gin and raspberry liqueur and 1 ½ ounces of pineapple juice into a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake. Strain into a cocktail glass.

Hendrick's GinChocolate bonbons, chocolate body paint and chocolate drinks are another way to passion. Iceberg Vodka offers up this cocktail for Valentine’s: Take two ounces of Iceberg Vodka, add one ounce each of coffee liqueur (e.g. Kahlua), nut liqueur (e.g. Frangelico) and chocolate liqueur (say the new Criollo Chocolate Raspberry) and combine in a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into two cocktail glasses and top with chocolate shavings.

Iceberg VodkaLejay Cassis Creme De Cassis De DijonA bubbly, Champagne if you can afford it, is the third way to sex-up an evening. The bubbles are not only attractive to look at but they help the alcohol enter the bloodstream faster for a quicker high. Champagne cocktails abound and the very best for romance combine the fizz with red. My favourite classic is the Kir Royale which combines champagne with an ounce or so of cassis liqueur (recommend Lejay Cassis). The Pink Champagne Cocktail served at the Hotel de Cap during the Cannes Film Festival combines one teaspoon of brandy, one teaspoon of Grand Marnier and five ounces of pink Champagne poured over an angostura-soaked sugar cube.

Cheers to romantic days and drinks that heat up the soul.

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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The 2nd Annual Wolf Blass Cabernet Classification

The Assignment: Put 30 of the World’s Top Cabernet Blends in front of 30 of the World’s Top Critics (seven from WineAlign), Taste Blind, Rate and Discuss

with David Lawrason, Bill Zacharkiw, Anthony Gismondi, Rhys Pender MW, Margaret Swaine, Marc Chapleau and JohnSzabo MS

Last autumn Wolf Blass of Australia conducted three identical blind tastings of the world’s top thirty cabernet-based blends for thirty of the world’s top wine critics – in Montreal, London and Melbourne. All the wines were from the 2009 vintage, and all were triple-digit priced (in Cdn$), with the first-growth Bordeaux crossing into four-digits. (Chateau Margaux 2009 is selling in Toronto for just under $2000 a bottle).

Among them was a Wolf Blass 2009 Black Label, the company’s top classic red selling for $100 in Canada.

The objectives of this tasting were as subtle and layered as the wines themselves. It was called a classification, in reference to the famous classification of 1855 that – at Napoleon III’s behest –  separated out the best chateaux of Bordeaux and established a hierarchy that still sets Bordeaux’ compass today.

The final results, which can be viewed at 2013 Master Blend Classification do provide a sense of which wines were rated more highly, but with the top 20 wines scoring between 90 and 92 points – and four ranked at 92 there is no clear-cut winner. And when you dig into the regional results there was far from unanimity on the top wines.

However, Wolf Blass Black Label finished number one in Melbourne, and was one of the four rating 92 points globally, placing second overall.

2013 Master Blend Classification

Wolf Blass winemaker Chris Hatcher, architect of the tasting, said the exercise was not so much about winning as it was generating discussion about style. “The discussion among the judges was fascinating.” he said. “Common themes were vintage conditions, the tolerance of brettanomyces in wines, use of oak and the effect of wine closure – although the views between judges often differed”.

They certainly did, and we capture some of it below among some of the seven WineAlign critics who were present at the Montreal tasting.

From Wolf Blass’s point of view, all that needed to be done in this exercise was have its wine dance the dance without falling off the stage. This event created a gusher of publicity among the world’s critics just by being held in the first place. Twitter was teeming.

But doing very well matters more to the mass market. “Wolf Blass leads the pack” said a headline on a wine story printed in both the Sudbury Star and Niagara Falls Review and doubtless other papers across Canada. At the grass-roots it was Wolf Blass in the headlines, whether the label was Black, Grey, Yellow or Red hardly mattered.

From here individual WineAlign critics draw observations and make comments. It takes you deep inside a terrific blind tasting – with all its strengths and foibles. Furthermore, our critics have uploaded their reviews for detailed tracking of who thought what about the individual wines. You can find all of the wines and reviews using this link: 2013 Master Blend Classification Wines & Reviews

David Lawrason, Toronto

The results – in terms of a classification or ranking that consumers might want to bank on – were inconclusive, and so was much of the discussion. I was surprised by the lack of unanimity among the world’s judges. Then again, everyone is different, which is why a tool like WineAlign that does not blend critical opinions is so useful.

2013 Master Blend ClassificationI was also shocked by the low scoring range, with 92 as the top average score globally, but I also understand how averaging over a narrow range of scores produces compressed, less effective results. I would have preferred to see us rank the wines (see John’s Szabo’s comments below).

Again; I was blown away by this tasting. I scored eight wines 95 or better and only three below 90. I could hardly stay in my seat as one by one these superb wines passed across my palate. My notes oft repeated words like elegant, nuanced, incredible length. Flavours barely mattered with such brilliant structure on display. Was I not being critical enough? Swept up? Perhaps. But I certainly understood why these wines commonly rank above 95 points in the world’s media.

Several wines other than Wolf Blass Black Label stood up very well to the Goliath first growths of Bordeaux – with Napa and Tuscany leading the challenges – Joseph Phelps Insignia, Opus One, Ornellaia and Ridge Montebello. And I was not at all surprised by this. Nor was I surprised to see Sassicaia finish so poorly (last globally) as I have rarely been able to muster 90 points for this wine in recent vintages.

The real question is whether Bordeaux’s top first and second growths deserve their reputation as the world’s best. My personal prejudice is that they don’t deserve anywhere near the price they command, a price set by traders and hoarders.

But that is a different argument from whether they are actually the world’s best wines. On this day in Montreal, in this vintage, in my view, they were. When it came down to my top wines, of eight I scored at 95 points or better and six of them were Bordeaux, including all the 1st Growths except Lafite-Rothschild which I scored 94. Margaux was my top wine at 98. For the record, my only non-Bordeaux 95 point or better wines were Ridge Montebello from California and yes sir, Wolf Blass Black Label.

Bill Zacharkiw, Montreal Gazette

It’s a rare occasion to find so many legendary, and expensive, bottles open at the same time. In terms of cabernet sauvignon, this was the world’s “who’s who,” and as we were tasting blind, it was a rare opportunity to see how wines from such varied terroirs stand up against one another.

But the results should be taken with a grain, actually a few grains, of salt. As we were tasting the 2009 vintage, the vast majority of these wines were in their relative infancy and quite “tightly wound.” So, were judges tasting on imagined potential, or how these wines were tasting at the moment?

A few of the bottles, most notably Sassicaia, to my tastes seemed “off.” I had the opportunity to taste the same wine a few weeks later, and with dramatically different impressions. Others, like Ridge’s Montebello, seemed to be in a state of dormancy. It is a wine I know well, and that was not the Ridge I know and have loved.

So in the end, this tasting was but a snapshot, a tasting moment, frozen in time. Would the results be the same if we did the same tasting five, ten or fifteen years from now? I doubt it.

That being said, this tasting put on by Wolf Blass, showed some serious testicular mass by the winery, taking its relatively inexpensive wine and putting it up against the greats, and in the case of Bordeaux, a pretty decent vintage.

Blass’ head winemaker Chris Hatcher told me that they decided to risk potential embarrassment, because they “just want to see where Wolf Blass stands.” Apparently, according to the results of our tasting in Montreal, it’s shoulder to shoulder with many of the world’s best.

Anthony Gismondi, Vancouver Sun

Fifteen of this country’s most experienced wine commentators and sommeliers gathered last October in Montreal to taste thirty of what arguably would be regarded as the best red Cabernet Sauvignon blends in the world. Given the difference of opinion among Canadian reviewers it’s clear there is no single style or blend that can lay claim to the world’s best Cabernet blend.

The quality gap between the vast majority of labels we tasted is closing quickly, even if their prices would suggest otherwise. But that is the beauty of blind tastings.

Anthony GismondiFor the record, the Wolf Blass organizers had a vested interest in the tasting. Among the 30 bottles of 2009 red blends selected to taste was the 2009 Wolf Blass Black Label ($100). It finished in the middle of the pack (in Canada), although given its price tag and high level of shiraz fruit, the 47/47/6 cabernet sauvignon-shiraz malbec blend gave the rest a pretty good fight.

These tastings have a limited shelf life, but they can be interesting snapshots in time, and an even more interesting insight into what turns the crank of writers from different countries, or in this case, tasters who span some 5,000 km. We were particularly tough on the Australian entries, almost all of which were out-classed on the day.

The stars, as you might expect, were the Bordeaux first growths – although I struggled to see the Grand Cru in some, given the massive amounts of smoke and heavily toasted oak currently masking much of the fruit. Chateau Margaux ($1,900) was a study of smoke and oak supported by an underlying complex mix of fruit other tasters regarded as close to perfection. I was more supportive of the Mouton Rothschild ($1,800) on the day the oak seemed less dominant. Prices are crazy.

Chris Hatcher was both gracious and humble when it came to talking about his wine. Hatcher suggested to the assembled tasters the task wasn’t about looking for champions, but rather it was a study of styles, even better to debate the many styles.

The discussion was spirited as we explored the value of pouring gobs of new French oak on some wines, while others preferred wines that related more to their terroir and climate.

The savoury, bright, red fruited wines are earning more respect at these tastings than the heavy makeup of smoke and oak dominating most Bordeaux first growths. Is Lafite Rothschild at $3,000 a great wine? Most judges agreed. But under a blanket of heavily toasted oak, I was happier to drink Chile’s Almaviva ($160), Italy’s Ornellaia ($190), or California’s Opus One ($400).

With New World wines tightening the acidity, picking earlier, shedding oak and heading down the cooler fruit road, and much of Europe turning out softer, richer, often more alcoholic versions, it is hard to know where it’s all heading.

Hatcher and the Wolf Blass team will be looking with interest at the global results, hoping to develop a blueprint that might define the Wolf Blass style for generations to come.

Rhys Pender MW, Similkameen Valley BC

The Wolf Blass Challenge was an amazing opportunity to try some of the world’s great wines, all blind, thirty of them side by side. No matter where we are in the industry and what credentials we have, tastings like these are incredibly rare.

Rhys PenderThere were also some very interesting trends that seemed to be evident in the wines. The Bordeaux was nearly all classic, structured, elegant and showcased the great 2009 vintage. But they nearly all had noticeable brettanomyces, something I personally liked in the wines as it added complexity, but something that will have others crying fault and, the way I see it, missing out on some incredibly tasty wine.

The American wines, with the exception of the Ridge, were all heading towards the sweeter, soupy style, a flavour profile associated more with introductory wines than great ones. The taste of the vineyard seems a long way away.

The Italian wines were also a surprise, very new world in their flavour profiles and seemingly heading in a similar direction to the USA style.

The Australian contingent was generally sticking with what has worked in the past, ripe fruit but retaining some savoury elements. It would be a shame if any of these great wines thought they had to buckle to the trend of soft sweetness and abandon making the wine taste like where it is from.

Marc Chapleau, Montreal

Love is Blind! As with the experience in 2012 when the Challenge was held in Toronto, this was a very instructive tasting. All the more since 2009 in Bordeaux produced very concentrated wines, often with lush fruit and tannins that gave them New World overtones.

But, again, blind tasting often confuses the issue… and it should also be remembered that this was not a real-life situation. Many of the wines would probably have fared even better (or at least differently) when consumed with fellow guests, where the ambiance and the intellect guide – or should I say, override – the senses.

Marc ChapleauAs a general rule there was a lot of wood in these big, sturdy red wines. And being quite young, they had a certain tendency to all look-alike due to that oak presence. Still, the Australian and Chilean cabernets were quite easy to pick out of the line-up, with eucalyptus and mint overtones in the former, and green notes (not unpleasant at all) in the latter.

It is sometimes said that Quebecers usually prefer Old World wines to New World ones. “Usually” is an important nuance here since, in this blind tasting, the Chilean Almaviva and the Australian Wolf Blass Black Label were among my best – even though I sensed they were not from Bordeaux. There was a great deal of rich fruit and oak in these two yet a lively freshness and some real depth. Bravo!

And so much for the so-called French palate…

Margaret Swaine, Toronto

I love a blind tasting competition like this “Master Blend Classification” when the vintage is the same and the grape varieties are akin. It’s as close as one can get to levelling the playing field and eliminating one’s own prejudices towards a certain wine region or country.

That said the New World and Old World wines do have their particular characteristics which makes it possible to guess their provenance. Like most of my colleagues however I scored the wines based on my opinion of their merits even if I felt I could guess the label. I did not favour New or Old World in my ranking and my scores showed that. Whether there was ripe rich berry or herbaceous forest floor in the taste, as long as there was balance, structure, style and length, I scored the wines high.

My very top wines each with scores of 96 were Chateau Lafite and Chateau Margaux. Next with scores of 95 came – yes – Wolf Blass Black Label, and Opus One, Joseph Phelps, and Chile’s Vina Almaviva. I gave a 94 to Leoville-Las Cases and to Ridge Monte Bello. What does it prove? For me – that both New and Old World can make stunning wines. And that Wolf Blass is right up there at the top.

John Szabo, MS, Toronto

This was certainly a very special tasting, and it was a privilege to take part in it.

One observation, weighing the exceptional quality of the line-up from the four corners of the wine world, is cabernet’s adaptability. The variety is clearly capable of performing at the highest level in a broad band of climate and soils types, and despite its otherwise rigid and imposing character, it’s flexible enough to welcome many varieties into its tightly structured folds, beyond the traditional Bordeaux blending partners, while still retaining a distinctive cabernet-ness.

John Szabo, David Lawrason, Anthony GismondiAustralia, along with southern France, have robustly shown that syrah/shiraz is a welcome collaborator in the production of fine blends, while tempranillo, and carmenere also have historical precedence at the top level. I’m excited to consider what other potentially spectacular variations on the theme of cabernet may one day be included in such a tasting – a blend with grenache, nero d’Avola, montepulciano, mencia, or touriga nacional? Or perhaps blaufrankisch, saperavi or plavac mali? Considering that cabernet sauvignon is the world’s most planted fine wine variety, and that proprietary blends and new regional blends will continue to gain prominence over varietal wines in my view, there is much to look forward to.

Another personal observation was the relative difficulty in guessing the origin of these thirty wines. As it turns out I was right for only about two-thirds. Part can be chalked up to inexperience (these are not wines I taste everyday), but part also to an international homogenization of style. It was how I imagined it must have been during Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 tasting, in which many respected critics were repeatedly duped into believing that Californian wines were from France. Yet considering that California cabernets from that period were made to taste like Bordeaux (herbaceous flavours, <13% alcohol), it’s not that shocking.

Here, my uncertainty lay in distinguishing California, Australia and Tuscany, and I freely exchanged the origins of several iconic wines. Bordeaux, oddly enough, accused of late of becoming too “Californian”, stood out (the exceptions were Beychevelle, Montrose and Latour which I thought were from Australia, and Leoville-Las-Cases from California, a public statement that I’m sure will have me banned from these cellars for a lifetime). Chile stood out for its bay leaf and blueberry fruit, and South Africa’s medicinal note could be spotted a mile away. But elsewhere the lines were blurred. Should wines costing into the hundreds (thousands) of dollars have some distinctive regional stamp? For the record, Wolf Blass’ Cab-shiraz blend was distinctively Australian.

A more technical observation that affects the headline results is the fallacy of a consistent global scoring system. The 100-point scale that was used by all judges appears to be standard enough, but in practice is anything but, and the data can be interpreted in different ways. Even within Canada, the 100-point scale is applied with significant variations. In Québec, for example, 80 points applies to a very good wine, while in other parts of Canada, such a score would reflect a rather miserable one.

Neither interpretation of the scale is more accurate or “better” than the other. But it makes an average score less meaningful, and results in many wines with the same average score, which in turn doesn’t necessarily reflect the group’s overall preferences. The top scoring wine in Canada (Château Ducru-Beaucaillou) rated a ‘mere’ 92 points, weighed down as it were by the low-scoring judges, whereas the top scoring wines in both Melbourne (Wolf Blass Black Label) and London (Ducru-Beaucaillou) both rated 94 points, buoyed perhaps by overly enthusiastic scorers in those cities. Do Canadians judges enjoy wines less than their international peers? I think not.

I’m no statistician, but averaging out international results doesn’t take into account shifting scoring scales, and I wonder how the results might have changed had each judge’s score for an individual wine been added, instead of averaged, to arrive at a total cumulative score. There wouldn’t likely have been ties between wines in each city, and internationally, each wine would have had a total global score and thus a clear and definitive ranking of preference, while eliminating the blurring effects of rounded scores. Would Ducru Beaucaillou have finished top with 4,140 global points? Is this a better scoring method? I don’t know. Does it matter? Not sure. Just throwing it out there.

What did matter to me was how well Bordeaux performed on my score sheet, admittedly, somewhat to my disappointment. It’s far more satisfying to see the underdog win in such guerilla tastings, especially if one doesn’t have the disposable cash to lay down many thousands of dollars for a case of wine, and also far too easy to point out the distorted value equation for classified Bordeaux. But I’ll leave the question of value aside, and the pricing to the châteaux, merchants and speculators, and comment instead on quality.

In short, the Bordeaux, with the exceptions mentioned above, were spectacular. It’s certainly vintage related – 2009 was another ‘vintage of the century’ in the region. But I must also concede that there is something magical about the combination of Bordeaux’s climate, terroir and grapes, as well as validity to the historical classification of châteaux done almost 160 years ago. One can niggle over a few promotions and demotions, but overall, the top are still top. Damn.

There was some important discussion about what exactly was being scored – a wine’s current state or future potential, and most agreed that some crystal ball-gazing need be done, which is a challenging task. Yes, most were heavily influenced by oak, but with so much stuffing and structure underneath that there was no question in my mind that when the scaffolding is finally taken down, true monuments will be revealed. Would they be as great if they were fully open and ready to go now?

If spending $2000 on a bottle of wine wouldn’t cause me to wince, I’d buy the 2009 Margaux. Guess I just answered the value question.

You can find the WineAlign Critic reviews of these wines by using this link: 2013 Master Blend Classification Wines & Reviews

Prior vintages of Wolf Blass Black Label are still available in Ontario, Quebec and BC Liquors stores. You can find inventory at a store near you using these WineAlign links: 2008 at LCBO, 2007 at SAQ and 2006 at BCLDB.

Editors Note: You can find our Critics complete reviews by clicking on the highlighted link. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

Photos courtesy of Master Blend Classification Gallery


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Give Cheer 2013; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

It’s that season again for gift giving and celebrations. For those who appreciate spirited gifts, liquor stores across Canada have stocked their shelves with gift packs and festive spirits. Canada’s newly minted small batch distilleries also have offerings ready wrapped. So here goes with some recommendations for those loved ones and friends with a taste for fine bottled pleasure.

In Ontario the LCBO’s Give Cheer promotion offers across the province a vast array of items including 180 gift packs. Their interactive gift finder www.lcboholiday.com is a useful tool for ideas. The BC Liquor Stores have 185 spirits on a limited time offer discount until December 28. www.bcliquorstores.com. Those in Quebec can check out the SAQ’s Cocktail page to add punch and pop to holiday celebrations.

Hine Homage Grand Cru Fine Champagne CognacWhiskies, brandy (especially Cognac) and liqueurs are some of the most seasonal products and for example experience in Ontario about 23 per cent of sales during the holiday period. Some categories show even more seasonality such as XO Cognac with 40 per cent of annual sales in November and December in Ontario. In this category I highly recommend Hine Homage Grand Cru, Rémy Martin XO and De Luze XO. Less pricey but equally impressive on the palate are Armagnacs such as Larressingle XO and De Montal 20 Year Old Vintage.

Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy some of the seasonal liqueurs released this Christmas. Kahlúa Gingerbread is a mix of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla with rum and coffee liqueur that gives winter flavours to a martini. Kahlúa Peppermint Mocha makes a hot chocolate or evening coffee a very festive affair.

Criollo Chocolate Raspberry TruffleCriollo Chocolate Sea Salted Caramel360 Double ChocolateCriollo, a premium chocolate liqueur made from the rare Criollo cocoa bean, was conceived of in Canada by two women managers at Corby Distillers to appeal to the younger female palate. Criollo Chocolate Raspberry Truffle is indeed reminiscent of a cocoa dusted raspberry flavoured truffle. Criollo Chocolate Sea Salted Caramel is sweet and syrupy at first and then the salt and buttery caramel kick in followed by a subtle chocolate finish.

For chocoholics, 360 Double Chocolate delivers the taste of milk and dark chocolate in a smooth, creamy vodka base.

Jack Daniel Distillery has launched a seasonal punch, Winter Jack, that’s whisky mixed with apple, cinnamon and clove. At just 15 percent alcohol its quite sweet and easy delivery is more for the non-whisky drinker’s pleasure.

Those with a taste for strong spirits with personality will surely enjoy the line up offered by Distell Spirits via agent PMA. Three Ships Whisky has an unusual provenance from South Africa and a robust nature. Master distiller Ian MacMillan delivers elegance and power with Deanston Virgin Oak Malt Whisky.

Aberlour A’bunadhDeanston Virgin Oak Highland Single Malt WhiskyAlso created by Ian MacMillan, peat enthusiasts will love Ledaig 10 Year Old Single Malt from Scotland’s Isle of Mull. His Tobermory 10 Year Old from the Isle of Mull has depth and delicacy. For scotch lovers with a he-man or cave woman bent, Aberlour A’bunadh matured only in sherry butts and bottled at cask strength (around 60%) is bold enough to put hairs on their chests. Favourites of mine for value and flavour are Highland Park 10 Year Old and Bowmore 12 Year Old. A recommended splurge in blended scotch is Johnnie Walker Platinum Label Private Blend 18 Years.

A terrific value at $39.95 is the El Dorado gift pack of El Dorado 12 Year Old Rum packaged with two rum snifters. The rich, full, toffee, molasses flavours of this rum are perfect for sipping by the fireplace, matched with Christmas cake or cookies.

Pisco SoldeicaUngava Canadian Premium GinIn the white spirits Pisco Soldeica from Peru is a distillation of fresh fermented quebranta grape juice that’s delicate and refined. Crystal Head has a special Rolling Stones Gift Pack for $99.95.

For those who want to give a Canada inspired gift, Ungava Canadian Premium Gin made by Domaine Pinnacle from indigenous Canadian botanicals of the arctic is amazing. Proof Luxury spirits packaged in a unique 500mL bottle are made using pristine Canadian Rocky mountain spring water and bottled at 42% for that extra edge. The Proof Whisky made from rye and wheat is intriguingly spiced. Liberty Distillery which opened its doors on Granville Island this November has launched with Truth Vodka and Railspur No. 1 White (unaged whisky). Their gin and aged whisky are coming soon. For the moment you’ll have to go to the distillery’s on-site retail store on Granville Island to buy.

Cheers and Happy Holidays to all.

Margaret Swaine

For all of Margaret’s picks click here: Margaret’s Whisky and Spirits

Editors Note: You can find Margaret Swaine’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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