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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!


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.


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!

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!


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 is a useful tool for ideas. The BC Liquor Stores have 185 spirits on a limited time offer discount until December 28. 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!


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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Whisky’s Deep Roots in Canada; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The nip came before the nation. Whisky distillation came to our soils before we were called Canada. European immigrants brought stills and knowledge of distillation with them in the 1700’s. Though it’s impossible to determine who made the first hooch on our terra firma, it is documented that a James Grant was operating a rum distillery in Quebec City in 1767. And it’s certain at least dozens of home distillers preceded Grant. Our spirited history is full of good drink.

Those who wish to delve into it should buy a copy of Davin de Kergommeaux’s book “Canadian Whisky”. De Kergommeaux spent over seven years researching in archives, libraries and distilleries every detail of our long boozy history. His book debunks misconceptions about our early days and details the lives of our famous settlers who laid the foundations for Canadian distillation. Most were English, namely Molson, Gooderham, Worts, Corby and Seagram. Wiser and Hespeler were originally from Germany and Randall and Walker were from New England. De Kergommeaux has documented their family sagas and the up and downs of their fortunes.

Just as important are key facts about our distilling methods. Canadian regulations decree that whisky is a “potable alcoholic distillate obtained from a mash of cereal grain”. In the past wheat was commonly used as the grain. Rye was used more as a flavouring making up just five to ten percent of the mash. To distinguish it from common whisky made without rye grain, the rye flavoured version became known as “rye”. Rye to this day is mostly used as flavouring in Canadian whisky. Alberta Distillers all-rye whiskies are exceptions as are the exciting products of some of the new kids on the block.

According to de Kergommeaux today there are eight traditional Canadian whisky distilleries operated by seven distillers and a ninth distillery (Glenora in Nova Scotia) that makes single malt whisky. Most make their base whisky from corn. Highwood Distillers of High River Alberta is exclusively wheat based and Alberta Distillers uses rye grain.

Recently I met with Don Livermore, a PhD in Brewing and Distilling, who has been Wiser’s Canadian master blender since 2012. Livermore who has worked at the distillery for 17 years, told me Wiser’s is now the number one whisky family in Canada with over 750,000 cases produced a year. He’s proud of our history and pointed out that in 1900 our own Gooderham & Worts was the largest distillery in the world.

Today there’s a big renaissance in the Canadian whisky business, and Livermore said in all the years he’s worked in at the distillery, he’s never seen the volume of sales as high as now.

WISER'S SMALL BATCH WHISKYWISER'S DELUXE WHISKYWhat sets Canadian whisky apart he said, is that we ferment our grains separately, age them separately and only then blend. This means we can concentrate up the rye. This gives a characteristic spiciness – think of rye bread – with tastes akin to clove, ginger, cinnamon and hot pepper plus a complexity and refreshing bitterness.

Rye has always been the backbone of Wiser’s but corn is the majority grain. Wiser’s Deluxe is their flagship brand, aged five years in former American bourbon barrels, and is the number one whisky in sales in Canada. Majority corn based with some rye for flavouring, it has a subtle spice, with warmth and sweetness from the corn along with toffee and vanilla. Oak comes through in the finish.

Wiser’s Small Batch also majority corn based, but has an extra hit of oak. After its five years in first fill American bourbon barrels, it’s finished for a minimum of 100 days in virgin American oak barrels, charred to level 2 on the scale (out of 4 levels). Livermore said half of the flavouring the wood gives up comes out in the first 100 days so this is a significant hit of the primary wood notes of vanilla, caramel and coconut (from the charring of the wood).

Wiser’s Legacy, launched in 2008, has the most rye at 33 per cent of the total. The rye is copper pot distilled, the other grains (corn and malted barley) are distilled in column stills. It’s my favourite of the Wiser’s family – rich, toffee, caramel with brown spices throughout. The newest label is Wiser’s Red Letter 2013 edition, created by Livermore to reflect the style of whisky crafted in 1857 by John Philip Wiser. It’s flavourful but lighter and livelier than other Wiser’s products.

KILCHOMAN MACHIR BAY ISLAY SINGLE MALTAberlour 18 Year OldOn the other side of the pond, Kilchoman Distillery on Islay, the only independently owned distillery left on the island, is making Scotland’s only single malt from 100 per cent Islay grown malting barley. Kilchoman, established in 2005, is the first distillery to be built on the island for 125 years. The brainchild of Anthony Wills, who spent his career in the wine and spirit business, it’s privately owned by 30 shareholders. Wills said he picked Islay for the distillery because it’s the fastest growing whisky region in Scotland.

Islay whiskies have a distinctive peat reek from the special peat harvested on the island used to smoke the malting barley and a notable brine flavour courtesy of the surrounding sea. What sets Kilchoman apart is that they located on a working farm that grows malting barley. Only six distilleries of the 100 in Scotland do their own floor malting of barley: Bowmore, Laphroaig, Springbank, Balvenie, Highland Park and Kilchoman. (BenRiach does but only for special bottlings.)

Of these Balvenie grows a portion of its own barley but only Kilchoman grows, malts, distils and bottles a product that’s 100 per cent of their own malting. Alas Kilchoman 100% Islay release (3rd edition, there’s only one release a year) is not sold in Canada…yet. However Kilchoman Machir Bay, named after the beach close to the distillery, is listed here. It’s Kilchoman’s core expression, their first continuously available single malt. Matured in a combo of bourbon barrels and oloroso sherry casks, it has the same peat level as Ardbeg (50ppm) but doesn’t come across as aggressively pungent as most of the Islay malts.

This fall there’s a great release of whiskies and seasonal spirits leading up to Christmas. There are too many to cover in this newsletter – but here, until my next dispatch, are some recommendations.

MEUKOW FELINE VSOP COGNACMasterson’s 10 Year Old Rye is 100 per cent pot still rye with lots of power and zing. Aberlour 18 Year Old is pricy but so rich and generous on the palate it’s worth the cost. Hine Homage Grand Cru Fine Champagne Cognac, the only early landed cognac in our market, is a must for collectors and for lovers of cognac. Meukow VSOP is ultra smooth with flavourful fruity notes. Finally Spud Pumpkin Sweet Potato Vodka is full of the heart warming friendly flavours of pumpkin pie perfect for chilly days, as is Black Grouse mixed with Drambuie for a tasty smoky Rusty Nail cocktail.

Happy days of autumn!

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 whisky!


Meukow Feline VSOP Cognac

Fortessa Canada Inc.

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Versatile Vodka; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Versatile vodka is the world’s second most popular spirit by volume and its leading brand, Smirnoff is the largest spirit brand of any in the world. Despite what you may think, the spirit is not neutral in taste. It continues to evolve with new flavours and artisanal production. Innovative cocktails feature the newest trends and tastes. Vanilla cake vodka martini anyone?

A number of years ago on a cold rainy day in late August I found myself driving a wheat harvester in southern Sweden as part of my research into vodka. Why Sweden? While Russia maintains it’s the mother country and Poland’s claim as vodka’s birthplace is just as compelling, Swedes too have a long tradition of vodka drinking. At one point in the 1700’s they had an estimated one still for every ten inhabitants.

The Nordic and Baltic countries show no sign of losing their love of vodka if my recent trips to Norway and Latvia were any measure. On the weekends I discovered the Norwegians let out their inner Viking and partied with a gusto that only Scandinavians can fathom, unless of course you’ve been touched by Russia.

Vodka’s life started rather ignobly in the 12th century as a disinfectant and anaesthetic that tasted dreadful. Herbs, peels, roots and spices were often added to mask the taste. At first vodka was distilled from rye. Later when the masses consumed it with bread at the start of every evening meal, the cheaper, more common potato was used.

Wheat is the choice grain of most vodka distillers today hence my visit to Sweden to see winter wheat grown in Skåne. Nearby these grain fields on the Baltic coast is the tiny harbour town of Ǻhus, the home of Absolut, one of the world’s most successful vodkas. (Absolut sold 11.5 million cases in 2012 to capture the number two spot in vodka sales after Smirnoff.) Absolut tells the farmers exactly what to plant and how to farm the crop, assuring absolute consistency. Every worker has instructions mapped out in their tractor and that’s what I followed as I – with some computer help – drove the machine. One kilo of grain goes into every litre of vodka.

The raw material is just the beginning. Much still happens from there. The premium and deluxe categories of vodka proclaim unique sources of water, special filtration methods, multiple distillations and more. They are one of the fastest growing categories for the spirit.

“Vodka is still the largest segment in the spirits category in Canada with just under five million nine litre cases annually. The major trends we see are: premiumization, flavours and small batch craft, artisanal vodkas,” said Kelly McGregor, Marketing Director, Beam Canada Inc. “Vodka makes up close to 30% of the spirits category in Canada and is the most broadly consumed spirit due to its versatility and mix-ability.”

Crystal Head VodkaKenton Tasker, VP of Sales and Marketing for Crystal Head Vodka told me that vodka has seen a constant evolution of new products being introduced which he explained in part because vodka is a simple spirit to make, requires no aging and can be easily transformed into any flavour type. However he pointed out that the flavour vodka category continues to shift from product to product as new flavours are introduced – but with so many products, most have a short life span. “This has given way to the ultra-premium vodka segment that is showing the most positive overall gains because of consumer demand for pure high quality products,” he said.

Grey Goose claims a superiority of water which has hints of minerals picked up as it filters through the limestone of Champagne, France. Ketel One vodka from the Netherlands believes it makes the perfect cocktail base by being distilled from 100% winter wheat, first in a continuous still for freshness and then a portion redistilled in traditional pot stills to add creaminess and texture. Double Cross, an ultra premium vodka from the Slovak Republic housed in an elegantly cool tall rectangular bottle is proud to be seven times distilled and seven times filtered.

Absolut Elyx VodkaStill Waters Single Malt VodkaCanada was the first country to receive Absolut Elyx when it launched in December 2010. This small batch vodka from single estate winter wheat is produced in an authentic 1929 copper rectification still.

Stolichnaya Elit from Latvia uses a freezing filtration process with sub-zero temperatures reaching a frigid -18 C to achieve the highest possible degree of purification. Luksusowa boasts specially cultivated potatoes which deliver a more intense, richer character than grain vodkas. Flyte Vodka made in Newmarket Ontario from 100 per cent Canadian corn is filtered an impressive eight times in a coconut shell carbon filter for extra smoothness. Still Waters Single Malt Vodka is handcrafted by artisan distillers in Canada.

Regarding the flavoured vodkas, the big boom came when Absolut Citron launched in North America in 1988. It took off like a rocket and blazed a trail not only for its other flavours to come such as Kurant, Mandrin, Vanilia, Raspberri, Apeach and Ruby Red but also for competitors galore. Zubrowka Bison Grass Vodka has a longer history as one of the world’s oldest and most unique vodkas. It’s flavoured with a wild, naturally growing grass in the Biatoweiza Forest in northeastern Poland.

Sobieski CynamonZubrowka Bison Vodka“Craft distilling is a rapidly growing trend….And, unfortunately, crazy artificial flavors like marshmallow, whipped cream and peanut butter and jelly have become popular,” said Cameron Bogue, Beverage Director at Earl’s Restaurants Ltd. On the plus side Bogue, said “Small craft distillers are challenging the definition of vodka being devoid of flavour.  Even though vodka has to be distilled to 95% alcohol, distillers are able to retain the characteristics of the raw product through gentle, small batch runs.  To create natural flavoured vodka these small distillers are infusing, and redistilling their vodka with real fruit.  This creates some outstanding products.”

Chris Staresinic, National Brand Manager for Campari International handling Skyy Vodka in Canada told me that while flavoured vodka gets a lot of attention, with producers introducing confectionary types of vodka such as cake, it still only accounts for under 10% of total vodka sales in Canada versus 25% in the USA. We Canadian’s do not have the same taste palate for sweetness as Americans.

Stolichnaya Chocolat Razberi for example, launched in October of 2012 is already discontinued at the LCBO. Sobieski Cynamon on the other hand is considered a seasonal product and has availability. I’m definitely not the demographic for UV Cake Vodka but I’ve got to say it captures the sweet confectionary vanilla cake flavour well with notes of white frosting in the finish.

Vodka may be dominant in its market share but it’s not resting on its laurels. With craft distilling, innovative flavours and new ultra-premium brands, it’s fighting to stay relevant and is succeeding.


Margaret Swaine

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

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use the wine links for immediate access to Margaret Swaine’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!


Bowmore 12 Year Old

Taste Ontario Event

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Judge’s Picks from the National Wine Awards of Canada

Each week between now and the announcement of the results of the NWACs after Labour Day, WineAlign will feature each of the 18 judges, their thoughts on Canadian wine, and their personal favourite wine of the competition. Selection of a wine does not necessarily mean it was a top medal winner, and the scores (if given) reflect the opinion of the judge, not its final mark in the competition.

Margaret Swaine, Toronto

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret has authored thousands of articles on wine, spirits, food and travel since her writing career start in 1978. Current gigs include Principal Critic and Partner at WineAlign where she pens a monthly blog about spirits, the weekly column Forks & the Road about culinary and spirited travel for the National Post, the bi-monthly Global Gourmet columns for Travel Industry Today and the column Paradise Home & Away for Best Health. Prior she was both Toronto Life and Chatelaine’s wine and spirit columnist for over two decades. She’s also written for the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Financial Post, House and Home, Elle, Toronto Life Fashion, USA Today, Canadian Foodservice Hospitality, Ensemble Travel, EnRoute, Food and Drink, Canadian Living, Hello! Canada, NUVO, ScoreGolf, Canadian Restaurant and Foodservice News, Chic, Arrival, Up! Magazine, Zoomer, Ottawa Citizen, Wine Access, Winetidings,, Baltic Outlook and more publications than she can remember. She’s the creator and author of the first three annual “Toronto Life Wine, Beer and Spirits Guides” and has taught wine courses at the YMCA, The Skills Exchange, The Learning Annex, Creative Entertaining, The Creative Touch Cooking School, Harvest Kitchen and Georgian College as well as for private corporate groups. Margaret has participated as a wine judge at many international competitions and has appeared on numerous radio and TV Shows as a wine expert. Margaret founded and was first president of the Wine Writers Circle of Canada and is a founder, director and first treasurer of The Travel Media Association of Canada. She is recipient of the 2003 Life Achievement Award of the Ontario Imported Wine-Spirit-Beer Association. Margaret got her debut in the wine field, as a winner of blind tasting competitions. Back in 1978, when Margaret entered her first Toronto competition, she captured both the first prize and the “women’s prize”.

Margaret on Canadian Wine

I always find it amusing when people say “Canadian wines have come of age”. I wrote that back in 1980 for a feature I did for Chatelaine. We’ve been making great wine for decades – it’s only the volume and number of wineries doing it that has changed. We’ve reached such a critical mass even the ignorant can no longer be so. And while it’s hard for us to make those ten dollar bargain beauties, some do manage it and do so under VQA rules. Bravo to them. On the higher price end I’ve seen lots of exciting wines including an unexpected terrific range of traditional method long-on-the-lees sparkling wines which I discovered while researching a piece for Hello! Canada. I’m also a fan of our red and white blends and was further encouraged by what I tasted in judging the National Wine of Canada Awards this year. Among the single varietals there were some in almost every category that were delightful and gold medal impressive. While Canada has nowhere close to the depth and breadth of grape varietals as in a country like Italy, Portugal or Greece for example, we can and do make magic with what we have planted and continue to experiment with new varietals. I’m waiting for the grüner veltliner – if they can have a GRU route in Australia’s Adelaide Hills – so can we.

Margaret’s Picks

Meyer Family Vineyards 2011 McLean Creek Pinot Noir
Okanagan Valley, BC $40.00

I’m a big pinot noir aficionado and so when I come across ones I love I’m in heaven. When the wines were revealed, it turned out I liked pretty much all the Meyer Family wines, but this one really impressed. It had lovely wild aromatics that were forward with lots of berry and toasted oak. Sweet cherry, integrated oak and earthiness came through on the palate. Meyer family has 19 acres under vine and focus on chardonnay and pinot noir with an emphasis on small lot single vineyard wines. I also really liked their Reimer Family Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011.

Meyer Pinot Noir McLean Creek

Quails’ Gate Winery Chenin Blanc 2012
Okanagan Valley, BC $18.99

I’ve been a fan of Quails’ Gate Chenin Blanc for years and this one stood out for me among the chenin wines we blind tasted. While some of my colleagues felt the 8 per cent of sauvignon blanc in the blend made it less true to the varietal, I begged to differ. I found the bouquet full on ripe quince and honey with a dry, long concentrated and lingering floral finish. I call it a classic.

Quails' Gate Chenin Blanc 2012

Jessica Bryans, Vancouver

Jessica’s passion for wine began almost 10 years ago with an extended stay in Tuscany. Upon returning home, her career in the wine industry began after securing a job in a local wine shop and enrolling in a course with the International Sommelier Guild.  Following several years with Vancouver based retail giant Everything Wine Inc, Jessica now works as the Wine Buyer and Beverage Purchasing Manager for JOEY Restaurant Group’s near 30 restaurants across Canada and the USA. Her role combines her insatiable passion for wine, food and travel with managing the distribution and logistics involved in the purchasing process in several markets. She is also accredited by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust.

Jessica on Canadian Wine

Let me first say that Canadian wine impresses me. Even though this is a young region, it feels as though we are on the road to making world class wines, specifically from Riesling and Syrah.

Jessica Bryans

Jessica Bryans

It was no surprise to find that Canadian Riesling is miles ahead of other varietals in terms of its quality and consistency.  Throughout the NWAC competition we tasted a broad spectrum of styles from the bone-dry and mineral driven to the sweet and honeyed, with the best examples showing a certain nervy intensity and purity of fruit that I can only describe as “honest”. What drives the progress in this category is that winemakers are well aware that they have a good thing and are giving the variety a certain respect.  When the flight lists, with the price of each wine, were revealed following the judging (I wouldn’t be a true Wine Buyer without getting excited about that part), I was pleased to learn that there are many great value Rieslings being made in Canada. Some of the wines that I scored highly are available for less than $18…cue the national anthem.

I also feel Syrah is an emerging contender for Canadian greatness. We seem to be on the verge of our own unique style that somehow incorporates pretty with savoury, and elegance with richness. Time will tell if these wines have the ability to age in a fashion that would warrant such a statement but for the moment this is an exciting category and I look forward to seeing how they develop. Again, many of the good Syrah examples tasted were reasonably priced, specifically the Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate “Grand Reserve” seen below.

Finally, a nod to a few other pleasant surprises of the competition. The beauty (and the curse) of being such a young wine region is that there is a considerable amount of experimentation.  Although we did taste some questionable wines, it seems that every now and again the risks do pay off for producers, who have an understanding of their terroir. To me, the most impressive of the less well established varietals was Chenin Blanc. We tasted truly elegant, focused Chenin made in a range of styles including sparkling, dry and off-dry, all of which had much depth and concentration. Another pleasant surprise was Gamay, which showed some potential with bright red fruit and cracked pepper character and some qualities reminiscent of Beaujolais. These varietals may not be destined for commercial success in Canada but they are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Although these awards are only a snapshot of what is happening with Canadian wine at this moment, I feel as though the key lesson is simple: the best wines are emerging from producers who know, understand and respect the terroir.

Jessica’s Picks
Big Head Wines 2012 Chenin Blanc

Niagara Lakeshore, Niagara Peninsula ($25)

Made in a dry style with mouth-watering acidity and laser like intensity of red apple skin, pear, honey, chamomile and crushed stones. Layers of brilliant complexity, great balance and a long, clean finish. Spot-on.

Big Head Wines 2012 Chenin Blanc

Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate 2010 “Grand Reserve” Shiraz
Niagara Peninsula ($20)

Notes of dark fruit and garrigue on the nose. The palate is structured and concentrated with flavours of cassis, white-pepper and savoury herbs. This wine is edging towards Northern Rhone stylistically and does a great job of offering a delicious and approachable version of an old world classic.

Jackson-Triggs Niagara Estate 2010 Grand Reserve Shiraz

Photo credits from NWAC: Jason Dziver Photography

National Wine Awards of Canada

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Bitter Love; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Bitters are all the rage on the cocktail scene these days. Whether they’re the type you take by the drop or by the ounce, they add depth and intrigue to every drink. Recently I was on the judging panel for a dozen drinks based on Averna Amaro, a Sicilian bitter with a renowned history. After this palate-eye opener, I’d say bitters are as essential as ice in a well stocked bar.

AvernaThe talented young bartenders from 12 of the trendiest spots in Toronto, created cocktails that not only showcased Averna, but were downright delicious. It was a challenge to pick just one winner. Charlie Lamont, a bartender at Whippoorwill and Rock Lobster won first prize with “Bumblebee” – a mix of majority Averna with orange blossom water, coconut liqueur and Luxardo Maraschino, garnished with lemon peel.

Adrian Stein who works at Rock Lobster and Mistura came in second with “Moda Antica”, a reverse take on an old fashioned in which the drink was inside a sphere of ice. Forty Creek rye, smoked maple syrup, house made cherry lavender bitter and smacked basil added to the drink’s pizzazz. Reed Pettit of Miller Tavern came in third with the delicious “Just One of Those”. Along with Averna it featured Bowmore 12 Year Old, Chartreuse and raspberry tea. Another great scotch for this cocktail would be the newly listed Highland Park 10 Year Old.

HIGHLAND PARK 10 YEAR OLDBowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single MaltBitters, created to cure the ailments of man, have a long history in Europe that dates back at least to the medicinal brews of medieval monasteries. The monks grew herbs, dried them and worked them into special elixirs according to secret recipes that people would literally murder to obtain. Some of the popular ingredients still used today include quinine, anise, rhubarb, gentian, juniper, alpine yarrow, mint, sage, verbena, chamomile, hawthorn, citrus peel and thyme.

There are two basic categories of bitters; strong which are 38% to 45% alcohol with low residual sugar, and medium (half) bitters with 30% to 35% alcohol and higher sugar. In North America we find the consumer friendly aspects of the latter more appealing, while many Europeans prefer the whack of the strong ones. Concentrated aromatic bitters such as Angostura, Vermont’s Urban Moonshine organic bitters and Dillon’s small batch range in Ontario made from botanicals and local fruit, are typically used a few drops at a time to add complexity to cocktails and other beverages.

A typical example of the half bitters is Averna (29% alcohol). Made from a recipe handed by a monk of the Order of Capuchins in the early 1800’s to Don Salvatore Averna of Sicily, it became the preferred elixir of the kings of Italy in the 19th century and the first licensed spirit in Sicily.

Averna, today Italy’s favorite amaro, is distilled from a blend of 60 herbs, dried flowers, spices and licorice: the exact recipe is a closely guarded secret of Fratelli Averna, a fourth-generation family-run company based in Caltanissetta. Traditionally a soothing after-dinner drink, I find it on the sweet side but used as a mixer in cocktails it shines.

Fernet BrancaUnderberg BittersItaly is the world capital of bitters consumption. They have invented over 300 different kinds of amaro (the Italian word for bitter) which is not surprising considering their love of multi-coursed meals which can leave you begging for a stomach soother. Most of the leading brands of amaro such as Averna, Fernet Branca, and Ramazotti started as family businesses which grew into huge internationals.

A Danish colleague of mine, Jorgen, who used to jaunt about the world covering the unlikely combo of wine and politics, would never leave home without, amongst his weeks’ worth of undies and socks, an equal quantity of paper-wrapped 20mL bottles of Underberg.

He used this natural tonic developed in Germany in 1846 with herbs gathered from 43 countries seeped in 44% alcohol to help him digest the pontifications and libations of the day. It’s a habit he came by naturally as Danes love their bitter drams. The local Gammel Dansk is the most popular there but Europeans have hundreds of choices available.

Most were meant to be consumed straight like a tonic, though it’s trendy today is to add sodas or use them in cocktails. Consumed this way, they make great aperitifs, setting up the palate and stomach nicely for the meal to come. A favourite summer perk me up is Campari and soda, a drink so popular in Italy it comes in premixed bottles there. Cynar, made by Campari, is artichoke based with syrupy, subtle liquorice root type flavours and also makes a good aperitif with soda and ice as does Jägermeister with cola.

Beefeater 24 London Dry GinBulldog GinThe pinkish-red Negroni cocktail is a classic summer “pick-me-up” that will transport you, at least in your mind, to beautiful Portofino. Bittersweet Campari is mixed with gin and sweet red vermouth – on the rocks, topped up with soda if desired. Generally it’s made two parts gin to one part of the other two. If like me you like the taste of bitters, go for extra Campari. Try Bulldog Gin a more approachable, less juniper centric gin with a creamy texture as the base or Beefeater 24, which features 12 bright botanicals and has a rounded, smooth texture.

The Champagne house Perrier Jouët developed a special cocktail this summer to herald in the new heir to the British throne. Called the “Royale Highness” it’s one ounce each of Beefeater 24 and Lejay Crème de Cassis and a splash of fresh lemon juice shaken with ice which is then strained into a flute glass and topped up with Perrier Jouët. It’s a princely way to salute the end of summer and baby George Alexander Louis.


Margaret Swaine

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

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Luxardo Maraschino

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Star Anise and other stars of summer; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

As a naive Canadian student at the University of Aix-Marseille in Aix-en-Provence years ago, I learned quite a few memorable things about France. The uni-sex washrooms with men lined up at the urinals that I couldn’t avoid in my search for a stall were an eye-opener. The favoured drink – pastis – was another. Everyone drank it and defended their favourite brand like it was a crucial aspect of life itself.

In some ways it was and still is today in Provence. Pastis is an anise flavoured aperitif with the addition of liquorice root, sugar and other local herbs and spices. Anise, grown on the coasts of the Mediterranean has been used since the 15th century before Christ in Greece and then in Rome for its curative power. It’s believed the early Egyptians used it to treat gums, teeth and cardiac diseases. Chinese medicine used it for urinary tract and digestive problems and even to stop hiccups. Anise came to France through Marseille with the Moorish invasions in 730 and again with the Crusades between 1095 and 1291. It came to stay.

Families made drinks by macerating anise in alcohol using various types of anise plants such as star anise, green anise and fennel. This old Mediterranean tradition of anise based liquors can be seen across countries under different names such as sambuca, ouzo, arak, raki and mastika. Absinthe (the green fairy) which obtains its base flavour from green anise, also contains wormwood, and was banned starting in 1915 in the US and much of Europe for its purported addictive psycho properties. (A revival of absinthe began in the 1990s following the removal of longstanding barriers to its production and sale.)

Meanwhile in France in 1920, the law authorized anise based aperitifs provided that they were not green and the alcohol level did not exceed 30 per cent. Refreshing and economical as the recommended way to drink was one volume of liqueur with five of water, they became the stars of the bars. Brands multiplied, each with their carefully guarded secret ingredients. The word “pastis” itself emerged in 1932 when Paul Ricard made a recipe based on green anise, star anise and liquorice.

Ricard Pastis de MarseillePernodPastis Henri BardouinThe addition of liquorice with anise in a drink was both a novelty and a big success. Ricard Pastis de Marseille at 45 per cent alcohol with a brown amber colour (that becomes cloudy beige with water added) has a distinct liquorice root flavour with earthy masculine tones and a brawny power much like the Marseilles sailors of past. It reminds me of the Marseille waterfront when I lived in Provence which was slightly dangerous with the bars stacked with entraineuses. (Beautiful young ladies trained to get guys buying them outrageously price drinks – a big score that had to be settled before muscular enforcers allowed the hapless men to leave). Earn eight bonus AIR MILES reward miles until July 20th on this product.

Pernod, created in 1805, by Henri-Louis Pernod based on star anise, plants and aromatic herbs was much loved in Parisian cafés then and is a popular favourite pastis around the world today. It’s the oldest French anise based brand and in its earliest days included extracts of absinthe. (Today there’s a special absinthe based version that alas I haven’t seen in Canada.) Over a century later in 1928, it came out with its anise based spirit that built its reputation. Now in over 110 countries, it’s known for its subtle flavour of star anise and other essences. It’s quite straightforward in its delivery of flavour.

At the end of the 1980’s, more complex and different pastis emerged based on aromatic mixtures created by maceration. Henri Bardouin was a pioneer in this regard reviving the category with panache. His pastis is truly complex with about 65 different herbs and spices. Yes there’s star anise and liquorice but also mugwort, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, thyme, lemon verbena, St. John’s wort, oregano, kidney vetch and much more. It’s a multi-layered, multi-flavoured pleasure to sip.

No 3 London DryDillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22As we are also in the throes of summer, three other spirits are stars of the heat (if the rain will ever stop!). Gin is such a perfect summer tipple especially as the simple pleasure of a gin and tonic. If you are going that route make sure you buy a good tonic. Look for premium brands like Fever Tree, Tomr’s, and Fentiman’s recommends KegWorks, a Buffalo-based company that offers cocktail supplies and specialty sodas. I’d agree and have seen bars in Spain for example that focus their gin drinks on your choice of premium tonic. KegWorks says that the tonic water found in most bars and supermarkets is made with artificial ingredients. These brands are missing tonic’s essential authentic ingredient, quinine, extracted originally from the Peruvian Quinquina tree in the 1600s.

To mix with your premium tonic, I’d suggest a local gin. We have more and more springing up in Canada. I recently visited Dillon’s Distillers in Beamsville. Their Unfiltered Gin 22, made by passing vapour through 22 botanicals is gentle, rounded and smooth. Perfect to make an easy going G&T. If you’re not near a local distiller and love the taste of juniper, No.3 London Dry Gin has that in spades. It’s unmistakably traditional London Dry Gin with juniper at its heart to give a distinctive pine and lavender type of taste. It makes a superior and notable G&T or a superb dry martini.

Havana Club 3 Year Old RumDouble Cross VodkaRum is another great mixer in summer drinks. Add it to fruit juice of any sort and you have a refreshing punch. Havana Club 3 Year Old Rum, is aromatic molasses, vanilla and banana on the nose and soft, gentle rum flavours on the tongue.

And lastly – who can resist an ice cold vodka or gin martini on the dock of the bay as the sun sets? Double Cross Vodka, an ultra premium spirit produced from winter wheat in the Slovak Republic is soft, silky, with a nice uplift in the finish. Add pickled onions or salty olives, a dash of vermouth and you’ll be forgetting about market turmoil, flash floods and pesky bugs in a flash.


Margaret Swaine

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

We invite our Premium Subscription members to use these links for immediate access to Margaret Swaine’s reviews. Paid membership to WineAlign has its privileges – this is one of them. Enjoy!

Luxardo Maraschino Originale Liqueur

Maclean's Wine in Canada

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