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Whites on the Rise and Ports on the March

Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – November 2015
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

White spirits are on the rise in Canada and it doesn’t seem to matter what season. The reasons for this are multifold. The growing number of micro-distilleries popping up tend to at least start with white spirits as they can be released unaged and thus quickly bring in cash. The overall quality and variety of white spirits such as tequilas, vodkas and gins has improved considerably. And the cocktail craze encourages the proliferation of all spirits.

The tequila category is growing in almost every province across the country with Ontario and BC leading the charge and premium 100% Agave tequila driving this growth. According to statistics from the Cámara Nacional de la Industria Tequilera (CNIT), the national chamber of the tequila industry in Mexico, in 2014 the volume of tequila exported to Canada was up 14% compared with 2013. More tellingly the value of the tequila exports to our country was $5.4million USD up 36% compared to 2013.

“Canadian consumers are asking for more added value tequilas, so the increase of the exports value,” said Christian Rosas, Análisis Estratégico (Strategic Analyst) at CNIT. “Not only in Canada, the global trend for our industry is to offer each time more and more brands of tequila in the high end and super premium categories, which is the result of years of education to the consumers who now are looking for this kind of tequilas, specially tequila 100% agave,” said Mr. Rosas.

Tequila is produced from the fermented sugars of the Tequilana Blue Weber agave plant primarily in the Mexican state of Jalisco, and within limited regions in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. By law all tequila must be produced from no less than 51 percent of sugars from the blue agave, with the rest from other natural sugars, most commonly corn or sugar cane. If the label doesn’t say “100% Agave,” or a similar statement, the product is a 51/49 tequila (the correct name for the category, not mixto as is commonly used).

All authentic, 100% agave tequilas will have a NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) identifier on the bottle, which represents governance of agave harvesting, production, bottling and exporting.

Cabo Wabo Reposado Tequila Casamigos Tequila Blanco Casamigos Tequila Reposado Maestro Dobel Diamante Tequila

More than 140 companies are currently authorized for the production of tequila of which 68 producers are members of CNIT (and responsible for 80% of the total production). The combined companies offer more than 1,300 different brands bottled in Mexico and 250 brands that have been created and/or developed outside of Mexico.

The major styles are Blanco (white) the traditional tequila that started it all: a clear spirit that is most often bottled straight from distillation, although it can be aged a maximum of two months in stainless steel or neutral oak barrels. Reposado (rested) is aged in any size oak barrel, from 2 months to one year. Añejo (aged) is produced from aging a minimum of one year to no more than three years, in a small oak barrels. Extra Añejo (extra aged) is a relatively new category, for any tequilas aged over three years.

A number of the newer brands to come on stream have a real cachet. Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Sammy Hagar launched Cabo Wabo tequila 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.) The 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.

1800 Silver Tequila 1800 Reposado Tequila Don Julio Blanco Tequila

Casamigos is an independent brand owned by the three founders, Rande Gerber, heart-throb actor George Clooney and Mike Meldman. Casamigos uses the highest quality highland blue weber agaves, roasts them for 72 hours (very much longer than the industry average), uses extra-slow fermentation and ages the tequila in small American oak barrels – no corner cut or expense spared. The Blanco and Reposado are in our markets.

Maestro Dobel Tequila, is a new product in Canada, arriving only earlier this year. It’s the world’s first clear multi-aged tequila: a rule-defying blend of Extra-Añejo, Añejo and Reposado tequila, aged in the European oak barrels and double filtered to remove all colour. Only the most traditional production methods are used.

Putting money behind the cocktail trend is 1800 Tequila (Silver and Reposado), a major sponsor of Made with Love – Canada’s Most Extravagant Cocktail Competition. 1800 Tequila’s marketing strategy in Canada focuses on integrating the product into exceptional and creative cocktails. Another good 100% agave brand nice in cocktails is Don Julio Blanco.

White Owl Whisky Ginger Lime Dillon's The White Rye Rendle's Original Gin Wódka Zoladkowa Gorzka

White whiskies such as White Owl Ginger Lime Whisky and white ryes including Dillon’s The White Rye are among the other neat white spirits in our market. Rendle’s Original Gin debuted in Canada this year – a pink hued charmer with exotic notes. Wódka Zołądkowa Gorzka, an herbal Polish vodka based on a 1950 recipe is another interesting spirit to reach our shores. Two other flavour packed liquors are Varnelli L’Anise Secco and Varnelli Amaro Sibilla. 

Finally ports are on the march as winter is coming. The Association of Port Wine Companies came through Toronto in October with a big contingency of producers. I was able to taste some wonderful old whites such as Dalva Porto Colheita 1963 Golden White that was nutty, lengthy and amazing but alas not available in Canada. (Unless you can persuade Dalva’s agent, The Case for Wine to private order it.) However the much younger but still aged in barrel, Taylor Fladgate Fine White Port is available at a bargain price. Warre’s LBV Bottle Aged Port 2003 and Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage 2012 are two new releases to stock up on.

Varnelli Secco Speciale Anice Varnelli Sibilla Amaro Taylor Fladgate Fine White Port Warre's LBV Bottle Aged Port 2003 Fonseca Guimaraens Vintage Port 2012

Have white, pink or red – whatever it takes to keep you warm this winter.


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 60 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!

Taylor Fladgate 20 Year Old Tawny Port

Gourmet Games - Nov 17th

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – August 2015

Let the Cocktail Fit the CountryAugust 10, 2015

by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine 

During the Pan Am Games in Toronto, the InterContinental’s Azure Lounge matched drinks with sports and their countries. This was the ultimate “let the cocktail fit the country” exercise and reminded me that there are some places in the world where their cocktails are as iconic as their top tourist sites.

Azure’s “Beach Volleyball” cocktail took the fact that Brazil is a power house in beach volleyball and matched it with the country’s most famous spirit, cachaça to make their version of a Caipirinha, the country’s favourite cocktail. Azure’s recipe calls for two ounces of cachaça, one lime quartered and a teaspoon of white sugar. You muddle the lime and white sugar in a shaker, add ice and cachaça, shake and pour into rocks glass (no straining) for the ultimate refreshing hot weather cocktail. (Up the sugar or lower the lime if you want a less tart beverage.)

The Caipirinha came to be in the 1800s, first made by Brazilian slaves. They drank boiled cane sugar juice called garapa and mixed it with cachaça made from sugar cane. For flavour they added spice and fruit juice. One of these mixes, the batida de limao, which is made with lime, is the base of today’s Caipirinha.

In Rio de Janeiro’s trendy Santa Teresa district, the restaurant Aprazível has its own cachaça sommelier, and a cachaça list with over 100 brands, organized under the states that produce them. Cachaça is distilled from fresh sugar cane juice: the best come from artisanal pot still production in regions such as Salinas in Minas Gerais state, Paraty in Rio de Janeiro state and Monte Alegre do Sul in São Paulo state and can be aged in wood barrels for many years.

Pitú Cachaça founded in 1938 claims to be one of the oldest and most traditional spirit companies in Brazil. If you want to make copious Caipirinhas without breaking the bank this is the brand for you. Leblon Cachaça rests up to six months in vintage XO cognac casks to lend it a sophistication and ultra-smooth character.

The Pisco Sour is long claimed by both the Peruvians and the Chileans as their national drink. Pisco is basically a white brandy (unaged) made from certain varieties of distilled grapes. In Peru they add egg white to the basic mix of Pisco, lime juice and sugar syrup and top that with a dash of angostura bitters. Beyond the slight difference in drink recipes (in Chile no egg white or angostura) is the battle over who owns the rights to Pisco.

Pisco is Peru according to the Peruvian government. The country has a town of Pisco that overlooks the Pisco River at the foot of the Pisco Valley. The town dates back to 1574. Melanie Asher, founder and CEO of Macchupisco, a leading Peruvian producer and exporter, rightly says Pisco is a deeply ingrained part of the culture of the country.

Chile however produces much more of the grape liquor and both countries have strict regulations governing its production. That said under the Chilean system, water may be added to dilute the alcohol content before sale while in Peru this is not allowed.

Pitu Cachaca Leblon Cachaca Macchu Pisco El Gobernador Pisco Capel Premium Pisco

Pisco has been produced in the Pisco region of southern Peru since 1613 while the first documented evidence of Pisco production in Chile dates no further than 1871. However to complicate things, in 1693 Peru and Chile were not separate countries, rather part of the same territory within the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru, and Chile also has a town named Pisco.

Suffice to say both countries have strong claims to Pisco and don’t wish to give an inch to the other. And indeed they both insist they invented the Pisco Sour. The Peruvians say it was conceived in the 1920s at the Morris Bar near Lima’s main plaza. The Chileans say it was invented at a bar in the town of Iquique. Whatever the truth – Pisco sours are delicious and a must order in either country.

Macchu Pisco from Chincha, Valle de Ina, Peru is a single grape Pisco (quebranta) that’s very aromatic and flavour packed. El Gobernador Pisco from Valle di Limari in Chile is produced in a single discontinuous distillation in copper alembic stills to conserve the scents of the muscatel variety. Capel Pisco from a cooperative in the Elqui Valley in Chile is delicate and fragrant.

The Caribbean is the home of rum and to protect its provenance, The Authentic Caribbean Rum (ACR) marque was recently developed by the West Indies Rum and Spirits Producers’ Association. Most islands have both their indigenous rums and their special drinks. On Bermuda it’s the “dark ’n stormy” Goslings Rum hovering above ginger beer. On Cuba the Daiquiri, a simple mix of rum, sugar syrup and lime juice was made famous by Ernest Hemingway at the El Floridita Bar in Havana which he frequented.

St. Lucia Distillers Chairman's Reserve Rum Skipper Rum Finest Old Demerara Navy Dark Rum New Grove Old Tradition 5 Year Old Rum El Dorado 3 Year Old RumChic Choc Spiced Rum

Try these rums in your cocktails for spirited results: St. Lucia Distillers Chairman’s Reserve is a hand crafted blend of double distilled pot and continuous rums. Skipper Rum is a finest old demerara, produced and aged in Guyana and New Grove Old Tradition is a five year aged Mauritius Island rum.

For a light rum effect try El Dorado 3 Year Old White Rum, that’s smooth on the palate with a dry finish. Want spice and flavour – go for Chic Choc spiced rum from Quebec which launched this year. A true taste of Nova Scotia can be had with Fortress rum matured in Louisbourg, a national historic site in the province – right now available in Nova Scotia and trying to expand its horizons in Canada.

Luigi Francoli Grappa Del Piemonte Nebbiolo Nonino GrappaGrappa is synonymous with Italy though not known for its appearance in cocktails. Nonino, one of the best producers is trying to change that with the Nonino Tonic and other recipes, some found on the neck of the Grappa Nonino bottles on the shelves now. Luigi Francoli Grappa Nebbiolo, is value priced from a family that has been distilling since 1875.

Liqueurs are both a vital part of many cocktails and part of the identity of countries known for their love of food and beverage. In Italy quintessential Italian flavours show up in liquors such as Sambuca (anise), Amaretto (almond), Maraschino (bitter-sweet cherry/almond) and Frangelico (hazelnut).

Luxardo Sambuca dei Cesar is intensely anise and licorice like with a creamy vanilla palate. Luxardo Amaretto di Saschira has terrific marzipan/almond flavours that linger. The Luxardo Maraschino liqueur is an essential part of the cocktail The Last Word, the Aviation, Brandy Crusta and many other classics. Frangelico made from locally grown hazelnuts in Piedmont, blended with coffee, cocoa and vanilla speaks distinctively of the local tastes.

So remember, when in Rome – you know the cliché.

Margaret Swaine


Luxardo Sambuca Dei Cesari Luxardo Amaretto Di Saschira Luxardo Maraschino Originale Liqueur Frangelico

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 60 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Luxardo Brands

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – July 2015

Super Cool G&T’sJuly 13, 2015

by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Last column I promised to write more about the gin and tonic bar craze. Well summer is here and it’s time to mix up a long cool one with tips from the experts on how to make it perfect.

While the G&T seems a simple two ingredient highball, today there are a multitude of variations and ways to “perfect” the drink. In his 2014 book The Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival, Matt Teacher writes about the London Gin Club in England: “Members can rejoice at the large selection of garnishes that have been specifically paired with each of the gins. The variable one has to choose from when selecting the perfect combination include the gin label, the brand of tonic, the accoutrements or garnishes, the form of ice and sometimes the addition of other flavors such as bitters.”

Toronto’s Nota Bene restaurant has a special G&T menu that enables customers to build their own by selecting first from the rotating choice of a dozen or so gins, then picking a tonic and the type of ice from the list. Two of my favourites were Botanist Gin on cubed ice with the house tonic garnished with lime wheels, cardamom and rosemary and Dillon’s Gin 22 on a single large cube of ice with Fever Tree tonic garnished with lemongrass, cucumber and dried hibiscus flowers.

The Botanist Islay Dry Gin Dillon's Unfiltered Gin 22Nota Bene’s owner Chef David Lee was inspired to do a G&T bar after his travels to Spain. On a recent trip to Spain, I too noticed Gin-Tonic bars were all the rage and have been told that “Gin Tonicá” is practically Spain’s national cocktail.

Matt Goulding in his article in, wrote about Spain’s obsession with gin and tonics. “When I tell people that Spain is the best place in the world to drink a gin tonic, a drink created by the British army in India as a defense system against malaria, I’m invariably met with skepticism…. But “gin tonics” (in Spain, they use the English name, but drop the “and” so that it comes out cleaner) have captured the attention of Spain’s chefs, bartenders and alcoholics alike,” he wrote.

Apparently the country is now the world’s biggest gin consumer per capita, with demand increasing at an average of 18 percent over the past five years. I’ve not found anyone who can say why a niche taste became a mainstream mania in Spain, except perhaps that it suits the climate and Mediterranean lifestyle of the country.

The Gin-Tonic bar I went to in the historic centre of Aranda de Duero, north of Madrid, matched brands of gin with different flavours of Schweppes Tonic such as Pink Peppercorn, Orange Blossom & Lavender, and Cardamom & Ginger. I haven’t seen that range of Schweppes tonics in Canada yet but there are a growing number of artisanal tonics available both made here and abroad.

Jack's Tonique (photo: Amenh Tsan)

Jack’s Tonique (photo: Amenh Tsan)

Fever-Tree premium Indian tonic water from the UK is a great brand that blends natural botanical and quinine flavours. Q Tonic from New York claims hand-picked quinine from the Peruvian Andes. In the Atwater market in Montreal, I found Jack’s Tonique, an artisan tonic water concentrate that’s made in Gatineau from cinchona bark (the source for quinine), honey instead of sugar, fresh lemon grass, Sicilian lemon juice, ginger and lavender.

Mathieu Guillemette and Joël Beaupré launched Jack’s Tonique in the spring of 2014 to make the best G&T’s ever. They say their tonic goes particularly well with Tanqueray, Dillon’s gin from Niagara, North of 7 gin from Ottawa and Piger Henricus gin from Quebec. You can find stores that carry Jack’s via their facebook page:

This brings us to the question of what gin to use in a G&T. Beyond the obvious – aka your favourite – I’d say switch around depending upon what flavours you’re in the mood for.

In Canada, more and more delightful gins are being made by artisan producers. Ungava 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. Piger Henricus gin from Quebec features parsnips as its secret ingredient along with juniper, coriander, angelica, lemon peel and cardamom.

Ungava Canadian Premium GinPiger Henricus GinGeorgian Bay GinParlour Gin

Dillon’s in Beamsville, makes their Unfiltered Gin 22, by passing vapour through 22 botanicals. Georgian Bay Gin vapour infused with wild juniper, earthy angelica, lavender and more is bright with juniper and clean fresh botanical notes.

Alberta’s aromatic and well spiced Parlour Gin from Eau Claire distillery has the traditional juniper notes along with hints of rosehip, Saskatoon berry, mint, coriander and citrus that finish with cinnamon and ginger spice.

Victoria Gin, hand produced in small batches on Vancouver Island and distilled from ten botanicals (natural and wild gathered) is packed with personality. With Vancouver’s triple distilled Yaletown Gin, juniper and coriander jump forward in the bouquet.

Victoria GinYaletown Craft GinThe London No. 1 GinSipsmith London Dry Gin

London is the home of gin – so naturally there are many lovely ones to recommend from the mother country. The London Gin #1 is instantly recognizable by its distinct azure blue colour and sophisticated palate. Sipsmith London Dry Gin is a relative newcomer that’s beautifully crafted. Broker’s Premium London Dry delivers a delightful well-balanced style that’s value priced.

Death's Door Gin Broker's Premium London Dry GinNew to Canada from Wisconsin is Death’s Door Gin, with a focus on just three botanicals: juniper, coriander and fennel seeds.

The final step to a great G&T is the glass itself. Regarding that, bartenders are increasingly recommending serving G&T in a balloon shaped glass with plenty of ice and a garnish tailored to the flavours of the gin to best enhance the experience. (The balloon shape gathers the aromas of the drink at its opening.)

The gin and tonic has been raised to an art form. One that delights and refreshes the palate, far removed from its medicinal past.

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 60 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Victoria Gin

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – April 2015

Fashionable Spirits
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

In my constant travels around the globe, I often come across hot new trends in drinking. Sometimes the connection with the place seems natural such as the prohibition style bars (a password required to enter) in North America and the growing farm to shaker movement among mixologists in the hip hoods in America. Other trends are head-scratchers.

How did the mania for Gin-Tonic bars in Spain start? England surely has top claims to that drink – but no. Spain is now the world’s biggest gin consumer per capita, with demand increasing at an average of 18 percent over the past five years. (The Philippines consume the largest volume of gin: the local Ginebra San Miguel celebrates its 181 birthday this year.) I’ll write more about this trend when we finally head into warmer weather.

In Charleston when I saw a flight of Grand Marnier on the drink menu in Belmond hotel’s Charleston Grill, I got curious. Grand Marnier, a cognac based orange liqueur first created in 1880, is a fine French tipple but to offer three versions of it in a flight is unusual.

Locals informed me that Charleston has such a craze for Grand Marnier that the city is the number one consumer of it per capita in the world. They call it GrandMa and mostly drink it like a shooter. I tracked down this trend to an odd law and a chef.

A South Carolina law restricted bars and restaurants to serving liquor from mini-bottles until 2005. Chef Bob Carter, at the helm of the highly popular Peninsula Grill in the late nineties (until 2011) used to show up at events with minis of GrandMa and cajole colleagues into taking shots with him. He started a mania that is only now beginning to slow.

Fireball, a Canadian whisky punched up with a strong hit of cinnamon, is fast becoming the shooter of choice not only in Charleston but throughout North America: it’s one of the most successful liquor brands in decades. Sales have reached the million cases level and it all started in Canada.

Fireball Cinnamon Whisky Liqueur 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select Kentucky Straight Bourbon

It began as a Dr. McGillicuddy’s brand but really took off when it was renamed Fireball. It’s now owned by Sazerac North America Inc which also owns well-loved bourbons such as Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s, Eagle Rare and “1792” Ridgemont Reserve. I’ve met recently with the master distillers and blenders in the company and tasted through a lot of their products, but no one presented Fireball to me at that time. Now having just tasted it – I can see why. It’s so powerfully cinnamon with a burning finale it would kill the palate for their more “subtle” whiskies.

As to the Kentucky whiskies, Buffalo Trace’s first official registration of still 113 was in 1787 though it’s very likely they were distilling before then. By the mid 1800’s there were over 300 registered stills in Kentucky. Almost all were forced to cease during Prohibition between 1919 and 1933. Only four, including Buffalo Trace, were allowed to continue distilling for medicinal purposes. People must have been mighty sick at the time. Over six million prescriptions were written during Prohibition entitling the bearer to a pint of whiskey.

Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight BourbonEagle Rare Single Barrel 10 Years Old Kentucky Straight BourbonW. L. Weller 12 Year Old Kentucky Straight BourbonSazerac 6 Years Old Straight Rye Whiskey

Buffalo Trace gets its name from the pathway taken by buffalo on their ancient Westerly migratory route. The company claims to be the only producer using five recipes for whiskey products: three rye recipe bourbons, one barley and one wheat bourbon. These five recipes create a matrix under which the individual brands are made.

For example Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare and George T. Stagg all are made according to Buffalo Trace rye recipe #1, the key difference is length of time in wood which changes the balance and flavour profile of them. Buffalo Trace rye recipe #2 is used to make Elmer T. Lee, Hancocks Reserve and Rock Hill.

The wheat bourbon recipe make W.L. Weller and Pappy Van Winkle. The wheat gives a mellower, softer profile which softens the wood effect allowing Pappy to be aged more than 20 years without being overly oaky. The straight rye recipe, a spicy, peppery brew, is used for Sazerac and Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye 13 Year Old.

Master Blender at Buffalo Trace, Drew Mayville (a Canadian who started at Seagram’s in Waterloo about 34 years ago) told me the key to the success of the company is innovation. They continually try out new ways to make whiskey to come up with an ever better product. One example is a “cured oak” whiskey aged in barrels made from oak staves that have been aged (seasoned) outdoors for 13 months instead of their average of six. They have micro-distilleries to try out for example brown rice bourbon recipes and the like.

Ken Pierce, Director of Distillation at Barton, said that the Sazerac Company has a good eight to nine ideas to innovate the Canadian whiskey category. I doubt that will mean more Fireball type recipes, despite that liquor’s runaway success. We can only bid our time like a barrel in a warehouse until the big reveal.


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 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!

WineAlign Bus Tour - Prince Edward County

VINTAGES Presents: Primum Familiae Vini

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – February

250 Years of the Finest Cognac
By Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The world’s most popular cognac house is celebrating its 250 anniversary this year. Expect to see a lot of deserved hoopla around Hennessy over the next months as the maison embarks on “The Hennessy 250 Tour” around the world following the footsteps of the Grand Tours the family has made through the centuries. Along with the travelling exhibit comes the launch of a new collector’s blend.

The patriarch and founder, Richard Hennessy, an Irish man of minor nobility, after fighting in the army of King Louis XV settled in Cognac and created the Hennessy trading company in 1765. Jean Fillioux joined forces with the Hennessy family becoming chief cooper in 1806. His son Christophe later became master blender for the Hennessy brand.

The connection of the Hennessy and Fillioux families has remarkably continued to present day. Eight generation Maurice Richard Hennessy is brand Ambassador for Hennessy (the cognac house is part of LVMH – Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy – today) and Yann Fillioux is Master Blender.

Yann is responsible for the creation of Richard Hennessy, Paradis Impérial and now Hennessy 250 Collector Blend. Not yet in Canada, shipping across the globe is expected to begin in April. I had a sneak preview at Château de Bagnolet, a magnificent 1810 house on the banks of the Charente.

Hennessy 250 Collector Blend

Fillioux and his team have been working on this special blend since 2010. In the spirit of the 250 anniversary, 250 barrels each holding 250 litres have been produced, from which the house will release 60,000 bottles for around 450 Euros each.

At Château de Bagnolet the cognac was paired with appetizers that brought out its notes of saffron, nutmeg, bitter orange, salted caramel and florals (e.g. scallops with saffron sauce or maki roll with cilantro). I don’t have ‘pro’ tasting notes as it was a stand up cocktail situation, but I can tell you that the spirit was so appealing that most of us kept wanting more.

“For the 250 birthday, we’re spending energy saying we are like trees,” said Maurice Hennessy. “We have 250 year old roots but want to grow to the sky. We have the stock to do much; warehouses full of aged cognacs.”

Hennessy creates its cognacs from the four “premier grand cru” winegrowing areas of Cognac; namely the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies and Fins Bois. (The grape ugni blanc accounts for 95% of the AOC Cognac.) The company works with some 1,500 independent grape growers, 560 bouilleur de cru (growers who distill their own product) and 20 distillers in the region and has three distilleries that they own.

Fillioux and his tasting committee meet every workday morning to taste through cognac eaux-de-vie to decide which samples to accept or reject and the potential of the spirit – therefore which barrels to put it into – older or new.

Their cognac is always matured in Limousin type barrels made at their own cooperage, La Sarrazine, where barrels are hand assembled on location. Because wood is such an important part of the flavour of cognac (think of the long ageing in barrel) Hennessy tightly controls their wood supply, using only oak from sustainably managed forests in the Limousin region from 100 to 150 year old trees. The cut wood is aged outdoors for several years before use.

About 15,000 to 20,000 new barrels go into use each year. The rest of the cognac slumbers in older barrels.

Hennessy V S O P Cognac Hennessy Black Cognac Hennessy V S CognacOf the approximately 200 cognac producers, four dominate and of those Hennessy is the biggest in sales and value worldwide. Hennessy VS Cognac, the America’s best-selling cognac is aged from two up to eight years in oak and is a blend of up to 40 different batches.

Hennessy Black contrary to its name is one of the lightest coloured cognacs in the range aged entirely in seasoned barrels (no new oak ones). Hennessy VSOP first created in 1817 by Jean Fillioux, is a blend of eaux-de-vie that’s four to 15 years old that’s sweet and gentle on the palate.

I have a true fondness for Hennessy X.O. as the cognac I purchased whenever I wanted to really treat myself even when I was a struggling student. Hennessy X.O. created in 1870 was the only XO on the market for its first 100 years. The company has always insisted on a minimum age of 10 years for their XO and has pushed the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC) to make this the case for all. In 2018 the ten year minimum age rule will be in force.

Paradis was created in 1979 by Maurice Fillioux when Hennessy was asked for an “ultra-prestige” cognac higher in quality than XO. This bliss in a bottle has been sold in Canada but I haven’t found any lately. (Check with Agent Charton Hobbs for availability in BC & Saskatchewan)

Hennessy X.O. CognacHennessy ParadisHennessy Paradis Impérial

Paradis Impérial which I consider the most sophisticated and elegant (can I say feminine?) of all can be found in several provinces. It’s a blend created by Yann Fillioux in 2010 out of 35 to 130 year old cognacs matured in seasoned old barrels. Only one out of 1000 is good enough to get in these bottles. The original blend was created at the request of the Imperial Court of Russia in 1818 by the Empress. Fillioux pays tribute to this first commission, nearly 200 years later.

Richard HennessyWonderfully masculine Richard Hennessy created in 1996 to honour the founder is on the other end of the spectrum: robust, full and bold. Both are ultimate taste experiences well worth the price should you be flush enough to afford a bottle or an ounce.

For those of us with more modest wallets, the Hennessy VS and Meukow VS fit the bill. Meukow VS Cognac in an attractive black panther decorated bottle, is rich and full bodied with powerful depth. So too do two exceptionally value-priced products made by women cellar masters at other producers.

Gautier VS Cognac from one of the oldest Cognac houses established in 1755, is gently oaky, harmonious and mellow (created by cellar master Isabelle Couprie).

The latest creation of cellar master Mrs. Martine Pain at St-Rémy is St-Rémy Small Batch Reserve, which while not a Cognac (the wines come from other regions) is a mighty fine brandy. Aged for more than six years in small oak barrels, it’s flavourful and fleshy with caramel apple sweetness.

Meukow V.S. Cognac Cognac Gautier V.S. St Rémy Small Batch Reserve Brandy

Here’s to putting a little celebration into your glass.

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 60 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – January 2015

Burns Suppers & Fine Whiskies
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

January 25 is Robert Burns’ 256th “birthday”, as great an excuse as any to pop open a fine whisky and spout poetry. Here are some suggestions on what to drink and how to celebrate.

Burns Suppers have been a long time tradition in Scotland and beyond for over 200 years. Visit Scotland has created a free downloadable 76 page guide all about Rabbie Burns (as he is often known) and how to hold your own Burns Supper including dress code, songs such as Auld Lang Syne, poems and recipes. See “Hold your own Burns Supper eBook

Arran Distillery was granted a lifetime patronage from The Robert Burns World Federation in 2000, and their classic Robert Burns Arran Single Malt is an eloquent, value priced dram. The Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish Single Malt, which has been matured in traditional oak and finished in ex-Amarone casks, has heat and a black peppercorn bite.

Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Single Malt from Islay is deep, powerful and rich with a gingerbread nose. Glenfiddich 15 Year Old Solera Vat not only is a terrific whisky but two dollars is donated from every bottle sold across the country in support of Wounded Warriors Canada. (To date, Wounded Warriors Canada has received over $300,000 in charitable support from Glenfiddich. Last November’s cheque was for $120,000.)

Mortlach, the oldest distillery in a town that has the world’s highest concentration of distilleries, was established in 1823. The Mortlach 15 Year Old Speyside Single Malt has personality plus.

Robert Burns Arran Single Malt The Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish Isle Of Arran Single Malt Bunnahabhain 18 Year Old Islay Single Malt Glenfiddich Single Malt 15 Years Old Mortlach 15 Year Old Speyside Single Malt

Ardbeg Auriverdes Islay Single Malt is a special limited release that was created to celebrate the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and while pricy, it’s impressive. Closer to home, Glen Breton 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky from Glenora Distillers in Nova Scotia has a true scotch whisky flavour.

Glen Breton 14 Year Old Single Malt Whisky Ardbeg Auriverdes Islay Single MaltOn this side of the pond, I recently did the Whiskey Trail in America ( The American Whiskey Trail is a journey into the history of spirits in America, starting with the colonial era, where whiskey played an important economic and social role. The gateway is George Washington’s Distillery at Historic Mount Vernon. George Washington operated one of the largest whiskey distilleries in early America, producing 11,000 gallons in 1799.

The distillery was excavated and authentically rebuilt on its original foundation and opened to the public in 2007. Visitors can see a demonstration of how whiskey making was carried out in 18th century America and visit the gristmill and education center.

The bulk of the distilleries on the trail however are in Tennessee and Kentucky, where the indigenous limestone rock is a natural filter, cleaning the water of iron and impurities which would adversely affect the whiskey.

Charcoal filtering is the main difference between Tennessee whiskey and Kentucky bourbon both of which are majority distilled from corn and aged in new charred white oak barrels a minimum of two years. Only water is added to adjust the bottle strengths.

Each distillery has its own unique setting and story to tell visitors. George Dickel established in 1870 in Cascade Hollow near Tullahoma still has a rustic atmosphere. The property gets over 20,000 visitors a year. On their extended 75 minute tour ($10) visitor’s get to taste four of their whiskies. George Dickel Rye, made from 95% rye and the rest malted barley, has a nice spicy fruity character. George Dickel Tennessee Whisky No. 12 is more mature with distinct wood spicing. After their first use here, parent company Diageo ships the oak barrels off to the 26 Scottish distilleries they own.

George Dickel RyeGeorge Dickel Tennessee Whisky No. 12 Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 Gentleman Jack Rare Tennessee Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s in Lynchburg, the oldest registered distillery in the United States, is a crowd favourite drawing over 200,000 visitors annually. Tours talk tales of Jack, the colourful founder and highlight the special 10 feet of sugar maple charcoal that JD filters through drip by drip. Jack Daniel’s Old No 7 has been made since 1866 using this special charcoal mellowing technique. Gentleman Jack goes through the process a second time: through three feet of charcoal though not ten.

In Clermont at Jim Beam, the world’s best-selling bourbon, you might meet master distiller Fred Noe, great grandson of the founder. Tours start at the T. Jeremiah Beam home filled with family photos and heirlooms. Built in 1911, this home of Jim Beam’s son T. Jeremiah, master distiller from 1938 to 1960, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The old household knickknacks and kitchen gadgets take visitors back to another era.

Jim Beam Devil's Cut Jim Beam White Label BourbonThe distillery makes about 1000 barrels of whiskey a day (13 million barrels since prohibition). Jim Beam White Label Bourbon is their basic corn based bourbon. The Jim Beam Devil’s Cut is more robust and interesting. The distillery does also experiment with various grains such as brown rice, soft red wheat and other grains for their Signature Craft collection.

Makers’ Mark in Loretto established in 1805 as a gristmill distillery, is the oldest working distillery on its original site. A National Historic Landmark, seven old Victorian buildings were preserved and restored on sprawling beautifully manicured grounds. Makers’ Mark is famous for its whiskey bottles sealed by hand dipping in red wax – visitors can watch the process. At the end of the tour, if they buy a bottle, they can try their hand at dipping their purchase in wax themselves.

Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon is double distilled and batch distilled using a sour mash method. Maker’s Mark 46 is barrel finished with seared wood staves added to the inside of the barrels.

Woodford Reserve near Versailles is in the middle of Kentucky’s Bluegrass Region famous for raising racehorses. The historic distillery has been fully restored to its 1800s splendor. Hungry guests can enjoy the Picnic on the Porch restaurant and dine on menu items such as Bourbon Trail chili, Shady Lane chicken salad and Barrel Beef sandwiches. (It’s the only distillery with a James Beard award winning Chef in residence.) Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is the number one super premium selling bourbon in the world.

Maker's Mark Kentucky Bourbon Maker's Mark 46 Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Wild Turkey 81 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Wild Turkey on a hill overlooking the Kentucky River has a plain and simple outward appearance. However inside legendary master distiller Jimmy Russell cooks up ultra-smooth bourbons with sweet vanilla caramel tastes. Wild Turkey 81 Proof Kentucky Straight Bourbon is nicely balanced with sweet vanilla smoothness. If you can get your hands on Forgiven or Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel – you’ll be in for a treat.

Raise a glass of whisky with friends old and new. It’s the perfect antidote to a cold, dark January night. It’s my birthday this month too so you can bet I’ll be celebrating in fine fashion.

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 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Vancouver International Wine Festival

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – December

A Gift of Spirit for the Holidays
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The holiday season and Christmas will be upon us before we know it. I always feel a slight frisson when December hits knowing that there will be too much to do and not enough time. To make your gift giving a little easier, here are some suggestions for those spirit lovers on your list. Brown spirits and especially Cognac really max out in popularity during the winter months. The high end XO level for example sees almost half of its annual sales in November and December in many markets.

The city of Cognac in southwest France lies 110 km north of Bordeaux, close to the Marrenes-Oléron Atlantic basin where half of France’s oyster beds lie. The town thrived in olden days as an established centre of the salt trade, an activity which dates back to the 11th century. The Charente River winds through giving access to merchant boats. Early on the traders of northern Europe discovered the thin acidic wine which they brought back from there after delivering salt, survived the voyage better if distilled, and even more so when held in oak barrels. This improved “burnt wine” named after its city of origin is so much in demand today that most of it sells outside of France.

The top growing areas (crus) are named Grande and Petite “Champagne”, after the chalky whitish calcium rich soil. Beyond these two crus (known as Fine Champagne when combined in the bottle), are the Fins Bois, Bons Bois, and Borderies. Ugni blanc is the main variety grown, a grape generally best when distilled. The young, always double distilled, grape spirit gives off floral aromas. Oak from French forests, toasted by fire when the barrels are made, add their aromas of vanilla, brioche and cocoa. Then slow oxidation in these barriques puts the final touches of mushroom, Roquefort cheese and leathery/nutty “rancio” to the mix.

Rémy Martin XO Excellence Cognac Rémy Martin 1738 Accord Royal CognacRémy Martin, founded in 1724, is the sole great cognac house to use only eaux-de-vie from the two best crus of the region namely Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. Their latest product launch is the 1738 Accord Royal, named after the decree granted on that date to King Louis XV to plant new vines on his Fine Champagne land. Rémy Martin XO Excellence Cognac is an opulent blend of 85 per cent Grande Champagne with 15 per cent Petite Champagne containing up to 28 years of vintages.

Hine located in Jarnac and founded in 1763, is one of, if not the biggest Cognac house outside of the big dominant four of Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier. Its vintage-bent also gives it a caché. (I have a vintage bottle from my birth year given to me when I toured the distillery with Bernard Hine, a descendent of the founder. It’s a rarity I’m savouring slowly. A barrel from this particular vintage was named the vintage of the century by cellar master Eric Forget and bottled as Hine 250 to celebrate that anniversary of the company. Check out what vintage was selected for Hine 250 and you’ll know mine.)

H by Hine VSOP in an elegant long bottle housed in a beautiful metallic red box is ready made for gifting. It’s a harmonious blend of 20 cognacs aged for a minimum of 4 years, from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and the Petite Champagne. Hine Rare VSOP a Fine Champagne blend of over 25 cognacs (more than fifty percent from Grande Champagne) is sophisticated and elegantly fruity.

H By Hine Vsop Hine Rare VSOP Chabasse XO

Chabasse is an historic 17th century cognac estate in the depths of Saint-Jean d’Angely. This family run business is in the hands of Réné-Luc Chabasse, the ancestor of the founder of the estate, Jean-Baptiste Chabasse. The Chabasse XO is big, full and delicious with toasted hazelnut and toffee notes.

The cognac house Meukow was acquired by Michel Coste in 1979, who created the panther bottle – today the emblem of the brand. Still a family business now run by son Philippe Coste, the famous logo of the luxury cognac brand, the black panther, can be seen on all its products. Meukow Feline is ultra-smooth and creamy textured.

Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary Blend Meukow Feline VSOP CognacThose who want to gift a special Canadian brown spirit should look no further than our own good old Crown Royal – namely the new 75th Anniversary Limited Edition Canadian Whisky. In 1939 the Royal Couple, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, made history when they became the first reigning monarchs to journey across North America, travelling the vast distance by train. To honour the pair, a Canadian entrepreneur crafted a whisky to suit the occasion by sampling over 600 blends and reviewing hundreds of different types of glass, labels and caps. He cloaked his perfected blend in a purple bag to represent the purple robe of royalty and called the whisky Crown Royal.

Seventy five years later, Crown Royal’s master blender has created a velvety smooth limited edition whisky to commemorate the brand’s monumental anniversary. Crown Royal 75th Anniversary Blend cloaked in an embroidered silver bag combines hand-picked whiskies from the brand’s extensive stock including that from the historic Coffey rye still, in Gimli, Manitoba.

They may not like our tar sands oil in the US but they like our traditional whiskies. Crown Royal is the number one selling Canadian whisky brand in the US by value.

In the single malt scotch category, there’s a fascinating newcomer. It’s the Glenlivet’s first crowd-sourced whisky, “Guardian’s Chapter” chosen exclusively by The Guardians of The Glenlivet. Tastings were conducted in 19 markets, including Canada and over 3,500 votes were cast to select The Guardians’ Chapter Single Malt Whisky. Some critics say it’s the proverbial camel horse made by committee. I say it’s a triumph but not for the weak of heart.

Glenlivet Guardians ChapterEau Claire Three Point VodkaDillon’s Pear Eau De VieQuartz Vodka

Not all like a dark spirit. For the white spirit aficionados on your gift list there are several Canadian top-drawer newbies. This is a bit of a tease as they are available only in their province of origin or via the distillery online but what could be more local than that.

Eau Claire Distillery is Alberta’s first craft distillery located in Turner Valley, not far from Calgary. The distillery uses locally-farmed ingredients and clear water from the nearby Rocky Mountains. Summer 2014 marked its first-batch release. Eau Claire Three Point Vodka, its initial product launched in June is creamy smooth and crystal clear. For the moment you’ll have to go to Alberta to buy it via the distiller or in Calgary liquor retail stores such as Willow Park.

In Ontario Dillon’s has come out with Dillon’s Pear eau-de-vie that’s made from locally grown Niagara Bartlett pears that is soft and gently pear. From Quebec comes Quartz Vodka, a joint venture with Domaine Pinnacle and Lise Watier. Crafted from ESKA water sourced in northern Quebec, it’s micro-distilled five times.

Luxardo Maraschino Originale Liqueur Hayman's London Dry Gin Chartreuse Green LiqueurI’ll leave you now with my favourite cocktail recipe of late. It’s not new, but it’s a classic that’s been overlooked for too long. Slightly green in hue, it’s right for the festive moment and a knock out on all levels. It’s called The Last Word and it is. Be warned two of these and you’ll be flat on your back. But with no regrets in the morning or at least you won’t remember enough to be sorry. That’s my story.

A balance of sweet and sour with a strong herbaceous tone, it’s made with equal parts of gin, fresh lime juice, maraschino liqueur and Chartreuse. You won’t go wrong with Hayman’s London Dry Gin and Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur for the other spirits. Divine. Decadence. Merry celebrations.


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 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt


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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – November

A Plethora of Great Spirits
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

As we head towards winter, more and more great spirits are being launched from our Canadian distilleries and coming to our shores from abroad. Recently I talked with Dave Broom, author of the World Atlas of Whisky about this boom in spirits.

Broom has been writing about spirits for 25 years. Two of his eight books (Drink! and Rum) won the Glenfiddich award for Drinks Book of the year. The Whisky Atlas (an updated 2nd version which includes Canada) is a visually gorgeous, well written book that would make an excellent gift for the whisky lover. You can find it on Amazon or in Chapters Indigo (

Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% RyeBroom told me he’s a huge fan of Canadian whisky and the innovative spirit that drives our distilleries. When I showed him Canadian Club’s new Chairman’s Select 100% Rye Whisky he said he had to get a bottle before he returned to the UK. It’s distilled at Alberta Distillers who really know their rye. “Alberta Distillers makes more rye whisky than anyone else in North America. They are the experts,” said Broom.

“The rye boom has just started in Europe,” he said. “The new wave of distilleries are using rye. There are three great ones from distilleries in England now for example.”

As to Scottish whisky, he said we really haven’t seen such a distillery boom since the 1890’s. There are now 114 distilleries in Scotland with another ten in the planning. “My fear is that soon after the 1890 boom there was a bust. I hope this time people are looking properly to the long issue. It’s a long term business,” Broom said.

Ireland has about 20 new distillery applications and there are now even 7 distilleries in England (four years ago there was only one).

The trend to “finish” a scotch in a barrel that’s different from the traditional ex-bourbon barrels is starting to slow down according to Broom and that’s a good thing. “Barrel finished when it works is great. Sadly it doesn’t as frequently as it should,” he said. I just tasted Tullibardine 225 Sauternes Finish Single Malt and would say this is one that does.

Tullibardine Sauternes 225 Finish Single Malt The Balvenie 12 Year Doublewood Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Hghland Single Malt Scotch Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt Ardbeg Supernova Islay Single Malt

Balvenie Doublewood 12 Year Old is matured first in American bourbon barrels, then oloroso sherry oak casks. Keep your eyes out for Balvenie Tun 1509, a single barrel sherry cask version that is expected to sell for around $163.

I’m glad to see the lovely Old Pulteney 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt from Inverness Distillers back on the shelves. Bowmore Islay 12 Year Old Single Malt is another classic but with the peaty, briny, smoky Islay character. For a powerful hit of peat, Ardbeg Supernova Islay Single Malt delivers it in a big way.

Mount Gay Rum Black BarrelIn other brown spirits, Mount Gay Rum has just launched Black Barrel, a small batch blend of matured double pot distillates and aged column distillates finished in deeply charred bourbon casks.

Angostura is well known the world over for its Angostura bitters and for its rums. It all began in 1824 when founder Dr. Johann Siegert first produced aromatic bitters in Angostura, Venezuela (today called Ciudad Bolivar). In the 1870’s, Dr. Siegert’s three sons migrated to Trinidad and transferred the Angostura business there.  Over the years, Angostura Aromatic Bitters became a required product on every bar around the world as an integral ingredient in premium cocktails. (Bitters have become a huge trend today with many other companies making their versions.)

The family’s Siegert Bouquet Rum became a Trinidadian tradition up until the early 1960’s and part of the company’s rich rum heritage. By 1965, Angostura was making more money from rum than from their bitters according to master distiller John Georges. In the 1970’s, Angostura expanded, acquiring the Fernandes family distillery, which was founded in the 1890’s by Manuel Fernandes, an immigrant from Portugal, and known for making high quality rums. This year marks the 190th anniversary of Angostura.

The company aims for subtlety and finesse in their products by using high quality molasses, a proprietary yeast isolated in 1947, continuous still distillation and aging in charred American first fill bourbon oak casks Angostura 5 Year Old aged a minimum of five years, is a light blend made for cocktails. Angostura 1919, a blend of rums up to eight years old, is pretty, delicate and silky. Angostura 1824 aged for a minimum of 12 years is a deeper, heavier, “chewable” rum.

Angostura Anejo 5 Year Old Rum Angostura 1919 8 Years Old Rum Angostura 1824 Aged 12 Years Rum

Cocktail lovers might want to download the free Angostura app of excellent cocktail recipes. A dash of bitters in your drink is sweet heaven.


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 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great spirits!


Glen Garioch Founders Reserve Highland Scotch Single Malt

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – October

Whiskies, Walter and Caesars
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

The falling leaves and cooler days have me gravitating back to spicy Caesars, whiskies and hot toddies as my drinks of choice. Thus recently I was delighted to find an all-natural handcrafted Caesar mix that makes a delicious premium Caesar in a snap.

Walter Caesar Mix, the brainchild of Aaron Harowitz and Zack Silverman of Vancouver, took over a year to develop. The ingredients are vine ripened tomatoes, grated horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, clam juice, sea salt, onion and garlic powder and organic sugar. The result is a thick, hearty juice that has a “homemade” taste.

In the “Mildly Spiced” version, the tomato and clam flavour jumps forth while there’s still enough of a kick to need nothing more than the addition of a spirit of choice. Ketel One Vodka is my pick. In the “Well Spiced” version the horseradish and hot sauce dominate the sweet tomato notes. To me which you go for is just a matter of the mood you’re in.

Walter Trio Ketel One VodkaI’m just glad there’s an alternative to the ubiquitous Mott’s Clamato. I love that Mott’s pretty much drove the popularity of Caesars across Canada. (In 1969 the Duffy Mott Company developed Clamato, a tomato-clam cocktail that became the mixer of choice for bloody Caesars.) I don’t love the added MSG, glucose-fructose, artificial colours and PET bottles it’s sold in.

Walter is now available in Canada in over 600 select grocers, shops and bars. The current up-to-date listing can be found by visiting:

If you want to add your own creativity to the drink, start with Walter and then play around with the spirit (try gin or tequila), the flavour additions (maybe olive brine, pickle juice or soy sauce) and the garnish (cured meats, cheese, whatever).

With the garnish, it seems the sky’s the limit. Hopgood’s Foodliner in Toronto for example offered a Caesar topped with fresh BC spot prawn, salami and jalapeño pepper when the prawns were in season this spring. Score on Davie Street in Vancouver was inspired by the idea of cheeseburgers on Bloody Marys to come up with their versions for a Caesar. The sixty dollar Checkmate Caesar which has been selling out since it was put on the menu features a jaw dropping roasted chicken, pulled pork hot dog, Score burger, pork slider, hot wings, onion rings and a brownie to cap off the meal on a glass.

The newly reopened and renamed Eaton Chelsea Hotel in Toronto has an entire menu of homemade Caesars. The “checkout” includes bacon strips, a pickle spear, half a hard-boiled egg and a cherry tomato. Restaurants on ski resorts across Canada also seem to vie for the best dressed Caesar in town. At Whistler they hold the annual Bearfoot Bistro World Oyster Invitational and Bloody Caesar Battle. The competition keeps all establishments creative with their Caesars: at Christine’s Mountain Top Dining, I had half a delicatessen on my drink.

Whiskies of course have so much character they need no garnish and in truth I like mine neat, on the rocks or in a simple cocktail.

Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky Tomatin 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt Tullibardine 228 Burgundy Finish Highland Single MaltDeanston Virgin Oak Single Malt Scotch

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky from South Africa is an easy to drink introduction to the whisky world. From Scotland, Tomatin 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt gets its gentle, delicate character from its soft water source and sherry wood finishing. Tullibardine 228 Burgundy Finish Single Malt has spent part of its aging in Chateau de Chassagne Montrachet red Burgundy casks. Deanston Virgin Oak is finished in freshly charred new oak bourbon barrels.

Tomintoul 16 Years Old Speyside Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky Isle Of Arran Machrie Moor Single Malt Scotch Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey Knappogue Castle 12 Years Old Irish Single Malt Whiskey

Tomintoul 16 Year Old Speyside Glenlivet Single Malt from master distiller Robert Fleming is ultra-smooth and inviting.

Those who love a gently peaty malt should try Isle of Arran Machrie Moor Single Malt. For a full on whack of peat there’s Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily Peated Islay Single Malt.

Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth George Dickel RyeTeeling Small Batch Irish Whisky has the gentle, sweet beguiling style of Ireland’s whiskies enhanced by finishing in rum barrels. Triple distilled Knappogue Castle 12 Year Old Irish Single Malt aged in bourbon casks has notes of nougat.

Should you want a whisky cocktail, I recommend George Dickel Whisky made from 95% rye mash mixed with Carpano Antica Formula to make a wicked Manhattan.

Whether it’s an awesome Caesar or a sipping whisky enjoy your drink in the fading light of autumn. Winter is coming.

For those of you in Toronto, don’t miss the chance to join the WineAlign team at the ROM this Thursday, October 16th. It’s WineAlign’s inaugural Champions Tasting where you get the opportunity to taste only the top award wining wines from The Nationals and The Worlds. You can still get tickets here.


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 60 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 – September

Fall for Dark Spirits – the apple of my eye
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

As we head into fall, I start sipping more dark spirits. None speaks of the season in Canada to me better than Calvados, the wonderful apple brandy best known from Normandy. Our apple harvest means freshly baked apple pies, hot apple cider and the tangy crunch of newly picked apples. We also have a few distillers making apple eau-de-vie or brandy.

Dillon’s Distillers in Ontario is working on an apple eau-de-vie and has recently come out with a pear one made from Niagara Bartlett pears. Michel Jodoin Calijo is an apple brandy from Quebec. Canados (play on the word Calvados) mainly distilled from BC Hyslop crab apples and aged in oak, made by Okanagan spirits in BC is an apple brandy that I’ve enjoyed in the past. As soon as I get samples to critique them for WineAlign, I’ll be posting reviews.

Meanwhile I have a selection of fine Calvados to recommend. Normandy in northwest France is the home of Calvados, the world’s premier apple brandy as well as a Norman cuisine rich in cream and butter. Between dishes and meals, a calvados — or “Trou Normand” — is said to aid digestion. All over the region, producers will happily invite you in for a nip. Boulard, one of the most famous, has a restaurant onsite with tables inside giant barrels.

Pâpidoux Fine Calvados Calvados Lecompte 5 Year Old Calvados Boulard Pays d'AugeThe finest Normandy apple brandy bears the Appellation Calvados Pays d’Auge Contrôlée label and is produced only from apples grown in the Pays d’Auge. The quality and variety of the Auge apples is second to none and the small size of the area is constantly kept in check, enhancing the rarity factor. In addition, the production of cider and the required double distillation must be carried out within the geographical boundaries of the Auge region in order to be considered part of the appellation d’origine contrôlée or “AOC”.

Founded in 1825, the company Calvados Boulard has been passed down from generation to generation and is now in the hands of Vincent Boulard, the great great grandson of founder Pierre-Auguste. Grand Solage Boulard Calvados Pays d’Auge is double distilled in copper stills over an open flame, from up to 120 different apple varieties, then matured in oak.

Calvados Lecompte 5 Year Old, is aged 5 years in oak, double distilled and from the revered Calvados de Pays d’Auge appellation too. Calvados Domaine Dupont V.S.O.P. from Pays d’Auge has subtle yet persistent cider apple notes with a cognac like character. Pâpidoux Calvados Fine has a youthful apple and alcohol hit best showcased in a cocktail.

The most recognized type of brandy is made from grapes of course. Remy Martin of France, which has been making cognac (from distilled grapes of the region) since 1724, is one of the most famous. Remy Martin VSOP, the leader in Europe and North America in the VSOP segment of the cognac market, is a classic which while lovely on its own, but also makes a superb cocktail.

Remy Martin VSOP Cognac Carlos I Gran Reserva E&J XO Brandy

A sweeter, more old wood, mellow style can be found in Spanish brandies especially Carlos I Gran Reserva from Jerez at about half the price. E&J XO Brandy from Gallo in America is so smooth and sweet it almost tastes candied.

Vintages in Ontario teamed up with Dalmore Highland single malt earlier this year to present a rare Constellation Collection tasting at the National Club in Toronto. Master Blender Richard Paterson led the tasting of four single-vintage, single cask bottlings from 1992, 1989, 1973 and 1966. Cost for the dinner evening at $495 per person might have seemed steep, if one didn’t know the price of these bottles. Starting at $5,266 a bottle for the 1992 up to $48,297 for the 1966 the offer was an event exclusive so I won’t tease you with my in-depth tasting notes. Suffice to say the flavours namely the porty, chocolate notes of the 1992, the marmalade hit of the 1989, the more oaky cognac like 1973 and the cinnamon, coffee, nutmeg aspects of the 1966 were all distinctive and memorable.

Drambuie Dalmore 12 Years Old Highland Single MaltWhether they are worth the cost is relative to the depth of your wealth. The only 200 bottles of this 1966 were produced for the world. A complete Dalmore Constellation Collection of 21 individual bottles created between the years 1964 and 1992 (not all years are represented and some are twice but from different casks) goes for $300,000 and apparently buyers in BC and Alberta have already ponied up. This was the collections first foray into Ontario. No word yet on how much sold but the LCBO did have buyers waiting to pounce.

Dalmore established in 1839 north of Inverness on the shores of the Cromarty Firth is a classic Highland malt. The distillery warehouses feature some of the oldest whisky stocks in the world. Dalmore 12 Year Old Highland Single Malt, the epitome of the Dalmore style is the more accessible, affordable spirit in its line-up.

Another great Scottish drink is Drambuie – I always have a bottle in my liquor cabinet for making cocktails. To make a hot apple toddy with this elixir of scotch, spices and heather honey: mix two ounces of Drambuie with 6 ounces of hot apple cider. Squeeze in the juice of one lemon wedge, add a cinnamon stick and serve in a coffee glass.


Margaret Swaine

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

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