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Time for Summer White

Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – May 2016

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Summer is finally about to arrive. Time to stock up on neat white spirits, ciders and perhaps one or two of the latest whiskies for late evening contemplation. Here follows are recommendations to tempt your taste buds.

Out of Norway comes a vodka made from ecologically farmed Norwegian potatoes called Norvegia Vodka. I like potato based vodka for their creamy texture and this well priced version is so good I’d keep it in the freezer and drink undiluted. Grays Peak Small Batch Vodka from the US uses five time distilled premium American corn as its base which it then charcoal filters. Cîroc from France is not technically a vodka as it’s made from grape spirit, but it sure tastes like a good one. 

Five seems to be a magic number as all the above spirits are five times distilled as is Pinnacle Vodka, which is made from a base of 100 per cent French wheat. Tag No 5 Vodka is guess what? Also distilled five times – from a base of Ontario sweet corn – and then filtered for five days through Ontario birch charcoal.

Skyy Vodka, didn’t seem to get the memo, as it’s quadruple distilled and triple filtered but that doesn’t stop it from being a silky fresh tipple.

Norvegia Vodka Grays Peak Small Batch Vodka Cîroc Original Pinnacle VodkaTag No.5 VodkaSkyy Vodka

SoCIAL LITE is a new vodka based beverage with an adult appeal (no sugar or sweeteners), low calories (just 80) and refreshing flavours such as SoCIAL LITE Ginger Lime and SoCIAL LITE Lemon Cucumber Mint. These are terrific to have on hand for a quick, all natural ‘healthy’ cocktail.

What’s summer without a G&T? Boodles Gin is a cocktail friendly, nicely balanced, London Dry Gin infused with rosemary and sage among its nine botanicals. As for tequila, I’m just loving Siempre Tequila Plata a fusion of single estate blue weber agave from the Highlands of Arandas and the Lowlands of Jalisco.

Social Lite Lime Ginger Boodles Gin Siempre Tequila Plata Ouzo BabatzimSkinos Mastiha Liqueur

I just came back from a tour around the Mediterranean and while on the Greek islands, sampled as much as I could of the various artisanal ouzos to enjoy the refreshing licorice-like hit of anise seed. Available here is Babatzim Ouzo with a really strong and delicious taste of anise and fennel. It freshens up the mouth so well. Another Greek specialty is mastiha based spirit (made from the sap of mastiha trees cultivated only on the small Mediterranean island of Chios) and Skinos makes an excellent version.

From France Jacoulot Crème de Cerise-Gingembre Liqueur is a fresh way to jazz up a sparkling wine or cocktail. The tangy sour cherry and spicy ginger really come through well.

Jacoulot Crème De Cerise Gingembre Liqueur Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye J.P. Wiser's Last Barrels Canadian Whisky The Quiet Man Traditional Irish Whiskey The Quiet Man 8 Year Old Single Malt Irish Whiskey

New on the whisky front is Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye which is tailor-made for a terrific Manhattan or Old Fashioned. J.P. Wiser’s Last Barrels, aged 14 years, has the complexity to make it a serious sipping style whisky.

Coming in this summer in limited quantity from Ireland are The Quiet Man Traditional Irish Blend Whiskey and The Quiet Man 8 Year Old Single Malt. Both are great additions to the whisky inventory.

Ernest Dry Cider Strongbow Gold Cider Molson Canadian Cider

This is also going to be the summer of ciders with new Canadian cideries popping up across the country and imports flowing in. Ernest Cider, sourced from Ontario apples, is slow fermented for months to achieve 6.4% alcohol and much less sugar than the average cider. Strongbow, the number one cider brand in the world has come up with new variants such as “Strongbow Gold” which has an extra hit of golden apple flavour. Molson Coors has a growing cider portfolio starting with Molson Canadian Cider.

Okay beer drinkers, how do you like them apples?

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!

Norvegia Vodka

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Tomatin – The Softer Side of the Highlands

By Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Named “Distiller of the Year” at the Whisky Magazine’s Icons of Whisky Awards 2016, the Tomatin Distillery Co Ltd has been on people’s tongues for centuries if not exactly top of mind. During the seventies it was the largest single malt distiller in the world, though not well known outside of industry circles as most of the whisky ended up in blends – until about fifteen years ago.

Johnnie Walker, J&B, Chivas Regal, Dewars and Ballantine’s all have used Tomatin in their blends. Today the distillery produces two million litres per annum of whisky with half a million litres laid down for single malt. The 14 working warehouses can store around 220,000 casks. It all started long ago.

The Tomatin area in the Monadhliath Mountains in the Highlands of Scotland, 16 miles south of Inverness, has been a producer of malt whisky since the 15th century. Originally it was produced illegally by the local laird who owned the land where the modern day distillery is located. The first formal licenced distillery came into operation in 1897.

Tomatin is a community distillery: 80% of the employees live in housing on the site which is provided by the company. It’s one of the last of these special type of distilleries left in the country and loyalty among employees is strong. Between them, the Master Distiller, Cooper, Head Mash Man, Head Stillman and Warehouse Manager have worked at the Distillery for over 180 years.

Tomatin (rhymes with satin) is one of the highest distilleries in Scotland at 315 metres above sea-level. The waters of the Alt-na-Frith (Freeburn) run pure from the mountains over granite rock, collecting few minerals. This soft water leads to a soft, delicate whisky. Hence their slogan “The Softer Side of the Highlands” is very apropos for the brand.

A few other factors help make Tomatin special. All the barley used is grown in Scotland by farmers with which the company has growers’ contracts to ensure quality and consistency. The pot stills are unique with long necks and an imposing ball in the neck to help create a reflux and ensure a nice soft final spirit. In addition they run the stills very slowly to make certain that none of the heavier flavours make it to the final cut.

Their ‘coup de grace’ is an in-house cooper who works with their casks which come directly from sherry bodegas, bourbon distilleries and other prime sources within the wine and spirit world. Experts believe that 70% of the final flavour in whisky comes from the wood, yet few distilleries in Scotland still employ their own cooper.

Japanese owned since 1986, about fifteen years ago the company changed focus from bulk whisky to brand blends and single malt. They have plans for steady growth of the core brands and some expressions. Recent repackaging efforts have resulted in a more upscale looking bottle that’s squatter and broader with classy colours. Watch for the new packaging to hit our shelves in about six months time.

Tomatin Legacy Highland Single MaltTomatin 12 Year Old Highland Single MaltTomatin 14 Year Old Port Wood Highland Single Malt Tomatin 15 Year Old Highland Single Malt

Best news for whisky lovers – Tomatin has a good stable of older stocks, unlike many other Scottish distilleries which are running low.

Legacy is the newest edition to their core line and is a non-age statement entry level single malt aged in part in virgin wood. Tomatin 12 Year Old is a lightly sherried malt that’s the flagship of the range. Tomatin 14 Year Old is port wood finished which gives it a copper hue and fruity smoothness. Bourbon cask matured Tomatin 15 Year Old is about to disappear from the North American market so buy it while you can.

Tomatin Cù Bòcan Highland Single Malt Tomatin 18 Year Old Highland Single MaltThe delicious, full bodied Tomatin 18 Year Old is heavily sherried from time spent in oloroso sherry butts. Cù Bòcan is the lightly peated version of Tomatin – just 15 parts per million phenol in the distilled spirit – enough for a slight smokiness without the dominant reek of a highly peated malt.  Cù Bòcan – The Sherry Edition is lightly peated and finished in sherry casks. Only 6,000 bottles of this wonderful expression were produced so I suggest you stock up. The name in Gaelic means ghost dog and it’s easy to see how this would disappear quickly.

As a regular feature WineAlign tastes wines and spirits submitted by a single winery or agent. Our critics independently, as always, taste, review and rate the submissions – good, bad and indifferent, and those reviews are posted to WineAlign. We then independently recommend selections to appear in the profile. Agents pay for this service. Ads for some products may appear at the same time, but the decision on which wines to put forward in our report, if any, is entirely up to WineAlign. 


More about Tomatin Distillery


At Tomatin, we are more than just another distillery. Since 1897, our people have worked hard to build the Tomatin community that exists today and lies at the heart of everything we do.

Tomatin Life is a celebration of our people, our place and, of course, our whisky. It is a taste of what makes Tomatin the ‘softer side of the Highlands’. Over the next few months, we invite you to share a dram and uncover #TomatinLife.

Please note: All fans must be over the legal drinking age in their country.

Tomatin Distillery

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – December 2015

Whisky Wonders – Canada on Top
by Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

We know our Canadian whisky is great but it’s always nice to hear the world tell us so. For the first time in history, a Canadian whisky was named World Whisky of the Year by renowned English born whisky writer Jim Murray. While he is known for stirring the pot with his annual Whisky Bible there’s no questioning his expertise. (He tasted and rated some 4,600 whiskies for his 2016 edition.) So just in time for the holiday season, here’s the reveal of this winner among my highly recommended Canadian and world whiskies as well as other beautiful brown spirits.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Whisky earned the title of 2016 World Whisky of the Year bestowed by Murray ( The Harvest Rye which was first released in Canada in the fall of 2015 is the brand’s first blended 90% rye whisky. Truly delicious it’s the latest variant introduced by Crown Royal whose traditional Deluxe Blend is the number one selling Canadian whisky brand in the US by value. Crown Royal Deluxe, crafted from 50 select whiskies, was first made to commemorate the first grand tour of Canada by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939.

Highwood Distillers in Alberta is another Canadian producer making gorgeous whiskies from Canadian grains. Their Century Reserve 21-year-old put them on the map as top-drawer whisky makers. Blended and casked for over two decades it’s smooth as silk with a butterscotch toffee flavour and refined sophisticated style. Ninety 20 Year Old Whisky which is aged a full 20 years in charred oak barrels and bottled at 45% alcohol was named by the Whisky Advocate as the 4th best whisky in the world.

Celebrating the legacy of William Gooderham and James Wort, millers in the Town of York (the predecessor to Toronto) who went on to produce whisky in 1832 is the new Gooderham and Worts Four Grain Canadian Whisky from Corby Distillers. Made with a grain blend of rye, corn, wheat and barley, it’s well constructed with typical Canadian whisky sweetness.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest RyeNinety 20 Year Old WhiskyGooderham And Worts Four Grain Canadian WhiskyJ.P. Wiser’s Hopped

J.P. Wiser’s Hopped brings the whisky and beer worlds together by adding the taste of hops to a classic J.P. Wiser’s Canadian whisky recipe. J.P. Wiser’s Double Still Rye blends a rye crafted in a traditional copper pot with one distilled in a modern copper column still.

From Scotland, Glenfiddich “The Original” makes its debut in Canada just in time for the holidays. This historic expression is the recreation of the original 1963 Glenfiddich Single Malt that started the single malt category and craze in America. Ian Millar, Global Brand Ambassador for Glenfiddich, told me that up until that point blended whisky was king and while single malts were sold in small quantities to cherished customers they weren’t promoted. Sandy Gordon Grant, great-grandson of the distillery founder William Grant, made what was a bold decision at the time to market Glenfiddich Straight Malt beyond the UK.

It made its debut in 1963 in New York and the single malt category as it’s known today was born. (About 10% of all scotch sold globally on an annual basis is now single malt.) For this new release, Brian Kinsman, sixth malt master, carefully reproduced the historic taste of Straight Malt. He started by nosing an original sample then checking the recipe in the 1960’s ledgers. From there he drew upon the collection of aged whiskies at the distillery to recreate as close as possible the original taste.

In November Glenfiddich released a bottle of 50 Year Old in British Columbia listed at $36,000. Only 450 bottles of Glenfiddich 50 Year Old will ever be released – just 50 a year over nine years. I’m not sure if this rare and pricy spirit was snapped up yet by some wealthy whisky lover or bar in need of a showstopper dram (though I can’t find it listed online at the BC liquor stores site).

J.P. Wiser’s Double Still RyeGlenfiddich The OriginalDalmore 12 Years Old Highland Single MaltDalmore Cigar Malt

Dalmore Highland Single Malt is another brand with well-aged, highly expensive scotches for sale. The Dalmore Constellation Collection is a group of natural cask strength vintages from the years 1964 to 1992. Some have recently been released into the LCBO and while I see “prices pending” on their website, the notes I have from the distillery show Constellation 1976 Cask 3 (LCBO 434712) for $18,556, 1991 Cask 27 (LCBO 434738) for $4,976 and 1980 Cask 495 (LCBO 434720) for $9,226. Not for the faint of heart or wallet.

The Dalmore Distillery was purposely built in 1839 (rather than being a farm first which added a distillery to utilize excess grain as was the custom in the day). Owned by Whyte and Mackay who also have Jura whisky and their own blend, The Dalmore is not as big or well-known as many scotch distillers. However Richard Paterson, the master distiller with over four decades of expertise (aka The Nose), is big on experimenting with different woods. Playing around with different cask sizes, different woods and sources over time has resulted in a limited number of special barrels available to be bottled individually for the Constellation Collection.

Much more accessible are Dalmore 12 Year Old, Dalmore 15 Year Old, Dalmore Cigar Malt and King Alexander III. There are more treasures and surprises coming out over the next year according to Jonathan Driver, Rare Whisky Director at The Dalmore but he’s not allowed to say more.

Jura Brooklyn is a whisky style “chosen” by the people of Brooklyn. In 2013 master distiller Willie Tait crossed the Atlantic to Brooklyn with six Jura cask samples. With the help of some of Kings County’s influential establishments (among them Fine & Raw, Bam Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn Magazine) a taste profile was settled upon.

Jura BrooklynGlenlivet Founder’s ReserveHighland Park Dark OriginsAuchentoshan 12 Years Old

The Glenlivet established in 1824 in Livet Valley Scotland offers a taste of their original in The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, inspired by pioneering founder George Smith’s original vision almost 200 years ago.

Remote Highland Park Distillery established in 1798 on the Orkney Islands has come out with a new expression, Highland Park Single Malt Whisky Dark Origins. Orkney is a string of about 70 islands several miles beyond where the dramatic northern coastline of Scotland ends. It’s a different world: one where you can walk through 5,000 years of history in a few steps viewing standing stones, brochs and Viking settlements. Dark Origins is naturally darker and contains 80% first fill European sherry casks.

Not new but highly recommendable are this trio: Auchentoshan 12 Year Old, a Lowland single malt, is one of the smoothest, most delicately complex Scottish whiskies thanks to triple distillation (the only remaining distillery in Scotland to insist on triple distilling). Bowmore has been distilling on the island of Islay since 1779. Bowmore 12 Year Old is a peaty, smoky and briny malt that has been nurtured for 12 years in Bowmore’s legendary #1 vault, the oldest maturation warehouse in Scotland. Ardbeg 10 Year Old is another wonderful dram for those who love peat, smoke and brine.

Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single MaltArdbeg 10 Years Old The UltimateWriters Tears Pot Still BlendHine Rare Vsop

Writer’s Tears produced by Walsh Whiskey Distillery in Ireland is my family’s go to whiskey (whiskey is spelt with an e in Ireland) when we want a super smooth yet flavourful spirit.

This isn’t a whisky but it is a perfect libation for gifts or drinking this season: Hine Rare VSOP Cognac. It’s silk and sensuality in the glass.

Thanks to new arrivals and old, there are a lot of options for gifting and sipping this December. Gotta get my list to Santa pronto.


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!


HineRareVSOP_BAM_NL (3)


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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

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Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt


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