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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Spring Spirits

Bring on the White Spirits of Spring

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Swaine

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


County in the City

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Mar 2014

St. Patrick’s Day Libations 2014

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Margaret Swaine

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

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

Hayman's Sloe Gin

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Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review – Jan 2014

Winter Warmers & Romantic Drinks

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Swaine

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

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


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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Give Cheer 2013; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers and Happy Holidays to all.

Margaret Swaine

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

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


Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

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

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy days of autumn!

Margaret Swaine

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

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


Meukow Feline VSOP Cognac

Fortessa Canada Inc.

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Versatile Vodka; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Margaret Swaine

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

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


Bowmore 12 Year Old

Taste Ontario Event

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Bitter Love; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Margaret Swaine

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

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Luxardo Maraschino

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

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Margaret Swaine

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

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

Luxardo Maraschino Originale Liqueur

Maclean's Wine in Canada

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Margaret’s Spirited Summer Travels and Tipples

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Whenever I travel I always ask who’s making spirits in the region and what are they distilling. Ingenious mankind can turn just about anything into an alcoholic beverage – you just need sugars (or starches to turn into sugars) and bingo you’ve got a drink. I’ve found surprising and delicious distillates all over the globe.

In Brazil recently visiting the region of Serra Gaúcha in the most southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where the Vale dos Vinhedos is a recognized wine denomination of origin with the biggest concentration of wineries in the country, I posed that question. The answer was that many of the wineries made grappa – and excellent versions I can attest. Italian immigrants in the late 1800’s, mostly from Veneto with some from Trentino, populated this area bringing with them a love and knowledge of wine, grappa and Italian cuisine.

Rio de Janeiro on the other hand is closer to sugar cane production than wineries. Here the spirit of choice is cachaça. Cachaça is distilled from 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. Aprazível, a restaurant in the trendy Santa Teresa district of Rio, has its own cachaça sommelier, Paulo Magoulas and a cachaça list with over 100 versions, organized under the states that produce them.

Kangaroo Island Spirits, Kis Wild Gin

Kangaroo Island Spirits, Kis Wild Gin

On Kangaroo Island in Southern Australia, I found KIS. Kangaroo Island Spirits was founded by Jon Lark because he figured the island needed a proper gin. He makes his using grape spirit infused with native KI juniper called boobialla, along with traditional juniper berries, and botanicals such as mace, coriander, lime and ginger. Delicious. He also makes vodkas flavoured with native botanicals such as KIS Samphire and tasty local infused liqueurs such as Anisette from KI wild fennel and star anise.

Closer to home when I visited Prince Edward Island, I discovered the Prince Edward Distillery. Founded in 2007 in Hermanville by partners in life and business, Arla Johnson and Julie Shore, the distillery makes Canada’s first and only potato vodka. Beckie Mullally, who was serving at their store in Charlottetown, told me it can take up to 40 pounds of potatoes for one bottle of spirit. If they wait until winter when the potatoes get softer and the starches start their conversion to sugar, they may only need 20 pounds a bottle. They also produce grain vodka flavoured with wild blueberry, a lovely aromatic gin, I.C. Shore Whiskey, Canadian Rye and Merchantman’s Rum. I asked Beckie about the moonshine stories I was hearing. “Oh yes,” she replied cheerfully. “People still make moonshine here. You can’t go to many weddings or funerals without needing to know which punch bowl is which.”

VICTORIA GINIn British Columbia, Okanagan Spirits has locations in both Vernon and Kelowna where they craft distil BC fruit such as apricot, cherry, raspberry, apple, plum and pear into wonderful eau-de-vie. I particularly like their barrel aged Canados made from apples and Old Italian Prune from prune plums. Victoria Gin, hand produced in small batches on Vancouver Island has made inroads on the liquor shelves in BC and Ontario. The LCBO is offering 20 Bonus Air Miles on each bottle purchased between June 23 and July 20th. Distilled from ten botanicals (natural and wild gathered), it has a gently juniper nose with floral notes from rose petals. Smooth and rounded on the palate, the juniper comes delicately through with a hint of citrus, perfumed with spicy coriander and enhanced with earthy angelica and orris root. Hints of liquorice in the finish come from star anise.

SIR ISAAC'S PREMIUM PEAR CIDERSir Isaac’s Premium Pear Cider made by Puddicombe Cider Company in Ontario using local pears, is a great summer refresher. When CanGro Foods closed their plant in Ontario, Puddicombe, one of the largest pear growers in the province, got creative. Brock Puddicombe and his winemaker sister Lindsay went to England to learn how to make Pear Cider. Two years of experimentation and learning later, the resulting cider, made from Niagara Barlette and Bosc pears, is a success. It captures the pear aromas and flavours through-out with nice bubbles and a slightly sweet but clean pear taste that lingers.

PUMP HOUSE BLUEBERRY ALEMoncton has been called by Reader’s Digest the most honest city in North America and the most polite. It’s also home to Pump House Brewery opened by Moncton firefighter Shaun Fraser in 1999. The brewery/restaurant serves awesome wood-fired oven pizza but what impressed me most was their beer sampler tray. Nine samples of their own brewed beer, all delicious, for a mere $6.75. Of particular note were their Scotch Ale with its malty smoky flavours from peat smoked barley and the Pump House Blueberry Ale, light and fresh with floating blueberries in it. Now it’s available in cans in Ontario and other provinces – without the floating blueberries unless you add your own. Creamy with a mildly blueberry taste and sweet, bready, malty background, it finishes refreshing with hints of pepper.

In Spain, the summer drink of choice is often sangria. Osborne Estate, located in the Tierra de Castilla region of Spain gave me a recipe for red wine sangria that makes a terrific crimson coloured Spanish punch with tropical notes. Take one bottle of Solaz Tempranillo Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (a velvety smooth, ripe berry red wine) and pour into a pitcher. Add two ounces of Duff Gordon brandy, 2 ounces of Cinzano sweet red vermouth, one cup each of pineapple juice and passion fruit juice, and slices of lime, lemon and orange (seeds removed). Stir gently and refrigerate for four to ten hours. When ready to serve, add ice and stir gently. This makes a deep, smooth, tropical flavoured punch, that’s refreshing and not too sweet.

Duff Gordon Brandy de JerezLUKSUSOWA VODKAIn Poland, vodka reigns supreme and many believe the best come from potatoes. In Warsaw connoisseurs were in rapture over a version made from new potatoes called Mlody Ziemniak (Young Potato) 2012, a single distilled vintage dated vodka made by Chopin distillery but alas I couldn’t find it anywhere in stores though I did locate its details on Chopin’s website. Apparently each year it sells out fast. Luksusowa Vodka, pure potato vodka made in Poland since 1928, is first crafted in small batches in copper pot stills at local farm distilleries. Then it’s further refined at a centralized plant where it’s triple distilled in a continuous still before the addition of natural spring water from artesian wells. As should be expected of potato vodkas, it has a smooth creamy body and slight potato sweetness. The bonus is that it’s value priced and makes a great ice cold martini.

Wherever you travel this summer, ask for what the locals drink. That’s sure to keep you in high spirits.


Margaret Swaine

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

 Bowmore 12 Years Old Islay Single Malt

Luxardo Slivovitz

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Feisty Spirited Armagnac; Margaret Swaine’s Spirits Review

Feisty Spirited Armagnac

Margaret Swaine

Margaret Swaine

Armagnac from the Gascony region of south-western France doesn’t play second fiddle to its more famous spirituous neighbour to the north, Cognac. Documents prove Armagnac was distilled over 700 years ago around 1411, making it by far the oldest eau de vie in the country and beating Cognac to the puncheon by some 150 years. It’s feisty, distinctive and individualistic like the Gascons portrayed in The Three Musketeers and Cyrano de Bergerac.

Armagnac’s heritage is the marriage of three great cultures: the Romans who introduced the grapevine to Gascony, the Moors who brought alembic distillation (they used the alcohol to make perfume) and the Celts who taught the Gascons about oak barrels. By the late 15th century, Armagnac stills were common in Gascony.

Gascony, about an hour and a half drive southwest of Bordeaux is still a highly agricultural region. The department of Gers in the region is the number one producer of duck in France. You know what that means: duck confit, magret, grattons (crispy duck skin), cassoulet and of course foie gras is on the menu. Duck fat replaces oil and butter in cooking. These artery plugging dishes are miraculously neutered by a glass of Armagnac after a meal. (In 2005 researchers at the University of Bordeaux discovered Armagnac drunk moderately and regularly helps prevent heart attacks and thrombosis. Further studies showed rats on a high fat diet and Armagnac did not gain weight versus rats on the same diet that got only the ethanol.)

Armagnac is produced from the distillation of white wine. Ten grape varieties can be used but in practice most growers cultivate just four: ugni blanc (also called Saint-Émilion), colombard, folle blanche (aka piquepoul) and baco blanc (also known as baco 22-A). Folle blanche was once the favoured grape in the area but it has been mostly replaced by baco blanc, a cross of folle blanche and the hybrid Noah. The highly acidic ugni blanc is the common grape used for cognac.

Larressingle Armagnac XOThe Armagnac Appellation Contrôlée was defined in 1936 and comprises of three regions. The most important is Bas Armagnac (57% of vineyards), which has a sandy, silt soil structure that yields grapes of higher acid making generally rounder, supple Armagnac with finesse and a characteristic plum fruitiness. Ténarèze (40% of vineyards) is in the centre of the appellation and produces the most robust, rich brandies with aromas of violets. Haut-Armagnac (3%) produces brandies of lower quality and most growers have switched to corn, wheat, soybean and other crops.

Some producers like Larressingle marry the brandies of Bas Armagnac and Ténarèze to create a blend that captures both the robust warmth of Ténarèze and the mellow, fruity elegance of Bas Armagnac. Larressingle XO is a divine example.

Centuries ago Armagnac was distilled twice in pot stills. Since the first half of the 19th century, most Armagnac is made in a simple continuous alembic column still in a single distillation. Mobile distillers still service small farmers quickly performing the alchemic conversion in a few days. Since 1972, pot stills have been permitted in the appellation as well as double distillation but less than a handful do this.

As soon as the Armagnac is distilled, it’s placed in 400 litre oak casks for aging. The famed local oak (black oak) is in limited supply today and many producers now purchase barrels made from staves from forests further north, such as Limousin and Tronçais. (A Gascony legend states that casks should be made from oaks that have watched the vines grow but alas for many today this is no longer practical.)

Once the barrels are filled, the true transformation begins as the spirits age and first take on vanilla notes, which change to caramel and then toffee. Floral notes dissipate with time and flavours and aromas of dried fruits such as prune develop. With more age come nutty aspects and rancio notes akin to aged sherry. Armagnac in fact needs time to tame its feisty character. While the law says two years minimum, many are blends of multiple vintages. The spirits in bottles marked VSOP or Reserve are a minimum of five years old , the youngest in an XO, Napoleon, Extra or Vieille Reserve blend is six and that of Hors d’Age is ten and older.

Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac NapoleonCastarède 20 Ans D'âge XOo Bas ArmagnacIn reality, some of the oldest in a blend can be much more aged than the law requires. The delightful Armagnac de Montal VSOP for example has brandies that have aged in French oak up to 20 years. The classy Domblat Napoléon 10 Year Old, is just that, and the label indicates it was bottled on July 5, 2012 from cask #4-5. Bas Armagnac Castarède 20 Year Old XO is still lively, perfumed with violets and lavender yet with power and length. Marie Duffau Bas Armagnac Napoléon boasts a minimum of 10 year old brandy and with its great price and sweet approachable warmth, it’s the fastest selling Armagnac in America.

However my favourite are the vintage dated Armagnac, which must all come from the harvest of the stated year. Cognac producers were only given the right to produce single vintage eau-de-vie in recent years. Armagnac on the other hand has been producing them since the beginning. It’s a special thrill to purchase a birth date vintage for a loved one or for pure self indulgence. Producers such as Chabot have stocks that date back to 1888. When you buy a vintage Chabot, it comes with a parchment paper sealed around the bottle with wax that certifies the exact year of harvest and the exact day and year of bottling. All brandies only age while they are in barrel so the date of bottling is a clear indication of the actual “taste” age of the product. The elegant, complex Chabot 1982 I tried was bottled July 12, 2012 and it showed all the beauty of age. Armagnac de Montal 1993 is elegantly aristocratic with ginger notes in the finish.

Normally I throw out a bottle once it’s empty. Not so for my Vintage Armagnac from my birth year. Those who see the bottle on display in my house pretty much can guess why I’ve kept it around. The allure of Armagnac trumps vanity.


Margaret Swaine

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


Larressingle Armagnac XO

New Zealand Wine Fair

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WineAlign Reviews

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2008