Canadian Spirits

Review: Steinhart Haskap Gin by Jason Hambrey

Steinhart+Haskap.jpg
ABV
47.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Steinhart (Arisaig, Nova Scotia)

Haskap berries are a new “superfood” and grow abundantly in Nova Scotia, having been heavily promoted in the last few years. Why not make a gin from them? Haskap berries are known by other names, like the honeyberry or blue-berried honeysuckle (they are in the honeysuckle family). As with all Steinhart gins, no artificial flavours or additives here.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Another rich, fruity, and spicy gin. The fruitiness is more like elderberry – rich and slightly tannic. Licorice notes, dried mixed berries, strawberry jam, marmalade, and the cinnamons which have more of a woody than a spicy characteristic. The palate is dense, and lightly sweet – with the rich berry notes, light bitterness (almost like clove) and a finish where cereal notes emerge alongside more rich dried berry. Throughout, there are light incense characteristics.

I haven’t tried haskap berries before – but this reminds me a fair bit of elderberry, and it’s rather nice. I suppose it’s not surprising – the berries are both in the honeysuckle family.

Assessment: Recommended. Very unique and well put together. It would mix well, with all the dense fruity and spicy flavours. In fact, a case could be made to use this as a Campari substitute in a “negroni”, with one part gin, one part this, and one part sweet vermouth – or even dry in this case.


Review: Steinhart Blueberry Gin by Jason Hambrey

Steinhart+Blueberry.jpg
ABV
47.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Steinhart (Arisaig, Nova Scotia)

Arisaig, where Steinhart distillery is located, is famous for its blueberries - some call it the blueberry capital of the world. Why not, then, make a gin with blueberries? This is made with local wild blueberries, not additives or colouring.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

A bit of a dark, rich earthy start – blueberry is indeed there, along with a rich spiciness and some pickled lemon. The nose is sweet, but quite spicy – in a woody sense, like nutmeg and cinnamon. It isn’t fruity in a bright fruity sense, but denser – like the dried flower, woody, and spicy notes in dried berries. The palate is fascinating, loaded with berry notes, juniper, lemon peel, and a rich berry, citrus, and spice finish. It is incredibly rich, and isn’t as sweet as you might expect – compared to most sweetened fruit gins. Terrific!

On another note, it’s made me see different sides to blueberries, which isn’t insignificant.

Assessment: Highly Recommended. This is really rich, unique, and tasty stuff. The bottle is beautiful, too.


Review: Steinhart Rhubarb Gin by Jason Hambrey

Steinhart+Rhubarb+2.jpg
ABV
47.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Steinhart (Arisaig, Nova Scotia)

To create this gin, Steinhart had to source rhubarb which grows like a weed but is expensive to buy (odd that) - so they utilized facebook and all their connections to source all the rhubarb they could locally - and they created this, a rather wonderful gin that is released when the rhubarb is in season and sells out every year.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

This is a rhubarb gin, and perhaps my favourite part is this: it is very clearly rhubarb. They don’t shy away from it, and it is brilliant. The nose has rich vegetal characteristics, earthiness, and some rich woodiness, spice, and bright fruit – but rhubarb is at the center. The palate is tangy, with a nice core of rhubarb and hot spice (like cayenne papper), with a rich rhubarb, spice, and juniper finish. It is quite awesome – easy to drink, yet complex, and still unique and rich. Most excellent.

This is sweetened so it is a bit syrupy – but I quite like it.

I was immediately curious how it compared to Dillon’s Rose Gin, another Canadian sweetened and richly flavoured gin. It’s quite different – a bit more distillate forward, and very much light and floral compared to this – which is rich, thick, and spicy. Both excellent – Dillon’s might be more elegant but this is richer. Which do I prefer? Probably this, but that’s likely a mood question.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended. I had it at “highly recommended”, but this is so unique in how it utilizes an ingredient I rarely see in gin – rhubarb, and it’s focused around it so beautifully. And it’s one of those gins, for me, that makes me think of childhood and rhubarb pies – and it’s so special to have food or drink bring you back to good early memories.


Review: Steinhart Dry Gin by Jason Hambrey

Steinhart+Dry+Gin.jpg
ABV
47.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Steinhart (Arisaig, Nova Scotia)

The first producer of gin in Nova Scotia, and a rather good one - this got my attention at the World Gin Awards (judging was blind, I found out later what it was) where it eventually picked up the best Canadian “classic” gin. It is made with Prince Edward Island wheat and legitimately fresh ingredients - the citrus peel which goes into this gin is fresh, not dried, from organic fruit. Diligent care is taken in distillation cuts to produce exactly the profile desired, and it’s not just one cut as often seen with whisky. The juniper is from Tuscany as Canada doesn’t get warm enough summers to achieve the flavour profile desired. It is bottled at 47.5%, so it packs a good kick of flavour – and comes in a beautiful blue bottle. It is made from a wheat base combined with 26 botanicals, including rather expensive ones like vanilla and saffron.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

What a beautiful nose as you pour the first glass – bright mixed citrus peel, woody juniper, deep coriander spice, and a light earthiness. The nose is intense, yet balanced – citrus, rhubarb, lemon, coriander, dill seed, cucumber peel, and fruity notes – something like grape – tying everything together. The palate is rich and spicy, balanced between the woody notes, the fruity notes, cucumber, and the spice. There is a slight sweetness which balances the palate quite nicely. A nice mouthfeel, viscous and spicy. The finish is long and developing, with waves of cucumber, spice, juniper, and coriander. The finish is very nice and clean, too.

This might be a touch hot for some, but a touch of water really opens this up and you don’t lose any flavour with some water. Excellent! This is a terrific gin to sip – one of my favourite Canadian gins. Of course, it mixes well too – but some of the subtlety is lost in cold cocktails.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended. This is nearly a perfect complex gin for me, sipping wise, and it is a masterful mixer - it really is.


Review: Queensborough Omakese Japanese Style Gin by Jason Hambrey

Queensborough+Omakese+Japanese+Style+Gin.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Central City (Surrey, British Columbia)

“Omakese” refers to “chef’s choice” in Japanese - and this is Central City’s choice for a different take on gin - it is distilled with sansho pepper, yuzu lemon, cherry blossoms and Japanese tea alongside more traditional gin botanicals. I quite like gins with sansho pepper - they add a nice spicy kick at the end which adds, both in sipping and mixing. This gin is quite different in style and even body (lighter) than the standard Queensborough gin.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2019

The nose has intriguing coastal notes – dried seaweed, rock pools – but also light floral notes, pepper, spice, and even some light woody notes like menthol or eucalyptus. Nice, rich tea notes. The palate is dry, rich, and has a very nice spicy character – with the building sansho pepper at the end and mixed, tannic teas in the middle. I quite like sansho pepper in my gin – it adds a real spicy richness. And as you keep drinking, the spicy character continues on and on…

Make sure that you have a full go at this, as the combination of the spice and the tannins from the tea make an incredible combination in the mouth with additional sips.

Assessment: Recommended.


Review: Queensborough Dry Gin by Jason Hambrey

Queensborough+Dry+Gin.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Central City (Surrey, British Columbia)

This gin is made in a more traditional fashion, with juniper starring in the show - with Central City macerating the juniper rather than distilling through it to get a heavier juniper character (they also distill through other botanicals in a basket in the still). It is bottled at a higher than usual percent (43%) and uses Rocky Mountain juniper and spruce tips, among other botanicals.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

I quite like the juniper forward nature of this one – it is forward and rich. My own preference is to favour juniper and I like it more than many of the modern, lighter botanical (and not juniper) forward gins. But, some prefer the more modern, lighter style of gins. But I like this – rich and thick. Rich, woody, spicy, and citrus aromas on the nose lead into a palate with light vanilla, buttery spirit base, and light mixed spices including coriander and a hint of nutmeg. The finish is full of juniper, citrus, and a bit of lemon. I quite like this!

It is incredibly drinkable, and I like the clean yet heavy character of the gin. A nice find!

Assessment: Highly Recommended.


Review: Sparrow Finely Crafted Canadian Rum by Jason Hambrey

Sparrow+Rum+2.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
4 Years
Recipe
100% Blackstrap Molasses
Distiller Central City (Surrey, British Columbia)

I do quite like rum, if it isn’t too sweet, and I’m always interested if craft distillers are exploring it, since I think there’s so much that the spirit has to offer – especially to the Canadian market.This is made by Central City, who also make the Lohin McKinnon line of single malts.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose is quite nice – rich, sweet molasses notes with lots of oak and rich baking spice. The oakiness is rather reminiscent of Lohin McKinnon – the earthiness of the sort you might find in some root vegetables. Baked fruit too – blueberry crumble, raspberry pie, and even some baked peach. A very interesting, complex nose.

The palate is easy and sweet, with a rich molasses and berry character – finishing with sweet oak. The finish has more rich molasses – blackstrap, rich stuff. A very nice medium bodied rum that isn’t too sweet – it is slightly sweet, but not overly so (especially in the realm of rum). A quite pleasant mix of vanilla, spice, and oak on the finish. The fruitiness – berries, jam, and dried berry – continues.

Highly Recommended. I do quite like the oakiness on the nose…I would love to try this stuff at cask strength. I was very pleasantly surprised here! It’s nice to see some Canadian rum with 4 years on it, not that younger rum is necessarily bad, but age can bring some nice things to the table.

Value: Average, but very close to high (so really, it’s between them). Quite a decent rum for $50!


Review: Barchef (An Auditorium of Perspective) by Jason Hambrey

Photo credit:  Leanne Neufeld Photography . Courtesy of Barchef.

Photo credit: Leanne Neufeld Photography. Courtesy of Barchef.

Five years ago, I decided to take a month off whisky. Whisky had revealed something to me in a brand-new way – I loved flavour. But I didn’t want to be consumed by it. However, I boxed up all my whisky, and moved it to the basement for a month. A week into my “whisky fast”, I was in a bookstore and stumbled upon an incredible book – Frankie Solarik’s Barchef. The first chapter isn’t even a list of cocktails – it’s a list of homemade bitters, enticing recipes which result in a household of mason jars full of spices and dark, bitter, and spicy infusing spirit.

Within a week I’d made every single bitter and infusion in the book, and within two years I’d made every cocktail in the book –from the brilliant combination of absinthe and homemade orgeat liqueur in Van Gogh’s Downfall, to the Tobacco-infused, dry-ice enhanced Mad Man, to my all time favourite cocktail, Smoke and Mirrors which boldly combines smoke, cherry, and rosemary in impeccable fashion. The must-experience cacao-infused mezcal infusion in the book has completely transformed my cocktail game.

I always thought that the penultimate liquid was whisky, followed by coffee – until BarChef convinced me that cocktails deserved number 2 – or perhaps even number 1 – on my favourite liquid list. Just as I was getting into cocktails, I left Toronto, sadly, and wasn’t able to become a regular visitor to one of the world’s best cocktail establishments.

Recently, I visited the bar to try some cocktails, bitters, and infusions – it isn’t your ordinary bar. Frankie Solarik, the head bartender (the Bar Chef) describes his desire to create an “auditorium of perspective” which engages all of the senses while telling, or provoking, a story. The bar focuses on modernist cocktails, created with the manipulation of texture and fragrance through the techniques of modern gastronomy: liquid nitrogen, dry ice, alginates, foams, creams, and soils. These aren’t pairings you see in bars, but rather, the best restaurants in the world. The cocktails leave it ambiguous as to whether they are to be sipped, or eaten. The bar itself is fitted with fire detectors which use heat, rather than smoke, to enable customers to order manhattans smoked with hickory chips before their very eyes. Indeed, the entire establishment smells lightly of hickory smoke. Just visiting the bar is an experience unto itself. As you sit, incredible smells waft through the bar as your neighbours order cocktails – eucalyptus, hickory smoke, cedar, coconut, patchouli, hickory smoke, basil, pine all made an appearance as I sat at the bar.

Cocktails left to right: Apricot, Smoke & Mirrors, and Van Gogh’s Downfall. Courtesy of Barchef, photo credit: Leanne Neufeld Photography.

Can I resist but describe some of what I tasted? I had “The Apricot”, a cocktail full of apricot, almond, loads of spice, and oxidized wine. It is slow and textured - initially almost too intense - but it softly unfolds over time as it dilutes and warms. Apricot and chamomile grow with time - but this is only the cocktail! When you order it, it comes with three smoking spheres: nitro-frozen meringues which explode in your mouth with mint, sharp apricot, and a rich herbaceousness. The flavours are accompanied by a puff of steam out your mouth and nostrils! Each of the three meringues hits you differently with the flavours they bring out, each complementing the cocktail brilliantly.

Or, perhaps, the cocktail Essence of Fall (pictured at the top)– a cocktail which smells so richly of earth, fall mushrooms, and cedar – amidst a cocktail full of maple, orange blossom, mint, almond, oxidized wine, and bright floral notes. If that’s not your jam, how about a cacao manhattan, made with house vermouth and cacao bitters? Or Fields of Spruce, a cocktail which brilliantly combines a light, citrus character with Benedictine-like richness, deep herbal notes, spruce, and madeira. They also serve bottled cocktails, of which the king is The Kensington – a brilliant cocktail which uses patchouli to brighten the deep spice in the cocktail, and offsets the richness of Canadian whisky with rosemary and lavender.

What if you don’t live in Toronto? I recommend getting a taste of Barchef anyway – Barchef project is a toasted chamomile old fashioned with terrific bitters. Incredibly moreish and 25$ for 375 mls. It is a “wow” cocktail, and it’s very accessible.

The Best Canadian Cream Whiskies by Jason Hambrey

Ceili’s photo courtesy of Highwood Distillers. Forty Creek Cream Photo courtesy of Forty Creek Distillery.

Part of my duty as a judge of the Canadian Whisky Awards is to judge flavored whiskies, which I don’t love - but I do genuinely enjoy the cream whiskies that come as a part of the group. Here are a few of my favourite Canadian cream whiskies. It didn’t take me long to realize that, as prominent (and delicious) as Bailey’s is – there are better options available in the Canadian market.

Ceili’s Signature Irish Cream

This is produced by highwood distillers, and is my favourite Canadian cream liquer. It is simple, but it does perfectly what it should – provide a thick, creamy product with a delicious centre that is enjoyable. It’s made with Canadian whisky and imported Irish cream, which is know for being floral and rich compared to other creams due to the diet of Irish dairy cows. Last year, it was the Canadian whisky of the year in the flavored category – it has won other awards as well. It is creamy, and nutty with pecans, praline, milk chocolate, brown sugar, and toffee. It has a wonderful creamy centre surrounded by caramel – a terrific sipper over ice or companion to hot chocolate or coffee. It entered 2 of the last 3 Canadian Whisky Awards, and each time was my favorite.

Forty Creek Cream

This was introduced a few years ago and is the most complex of the Canadian cream whiskies, and a very good sipper and mixer. It took home the 2017, 2015 and 2014 canadian flavoured whisky of the year. However, the complexity makes it a little less versatile because of the nutty, caramel, and coffee characteristics that can loom large. It is creamy and nutty, with Ferrero rocher, hazelnut skins, milk chocolate, and slight baking spice. It actually displays a flash of Forty Creek brilliance, which I quite like.

Gretzky cream

This is made with Gretzky No. 99 Whisky and fresh ontario cream. Nutty (hazlenuts), very creamy – with a rich rising cream coming through towards the finish. A clean, smooth finish full of cream and light wood spice.It has a terrific dairy characteristic at its core that you don’t always see in cream whiskies. The finish is smooth, sweet, creamy, and a bit spicy.

Review: Dillon's Rose Gin Liquer by Jason Hambrey

Dillon's Rose Gin 1.jpg
ABV
35%
Aging
None
Recipe
Made from 7 botanicals
Distiller Dillon's (Beamsville, ON)

Dillon's uses a dry gin base, but adds in rosehips and rosepetals and sweetens the spirit gently. Rose and gin are natural partners, so why not?


Review (2018)

  • Batch: 34
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: ~2018

Rich rose – rose bushes, petals, rosehip tea – but also conjuring up fresh vegetable notes like cucumber. Quite focused on the rose but the spirit underneath is spicy and subtle, adding light woodiness and spice. The palate is quite sweet, starting and ending with rose – first rosehips, then rose petals, then lots of black tea (orange pekoe). There is a light spicy character to this, and lightly woody – but largely the gin character is hidden and this is much more like a spicy rose liquer (and I say that with respect). Tannins come out very nicely on the finish with spices like clove and white pepper. Terrific sping and summer sipping with some ice (or in cocktails).

As much as I like this gin, I’ve made better rose gins through my own careful infusions...so, if you are the creative type, there is more to discover here...

Assessment: Highly Recommended.