Canadian Spirits

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.


Review: Dillon's Unfiltered Gin 22 by Jason Hambrey

Dillon's Unfiltered 22 2.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
Made from 22 botanicals; niagara grape base
Distiller Dillon's (Beamsville, ON)

Dillon's other main gin, alongside the terrific Dry Gin 7, is this unfiltered gin made with 22 botanicals from a niagara grape base. It is quite a bit different than the Dry Gin 7, but another terrific gin which I would use in different cocktails - Dillon's really has a good cocktail game going.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: 77
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: ~2018

Dense, rich, fruity and spicy. A great gin. What I love about Dillon’s gins is not only that the botanicals and spices are great, but the underlying spirit itself is terrific. Sharp grape, cinnamon, soapy coriander, clove, rich bark...a terrific nose. The palate is spicy and fruity, with some of the spices coming through in the background but revealing rich dried flower notes and a nice woody finish, still vibrant with citrus and spice. Mildy sweet throughout – balanced.  Quite a bit different than their Dry Gin 7, which has a rye base and isn’t quite as complex botanically (but is more in terms of spirit). I usually reach for the simplicity and depth of the Dry Gin 7 more, but I actually objectively find this a better more complex and integrated spirit (indeed, one of the best gins I’ve tasted). Between which of the two is more desirable, it is likely it is a matter of preference. This is more complex, and much richer and fruitier. In terms of mixing between the two, they both would be for different kinds of cocktails – clean and deep would be gin 7, but in a cocktail where gin can get lost and needs to add complexity and richness, gin 22 is your mixer. A great portfolio of gins from Dillon’s.

However, I’ve rarely, if ever, seen a more big, complex, and integrated gin. This is one of the best all-time, for straight sipping. I choose Dry Gin 7 more often, but this is more complex and better. A stunner in blind tastings.

Assessment: Exceptional.


Review: Empress 1908 Gin by Jason Hambrey

Empress Gin 2.jpg
ABV
42.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Victoria Distillery (Sidney, British Columbia)

Peter Hunt, president and master distiller of Victoria distillers, has developed a very unique product which has achieved great success in British Columbia (becoming the number 2 premium gin sold in BC only 5 weeks after launch) and has been made available in the US and the UK. It also won best in class at the Canadian artisinal spirits competition.

Now, it’s coming to Ontario. It’s a follow up on Victoria gin, and is named after the Fairmont Empress hotel which opened in 1908 and featured Victoria’s first cocktail bar.

The hotel offered an impressive high tea, which inspired part of the gin – the hotel’s Empress Blend Tea is one of the ingredients in the gin, along with the pea flowers which give the gin light earthy notes.

Yes the colour is natural. The deep purple hue of the gin comes from the infusion of pea flowers, which pack a surprise: the colour changes depending on the acidity of the cocktail it is in! So if you add lemon juice to this gin, it turns pink!


Review (2018)

  • Batch: 37
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose offers juniper, coriander, orange peel, himalayan black tea, and a touch of sweetness and white pepper. The tea notes are distinct, and they set apart the gin quite nicely. The palate leads with coriander, then morphs to light juniper, licorice, cacao, rosehip, prune, and finally bean sprouts and light tannins on the finish. Cinnamon comes through very nicely on the finish, giving a nice sweet and spicy interplay with the light tannin. Terrific, and the colour is amazing. Also, really nice mouthfeel.

It’s much rounder and richer than its sibling, Victoria gin. Also, significant props for the colour changing properties – this makes mixing fun, which is part of what it is about.

Assessment: Highly Recommended.


Review: Victoria Premium Cocktail Gin by Jason Hambrey

Victoria Gin 1.jpg
ABV
42.5%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Victoria Distillery (Sidney, British Columbia)

This gin has been around for some time - originally in different packaging and just called "Victoria Gin", a recipe originally developed in 2008 by Ken Winchester (distiller at Glen Saanich) and the father of Victoria distillery's current distiller, Peter Hunt. The gin evolved through 2009 and the recipe changed significantly, with a reduced juniper content and some botanical changes.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: 173
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: 2018

The nose is light and citrusy with underlying grain notes. Light juniper, light citrus peel, light coriander – simple and straightforward. A slight barky bitterness here too. The palate is light and spicy. It’s easy and approachable, but not as rich as I like my gins to be – it’s a bit too simple. A nice light touch of toffee in the middle. Decent mouthfeel and a slightly rising finish, but not carrying quite enough flavor in my opinion – this seems between a heavier grain vodka and a gin.

A good gin, but I'd still skip this and go instead to a bottle of empress gin...


Review: J.P. Wiser's Old Fashioned Whisky Cocktail by Jason Hambrey

J.P. Wiser's Old Fashioned (2).jpg
ABV
35%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Canadian Whisky, Water, Sugar, Orange Essence, and Natural Flavours
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

Old Fashioned are perhaps the simplest well known whisky cocktail - a blend of whisky, sugar, bitters, and typically garnished with citrus peel - often made with bourbon or rye as the base. Following BarChef and Still Waters brilliant bottled old fashioned in Ontario, J.P. Wiser's stepped up to the game by blending whisky with orange essence and natural flavor (which includes spices/bitters, based on the taste). It is simple - just pour over ice, perhaps with a citrus peel garnish. It needs some ice, warm and undiluted it isn't balanced and is too sweet - but hits the spot with a nice chunk of ice.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A
  • Bottling Code: L18150 - AW2016 54SL24
  • Bottling Date: 2018

Spicy, citrusy, and lightly sweet - full of orange and spices - clove and a big kick of cinnamon. Light oak, vanilla, and light Canadian whisky spices hold the whisky together between the vibrant orange and the tingling spices. The finish is a battle between cinnamon and orange. Really nice on a hot day (of which we are having many in Ottawa these days!). This fits really well alongside in your beer cooler during a BBQ. Also, this goes quite nicely alongside a hefeweizen....

I can't help but compare. The BarChef project produced a cocktail which you could serve in a high end cocktail bar, but this is more your standard bar old fashioned (and it's better than many I've had in bars!). But, to that effect, it comes in at a nifty $30, 60% of the price of the BarChef project.


Review: Radoune Gin (O'Dwyer Distillery) by Jason Hambrey

Radoune Gin 1.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller ODwyer (Gaspe, Quebec)

I encountered this at the SAQ in Quebec when a store manager gave me a sip. I was drawn right in! Made out of wild mushrooms in the beautiful area of Gaspe. Made with 4 different organic mushrooms in the gaspesie forest, along with other botanicals. The gin itself is named after a region - Radoune, which is an area between the two mountains where the mushrooms for the gin flourish. I must say I do like the diversity of gin...

Odwyer has whisky on the way, too...


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

A really interesting nose, especially with a bit of water added. Cilantro, pepper, a rich earthiness, and loads of umami notes. Citrus, also, in the middle – well worthwhile. The cilantro notes are fascinating – very much like cooked, as opposed to fresh, cilantro. Dried mushrooms on the nose, too. The nose really opens up with water. The palate is lightly sweet, with cilantro and mint sauce playing in amidst the earthiness and light citrus. It really is quite terrific...there is a light, earthy spicy backbone to this too. The finish is full of coriander, but we have the cooked cilantro, wet earth, and a great umami richness on the finish too. Big and long lasting on the finish, and there is a bit of rising heat leading up to the finish – fantastic.

One of the most unique gins I’ve tasted, and I really like it. It is a bit different than many gins I’ve tasted, and I wonder if it won’t be up everyone’s alley...but everyone should try it, if you can find it...

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended.


Review: Dillon's Dry Gin 7 by Jason Hambrey

Dillon's Gin 7.jpg
ABV
44.8%
Aging
None
Recipe
Made from 7 botanicals
Distiller Dillon's (Beamsville, ON)

This is Dillon's basic gin - made with 7 botanicals made with a rye base, bottled at a high ABV for a gin. They also make a 22 botanical, unfiltered gin. Dillon's has become known because of their high grade cocktail products, and this does not disappoint...


Review (2017)

  • Batch: 18

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

A rye gin! This is very nice...juniper is at the center, with coriander, cumin, cedar, orange peel, licorice root, lavender, and a slight sweetness at the end. The feel is nice, development is nice, and the finish carries the spices centrally. Gorgeous gin, terrific mixer, clean, simple, complex – the underlying earthy tones give it a great base. The rye base underneath comes through with great fruitiness and spice, even a bit of creaminess. Great from nose to finish – very nicely balanced.

Assessment: Very Highly Recommended.


Review: Granny's Gin (Last Mountain) by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Last Mountain distillery.

Image courtesy of Last Mountain distillery.

ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Last Mountain (Lumsden, Saskatchewan)

I quite like Last Mountain's products - their whiskies and their other products (like their dill pickle vodka) are made very well. As I do like my gin, I thought I'd see how it stacked up - it is a juniper heavy gin with 4 other botanicals including cardamom and pepper, made to be in a classic dry style. It is made in honor of Colin Schmidt's grandmother, who likes gin "not too florally". She likes her gin and sodas (I do too! 3 soda:1 gin with a citrus twist is my preference).


Review (2018)

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

I am actually quite a fan of juniper focused gin, as we are here – but also with some nice coriander and dried citrus peel. It is a really nice, rich nose. The palate starts with juniper, and ends with citrus – dried orange and grapefuit peel.  There is a terrific lemon edge to the whole thing, and the finish is light and has a nice spicy edge to it, alongside citrus and pine. The base to the gin is light, and not too heavy – which I like. Fairly light finish, but slightly drying and very pleasing.

It’s more in the style of a traditional dry gin, but I tend to quite like those styles.

Assessment: Recommended.