Review: Bearface Canadian Whisky Wilderness Series - Matsutake by Jason Hambrey

A bottle of bearface beside one of the many shipping containers used to age bearface whisky in various locations. Image courtesy of Bearface Spirits.

ABV
42.5%
Aging
Red wine cask, sherry cask, matsutake mushroom cask
Recipe
N/A
Producer Bearface (British Columbia)

Bearface is one of the most interesting brands in Canada to follow – in large part because of their innovative and interesting outlook. It’s impossible to resist trying Bearface if you ever get to hear Andres Faustinelli break down one of his whiskies, component by component, then build it up again and show you how it works together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Andres went on a hike with some foragers and found some wild Matsutake mushrooms that had a depth of flavour that would integrate very well into whisky. This sort of pairing fits firmly within the bearface ethos: “Bearface has always been associated with being outside - for me, I enjoy whisky outside anyway. Incorporating the outdoors in ageing and crafting a whisky showcases that you can give a footprint of time and place to a whisky.”

Andres went back to central BC with a foraging team and collected close to 100 kilos to use in the whisky. After inspection and cleaning, the fresh mushrooms were put entirely inside a “teabag” in a cask of mature whisky. After a month and a half, the whisky had a very unexpected and interesting savoury funky component. As Andres remarks, “Think about a martini without the olive. You need that savoury, salty component. That’s how the mushrooms work for us here.”

Of course, blending played a big role in integrating the mushroom component into the whisky. The whisky is blended from amontillado sherry, cream sherry, pedro-ximinez sherry, and some unique casks that still had grape skins from winemaking inside them that give a strong wine-forward character. The emphasis on sherry is very intentional – it helps balance the dried fruit character of bearface whisky with the earthy, cinnamon-like character of the mushroom by building in hazelnut and nutmeg. After all that, it's hard to at least not want to try it, eh?

This one has almost sold out by now, but Bearface has more planned for the wilderness series in 2023.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: 01 Matsutake

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

The nose has matchboxes, fresh oak, woody forest notes, bright corn notes, blueberry, and white pepper. The palate is fruity and comes in with spice, oak, and dried fruit before finishing in a mixture of dried fruit – and it is here that the mushroom really comes out with a very appealing woodiness and savoury character. The finish is full of caramel, vanilla, and herbal, woody, notes – indeed, “forest” is not a bad descriptor. I find this one to have more depth and intrigue than previous Bearface releases.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average against the market at $50.


Review: Barrell Whiskey Infinite Barrel Project by Jason Hambrey

ABV
63.61%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Blend of Whiskies from around the world
Producer Barrell Whiskey (Lousiville, Kentucky)

This is an interesting product - it is a blend of whiskies from around the world - America, Canada, Scotland, Ireland, Poland, and probably elsewhere over time. After every batch, 10% of the blend is held back and added to the next batch - resutling in an ever-evolving blend that retains a portion of all the whiskeys ever added to it.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: April 7, 2022

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

I’d only had the cask strength bourbons from Barrell – so perhaps that baseline created my initial sense of surprise - the nose actually smells much more in a Canadian style dominated by bourbon-type flavouring whiskies than rye-types – it surprised me since I was expecting this to be closer to a bourbon style. But, it’s not surprising when you look at the ingredients.

The nose is sweet, with a broad base of grain – corn, accented with barley, oak, and baking spice. The palate is medium bodied and sweet with caramel, more oaky spices – it is indeed thick with wood and easy from a flavour (vice ABV) perspective. The finish has a nice outlay of corn, apple, nutmeg, and light tannin. There is quite a nice mineral tinge on the finish.

It’s a pleasant blend, but it doesn’t have the depth, complexity, or breadth of the really nice multiple grain/whisky style blends. Still, very enjoyable. Also, as much as I like high ABV whiskies, this one doesn’t have enough body – for my preferences – at full cask strength. I prefer this one in the high 40s or low 50s.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Low at $110.


Review: North of 7 Single Malt Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
5 Years; Ex-Four Grain North of 7 cask
Recipe
100% Malted Barley
Distiller North Of 7 (Ottawa, Ontario)

It has been a pleasure of mine to follow this particular cask of single malt now for 3 years. I tasted it when it was just over 3 years of age in 2020, again at 4 years of age in 2021, and now at 5 years of age. This is North of 7’s first barrel of single malt, matured in an ex-four grain barrel (indeed, matured in their first cask of mature whisky, a four-grain cask 1).

While still young for a single malt, it has changed in some very dynamic ways over the years – being very bright and unbalanced at first, to still having sharp pear and an oily character with some dried fruit emerging, to this year – still fruity and bright, but with a much richer and more integrated cask character with more vanilla, oak, and nutty and roasty grain notes (from the cask). It’s odd since the cask character seemed to have come out more in the past year than the previous – not that it wasn’t present before, but it is further to the forefront.


Review (2022)

  • Batch: Barrel 48

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

Very fruity and bright, with green pear, blackberry candy, white pepper, cinnamon, prune, fresh hay, and earth. The character of the four grain is definitely present with roasted grain notes and a nice touch of nuttiness. The oak is present but quite subdued. On the palate, it is quite viscous in body (very nice) with vanilla, a sharp thread of clove, blackberry candy drops, hay, fresh apples that have peachy tones to them (like pizzaz or, less so, royal gala), and with a flourish of fresh peach, pear, and white pepper leading on the finish. It has some decent grip and character to it – and it’s very interesting – big, but not dominating, cask character, very bright (almost piercing) fruit – berries and orchard, and yet a fairly narrow but focused array of spices. A pretty good effort for a first single malt from North of 7!

The character is fairly fruity and grassy, so, while still firmly in the single malts class, it’s a style that isn’t as prominent in Scotch single malt as other styles.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). This will continue to improve with age, but it’s still fairly unique – and very interesting in terms of different flavours juxtaposed, while not clashing.

Value: Low at $60, especially when you compare to the four and three grains that sit at the same price and are at a different level of maturity (even if younger). Pretty high value for a craft/micro distilled single malt, though.


Review: North of 7 Three Grain Canadian Whisky ("Trad") by Jason Hambrey

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

ABV
45%
Aging
~5 Years; Virgin Charred Oak
Recipe
70% Corn, 25% Rye, 5% Malted Barley
Distiller North Of 7 (Ottawa, Ontario)

This whisky was filled into a barrel at 57% in March 2015, and bottled in November 2020, so about 5.7 years of age. I was able to taste it at cask strength in November as part of a private barrel selection, and it was my second favourite barrel of the ten we tasted so I’ve been waiting for it to come out.

Unlike most of North of 7 virgin oak casks, which are heavily toasted and lightly charred, this one is heavily charred which lines it up closely by recipe and by cask to the most popular bourbon brands.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Barrel 14

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

Quite different in profile to North of 7s other products, but still very rich in both oak and grain character. Caramel, corn husks, baking spice, oaky astringency (slight), dill, stewed peaches, vanilla, coconut, charred oak, fennel seed, dried hibiscus, lemon peel, and some lilac. The palate follows, starting out with loads of rye flavour before some rich corn character, breadiness, and milk chocolate emerge in the middle and the finish is full of spices – baking spices, dried chilli, milk chocolate, dried apricot. The chilli is great. Very nice finish.

Definitely mature whisky, this – reminiscent of some rye-heavy bourbons like four roses single barrel, but altogether different with a sharper oak character and not as much corn coming through.

I tasted it a few months ago and it’s come along further since then. To my recollection, this is only the second “trad” that they’ve released but the recipe shows a lot of potential. I’ll be looking forward to the later barrels.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: high at $60


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 28 (58.5%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This was the barrel selection from 2021 for me and a number of friends, from a selection of 6 casks. This one went into the barrel at 52.8% in January of 2016 and came out at 58.5% in October of 2021 (close to 6 years old). We loved it when we tasted it.

It has a rich, oaky nose. It ticks all the boxes - caramel, toasted baking spices, toasted fennel seed, dried apricot, dried peach, buttery caramel, and clove. A touch of dill too. Thick on the palate, with lots of spice. Good fruitiness and spice, and very well balanced. The finish is spicy, full of corn, and baking spice. The spices are surprising on the finish. It is very pleasant at around 45%, but this is just wonderful at cask strength.

Critically, it isn’t as good as cask 16 (our four grain pick from last year from the distillery) but I find it’s way easier to drink, in a way where I will rarely reach for 16 if it beside 28. Critically better doesn’t always mean more crave-worthy. Just awesome stuff. The closest big comparator I have is some of the “OB”, high rye recipes from Four Roses, but it’s still quite a bit different.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High at $70.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 21 (51.5%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

This one was bottled at a slightly higher ABV than the normal 45% because the distillery ran out of bottles to do them all at 45%!

There are lots of nice earthy notes – oak, and think of a creek on a warm fall day – but still spicy with clove, cinnamon, cacao, brown cardamom, and other interesting (and good) notes – pencil shavings, rich sundried tomatoes, fresh apricot, and black pepper. The palate is softer than the nose, with lots of toasted oak notes which combine very nice with the roasted grain notes. The finish is spicy, with lots of toasted oak, roasted grain, and some more apricot. A very nice expression!

I do like these bottles at a slightly higher proof. Excellent stuff, as usual.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High at $60.


Review: North of 7 Canadian Whisky (Four Grain) by Jason Hambrey

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

Image copyright by North of 7 Distillery. Used with Permission.

ABV
45%
Aging
3 Years; Virgin Charred Oak
Recipe
51% Corn, 26% Wheat, 12% Rye, 12% Barley
Distiller North Of 7 (Ottawa, Ontario)

An Ottawa whisky (I am an Ottawa native, so I'm interested!) - made in a bourbon profile - made largely from corn, matured in New Oak, and using a four grain mash bill. North of 7 was perhaps the last craft distillery to get a contract with Independent Stave Company - the renowned maker of barrels for renowned Kentucky Distillers like Buffalo Trace, Jim Beam, and Heaven Hill. Because of the whisky boom, they won't take any more clients! All that to say, North of 7 has some pretty good casks...


Review (2017)

  • Batch: Cask 1

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

The nose has a nice grainy base with lots of caramel and a grassiness reminiscent of spicy pot still Iriish whisky. Vanilla, anise, methol, sharp new oak, corn husks, butterscotch, cucumber, and lots of grain notes – wheat flour, nutty grain, polenta, and light grainy earthiness. Surprisingly wheaty – cream of wheat comes through quite clearly. The youth of the nose is present, with a bit of rawness on the otherwise pleasant and grain-forward nose. The palate is corn and oak forward, with a light caramel rumble before a spicy and grain-laden finish. The anise is present throughout, and the spicy finish is lightly creamy with butterscotch – for good effect. They emphasize their casks, from Independent Stave Company (who also supply Buffalo Trace, Heaven Hill, and most of the other successful distilleries in Kentucky) – and for good reason. These casks will treat this whisky well, given a few more years.

Based on the mash bill and how it is matured, you might be expecting a bourbon. It’s reminiscent of the style – but it’s not. Either it is simply not warm enough in Ottawa, or it needs more time – but that is of no matter. A thoroughly enjoyable whisky, this, and shows lots of potential as the years will add on.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average (based on $60)


Review (2017)

  • Batch: Cask 2

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Centred on grainy notes, reminiscent of spicy mixed grain porridge, yet still with quite a bit of orchard fruit – peach and pear. Wheat really comes out. Tangy, too – the light bits of menthol, pineapple, and oak that play in nicely. Maltesers, milk chocolate, vegetal cacao, and a touch of green cardamom too. The oak and the grain are both so rich with this one – nice…

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average (based on $60)


Review (2017)

  • Batch: Cask 3

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

This now has more prominent notes suggesting wheated bourbon, which I didn’t get in the previous cask. Corn, vanilla, confectioner’s sugar, grape, light floral rye, clove, pear, toasted hazlenuts, blanched almonds, green tea, and a grainy, porridge-like character. There’s a sharp yeasty note too.  It really has come on – it makes me quite interested to know what this will taste like at 6+ yrs. The palate is lightly sweet, with a toffee backdrop with the grainy notes, coconut, and ripe banana on top. The finish has prune, cacao, lots of nuts, clove, and other baking spice. Lightly earthy, too, on the finish – nice touch.

There are still a few harsh notes which I expect to get ironed out as it gets older – but this is coming along well! These also lift off as the bottle is open a bit.

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average (based on $60)


Review (2018)

  • Batch: Cask 6

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

Dried tarragon! Interesting that on this pass of the North of 7 whiskies there are more dried herbs coming out.  Oak, milk chocolate, vanilla, pineapple juice, caramel, macadamia, dried mint, freshly sawn pine, hazlenuts, fennel seed, toffee, and lemon. There’s corn, too....it might sound a bit diverse but it’s integrated together well. A nice nose! Perhaps the best I’ve had yet from the distillery. There is one note which I don’t quite know what to do with – a slightly sour, almost yoghurt like quality. It’s quite savoury, and I can’t tell if I like or dislike it.

The palate is full of mixed cereal, fresh oak, and sharp spices on the herbal side like fennel. Oak is present, but isn’t at the center – it seems to contribute quite a bit of structure and tannins, though. Dried fruits too – the usual suspects – apricot, peach, pineapple. It has a light-medium creaminess. The finish is drying and tannic, with spices, dried fruit, hazlenuts, and a spicy character like the feel of cayenne.

Better than the batch above but not quite enough yet to bump it another point. Its youth still shows through, and as this mellows out more I imagine it’s not far off an upgrade...

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Average (based on $60)


Review (2018)

  • Batch: Cask 8DB

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

This one’s quite a bit different – it’s the four grain recipe but it’s been matured for 6 months in new oak. If the standard north of 7 is like hazlenuts or almonds, this is like decadent pecan in terms of nutty richness. Rich oak (think oaky bourbon), pine cones, celery seed, and toasted fennel seed. The usual complexity is very much so masked by oak. North of 7 makes whisky in the bourbon style, but it doesn’t taste like bourbon – the oakiness of this is approaching bourbon, but it is still quite grain (other than corn) centric.

The palate is oaky and tannic. Mixed porridge, dried apricot, rich fresh oak, light wood smoke, pencil shavings, and a bigger oaky creaminess. The oak is a bit too much here, with the tannins and a slight astringency taking it past a point of balance, but just a bit. Drying spices taking the finish, accompanying white grape, dried apricot,

The oak is the centre, here, and no sufficient counterbalance is offered – and the rich grainy character from the distillery is lost. That being said, I like the extra oak and probably a bit less time in the second barrel would have done a trick.

I actually like to mix this one with barrel 6 to tone down some of the oak. I like a ratio of 25% barrel 8 to 75% barrel 6. I find the mix better than either on its own!

Value: Low. All their other casks are better, and this is a bit much for this unless you really like oak!


Review (2019)

  • Batch: Cask 5

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2019

It’s coming up on 5 years of age now, and this is delicious!

Lovely dried fruits have come out, and it is very much a corn forward whisky with a balance of grain, berry notes, brown sugar, toffee, honey, and oak. The oak is beautifully integrated. It also grows quite nicely with time in the glass.

The palate is sumptuous, and this makes it very easy to drink. Again, there is a nice bright, berry-like fruitiness which contrasts with the corn and oak which grows through the palate. There is a really nice earthiness which is present through the whisky too – brilliant. It really seems to have come of age. The finish is sweet, easy, with oak, grain, a touch of toasted fennel, wet hay, and dark toffee. It has rounded out quite nicely and gained a lot of depth compared to my most recent batches.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). One of the best Canadian whiskies I’ve tried this year from a small distiller, and the best I’ve had from North of 7. . It’s perhaps a little too easy to drink…

Value: High. It’s very rare for a small distiller to break into this category, but this in my opinion is a great whisky for $60.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Barrel 7

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

This barrel has a bit more oak than most of their releases (well, it was nearly 6 years old). Really nice notes of caramel, baking spices, and it has these really nice whiffs of nutty barley. The palate is oaky, and a light vegetal, spicy character really shines alongside some oily corn. The finish is lightly tannic and oaky, with a bit of dried oak on the finish. Comes together well – mature and rich but not as complex as some of the other barrels (I may be a bit biased, after barrel 5 which was stellar).

Still, very good. I find this mashbill rather fascinating – across different barrels, for whatever reason, certain grains stand out more. Here is a bit more corn and malted barley than I typically notice.

Highly Recommended (49% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: high at $60


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Barrel 29

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

If the last barrel was a bit more prominent against the average with corn and malt, this one has rye at the centre! It picks up with sharp vegetal notes and light rye, waxy notes, orange juice, rolled oats, cinnamon, and sugar caramel. With time, dried corn husks seem to rise increasingly from the glass. The finish is clean, lightly oaky.

A pretty good barrel! I really like the waxy character, but there is a bit more bready character than some other barrels which I preferred.

Highly Recommended (49% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).


Review (2020)

  • Batch: Barrel 16 (74.5%)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

This barrel isn’t available for purchase, as it was part of a cask selection process I did with a number of Ontario connoisseurs. This was the leading vote-getter out of 10 casks. It was filled in April 2015, bottled September 2020 (5.4 years old). It went into the barrel at 68.8% and came out at a whopping 74.5%. The barrel yielded 172 bottles (so, nearly 8% loss per year). That’s a fair bit of angel’s share.

The nose is rich and oaky, with dried apricot, prune, caramel, hazelnut, milk chocolate, stale cinnamon bark, vanilla, corn oil, and even a touch of incense. The palate has lots of toffee, but is balanced with a spicy grassiness, clean corn, oak, brown cardamom, and clove on the finish. A fairly big finish, with a nice balance of buttery sweetness, oak, and dried hibiscus flowers. Pretty spicy, too.

Best North of 7 to date, I think. The sweet spot for me on this whisky is in the high 50s in terms of ABV. The trend line continues upward!

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very high at $70 (we got a good deal!)


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 23

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

These four grain barrels are all consistently good and similar in character, yet there is enough interesting variation within them to make them a very interesting whisky to follow. This one leans towards herbal notes – mint, dill, and even a touch of tarragon and epazote (a Mexican herb a bit like oregano). The new oak character is present on the nose, and the grains are present in a way reminiscent of whole grain porridge. Lots of bright herbs on the palate, and lots of mint/wintergreen – but also a good dose of caramel, barrel char, and corn. The finish is quite bright, accented with a mint and sweet, charred oak. Mint isn’t the dominant flavour by any means, but it’s definitely the dominant accent. Very easy to drink, but lacks some of the depth that some of the other barrels do. Nonetheless, still very good. Very pleasant!

I happened to have had a taste of this at cask strength and it was really excellent. But, we have the 45% version here.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value:  Upper end of average at $60.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Barrel 31

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2022

So many of North of 7’s four grain barrels come together so nicely these days – this is extremely well balanced with peach, apple, oak, brown sugar, toasted baking spice, dried apricot, vanilla, and earth. The oakiness is so intense, in a wonderful way, on this one. The palate is rich, easy, and complex following from the nose. Need I say more?

Just terrific stuff. As much as I’ve found the bourbon selections in Ontario lacking – this isn’t a bourbon – but it certainly satisfies my cravings. These bottlings of four grain are all slightly different, but they are all consistently very good. Hats off to North of 7, who not only are one of the best small distilleries in Canada – but are also one of the most consistent.

Highly Recommended (50% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: High at $60.