Cocktails

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.

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: Last Mountain Dill Pickle Vodka by Jason Hambrey

Photo courtesy of  Last Mountain Distillery .

Photo courtesy of Last Mountain Distillery.

ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
Last Mounta Vodka infused with Cucumbers, Dill, and Jalapeno
Distiller Last Mountain (Lumsden, Saskatchewan)

Every distiller these days is infusing this and that into various cocktails – and one of the most unique is Last Mountain, which adds dill, cucumbers, and jalapenos to their vodka. They could have infused pickles, but they didn't want to make a briny spirit. An odd combination (indeed) – and if you taste it straight, it is just what you might expect – alcoholic, spicy dill pickle. However, context is needed – it is purpose build essentially for a single cocktail, the Caesar cocktail – developed in Calgary and still primarily consumed in Canada. It was invented in 1969 by Walter Chell to celebrate the opening of a new Italian restaurant, made by combining tomato and clam juice with vodka.

It is an incredible cocktail, often so crammed with garnishes that you have to dig out the actual cocktail! This is no coincidence – the cocktail pairs so well with so many different garnishes (a spicy rim, celery, olives, pickles, black pepper, lime). It is a garnish party. I like full flavored, spicy caesars: I use 3 oz clamato, 1.5 oz dill pickle vodka, 3 dashes worchestershire sauce, 10 dashes Frank’s red hot (I love spicy!) – over lots of ice, with a rim of garlic powder, onion powder, salt, and pepper. I garnish with freshly ground black pepper, a celery stalk (trim to size and let sit in water for 20 mins to crisp up beforehand). I garnish with as many of the following as I have on hand: dill pickles, olives, lime, dill. Celery is a must, and is one of the absolute best cocktail/garnish pairings. It’s great – almost more of a cocktail meal than a cocktail. It’s perfect for weekend late mornings. It is different – vegetal and savory rather than the typical fruity and citrusy or spicy and earthy cocktails. The clam adds some lovely seaside mineral notes, too.

But, now to Last Mountain – in Saskatchewan a lot of people will add dill pickle juice to their caesars, and Last Mountain decided to circumvent this step. I’d heard of this dill pickle vodka (the best selling saskatchewan made spirit), and I resisted writing about it until I have actually tried it – now I have, and must recommend it.

It adds further depth to the cocktail with a bit of added spice from the jalapeno and the dill and cucumber, but here is my favorite part: I find it shifts the balance of the cocktail such that you can add more hot sauce. Moreover, the jalapeno comes through and adds to the spice. I absolutely love spicy caeasars, so if I can make it more spicy, I’m all for it. If you can get it, start working on your caesars...

Review: The Toasted Old Fashioned (Barchef Project) by Jason Hambrey

Barchef Project 2.jpg
ABV
38.9%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Stalk & Barrel Red Blend, Bitters, Maple Syrup
Producer BarChef (Toronto, ON) & Still Waters (Concord, ON)

BarChef is my favourite cocktail bar in Canada. Just take a look at the pictures and descriptions of the cocktails that they offer, or take a perusal through the cocktail book "BarChef" and you'll know exactly what I mean. Some years ago, I took a month completely off whisky, locking up my cabinet, metaphorically - and I found myself discovering complex cocktails, for the first time. I picked up Frankie Solarik's (incredible) cocktail book BarChef and within 2 years I had made every bitter, syrup, and cocktail in the book, certainly not my typical pick and choose process. It lead me right into using dry ice, foams, alginates, soils, snows - all the best of molecular gastronomy- in my cocktails, now a go-to.

So when I saw BarChef partner with Still Waters, one of my favourite distilleries, I'm intrigued. They've together bottled a toasted old fashioned, a cocktail they serve at the bar - but as an all-in-one. It's a cocktail which is made by combining hand toasted chamomile, toasted until brown (hence, "toasted") which brings out and changes the character completely, with an assortment of spices (saffron, cardamom, and a variety of other components) to infuse in Stalk & Barrel Red Blend. Then, this is blended with more Stalk Barrel Red Blend with some maple syrup for added richness and flavor, and bottled (or served as a cocktail in the bar).

Dangerously drinkable, if you like cocktails...


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A
  • Bottling Code: N/A
  • Bottling Date: 2017

Rich, honeyed, and spicy on the nose. Chocolate, clove, honey, cinnamon, and star anise lead a spicy, rich, creamy nose - but the palate brings in even more spice, with more honey, daisies, maple, cinnamon, licorice root, fennel, and a wonderful finish of cacao, clove, cinnamon, star anise, and maple. It grows and grows, and you get a touch of the grassy still waters spices. A phenomenal balance of spices, whisky, and syrup - incredible complexity and very intriguing. Maybe I didn't elaborate enough - brilliant mix of spices, and they shine beautifully.

Throw in an orange peel, or better yet, a flamed orange peel, and there's little else to be desired in a winter cocktail. A way to experience one of the best cocktail bars on the planet away from Toronto...

Highly recommended. Definitely a cocktail, and amidst the best old fashioned you'll taste...

I'd be tempted to rate this, if I had anything to compare it to. But you don't see bottled cocktails that often (yet?)...


Review: Smith and Cross Pure Pot Still Traditional Jamaican Rum by Jason Hambrey

ABV
57%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
From molasses
Distiller Hampden Estate (Wakefield, Jamaica)

I had this rum in a bar in the US and promptly bought a bottle. I've never had high proof rum, and, like bourbon, the sweetness of the spirit balances the powerful flavor of the high proof. It is a brilliant mixer, indeed, it is one of the most revered rums in bartending (subbing it out for gin in a negroni will blow your mind). It is made from Jamaican rums with a mix of two types of rum distillates - Plummer and Wedderburn (defined by the amount of esters in the final spirit) and it is fairly young (<3 years).


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2016

A spicy, medicinal, waxy nose that I love. Molasses, anise, dried blueberry, oak, pencil shavings, candle wax, cinnamon, brown bread...a gorgeous nose. The palate starts with medicinal notes, then merges to dried cranberry and very gently to pumperknickel bread, fancy molasses, candied orange, oak and baking spices. The finish carries the medicinal notes, the oak, and the brown bread and molasses notes to perfection. Oak, and oxidized notes (like vermouth or sherry) on the finish. Balanced, interesting, well delivered, so flavourful, and so rummy. An incredible rum!

The sweetness balances the proof so well – it is a new side of rum to me. This is a bomb in cocktails, I can’t even express that enough. If you mix it in for gin in a negroni, you get a wow cocktail – and there are few of those. Seriously, try it. I bought a bottle in the US just to use in negronis...

Assessment: Highly recommended.

Value: Very high. This often goes for around 30$ usd, and for a very nice nearly cask strength rum!


Review: Proof Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
N/A
Recipe
Wheat and rye
Producer Proof Spirits(Toronto, Ontario)

This comes from a Canadian company, Proof Brands, which makes a whisky, vodka, and a white rum. Proof brands is based out of Toronto, but this whisky was produced (distilled, aged, and blended) in Alberta (though I don’t know where).  It is targeted to the cocktail community. The whisky is made from rye and wheat (no barley), and aged in charred oak barrels, and bottled at 42%. Centennial 10 Year Old is also made from rye and wheat, but it is altogether different.

On some level, I hesitate to grade this because it is produced for the upscale cocktail community (which I have consistently gained more respect for), and I grade for sipping whiskies. Regardless, I am giving this whisky a sipping score, and I have heard many enjoy to just sip this one, often on the rocks. On one level, to fully appreciate Canadian Whisky, you need to know cocktail - mixing is a different world from plain whisky. However, definitely - it is much more than a consolation prize for bad whisky, as is sometimes the presumption as spirits writers toss out bad whisky for "cocktails" so that they don't have to admit a terrible product. If you are putting something in a cocktail to cover up its flavor, it's not good for cocktails. That's not the case for this whisky - it is terrific in cocktails.


Review (2014)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: ~2013

Nose: Very interesting – quite citrusy, fruity and different – it reminds me both of fruit brandy and tequila. Grapefruit, pear, caramel, wine gums, and an almost medicinal cough-syrup type aroma, orange, orange peel, guava – quite bright, and off the nose seems sweet and sour. This seems to be well crafted for cocktails, based on the nose. I do like the bright fruitiness, and I am not quite sure whether I don’t mind or don’t like the medicinal quality. Doesn’t have a lot of the typical notes of rye spice found in Canadian whisky – but this bottle is certainly packed with fruit.

Taste: Orange, and a bit of candy-like fruit punch to it, more touches of cough syrup, blackberry flavoured hard candy – the flavours are mostly surface level, and underneath there is a hint of the grains involved, along with a light bitterness, similar in feel to what is found in grapefruit juice. It’s a bit too candy-like for sipping (though not overly sweet), I think – though it is still very interesting and unique in what I’ve tasted.

Finish: A hint of rye comes through lightly at last, along with lots of orange (much like the chewy orange-flavoured vitamin C pills), blackberry, blackcurrant, and even a touch of dry wheat which outlasts the other flavours, though the slight fruitiness sticks through all of it. There’s a nagging touch of slightly sour bitterness.

This whisky is so different than any other that I have tasted that it almost seems more in the category of a brandy or tequila. It’s very interesting. It seems destined for good cocktails, and the fruity kick and bright profile would fit in very well in many cocktails - I think -  and could even be substituted for tequila in some cocktails for good effect . It doesn’t have the strong peppery and vegetal tones and would likely get overwhelmed in a drink like a tequila sunrise, but, substituting this in an el diablo (ginger beer, lime juice, black currant liqueur, and some of this) really brings out both the spiciness of the ginger and the fruitiness of the black currant – and I like it better than the tequila version. Their recommended cocktail, the urban, is also quite wonderful (see here for the recipe). As a sipping whisky, I’m not sure what to think, but as a mixing whisky – this is where my mind is really getting interested.

Value: Average. Pretty unique stuff, and comes in 500 ml bottles so my opinion is that it’s worth a first try based on its uniqueness. After that - you decide!