Hungarian Oak

Review: Bearface Triple Oak Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Bearface 1.jpg
ABV
42.5%
Aging
7 Years; Ex-bourbon, French Red Wine, and Virgin Hungarian Oak
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Canadian Mist (Collingwood, Ontario)

Canadian whisky is an incredibly diverse style of whisky, with flavour shaped by a combination of grain, stills, yeasts, enzymes (such as malt), and barrels. Canadian whisky uses multiple types of each of these to create flavour – but Bearface whisky is doing something rather unique. They are using an intense blending process that is focused around the impact of multiple types of wood on a relatively light corn whisky. Bearface is all about what happens after distillation and initial maturation, and it is therefore a bit different than many brands. Many brands are working with finishes, but there isn’t a small brand I’ve come across focusing on as intense of a finishing process in Canada, particularly one which uses a blend of finishing barrels so meticulously. Some of the big producers do this, but it’s rare to find a small producer taking such a complex approach to finishing. I wanted to give a picture of what they are doing.

Bearface is shaped around a 7 year old light corn whisky which is a “canvas” in the words of Andres Faustinelli, the master blender for the brand. The finishing process is all about filling in the gaps of the corn whisky, using all the nuances created by different casks.  It’s not a linear process. While there might only be two “stages” of finishing, each stage has different casks involved that are eventually blended together. The first stage is based on wine casks and the second is based on virgin Hungarian oak.

The whisky, at 76% ABV, is placed into a mixture of French oak and American oak wine casks: the French oak for vanilla, cranberries, and apricot and the American oak for vanilla and coconut. It comes out of the cask rich in wine colour and with an infusion of oaky wine notes. The wine casks are chosen carefully with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot used for the whisky. Other varieties are available, they don’t suit the desired flavour profile. After 90 days in these wine casks, the mid-palate (lacking in the original whisky) is now full of dried fruit and a dry finish to beg another sip after the first finish.

The second stage of finishing is used to round out the whisky. It is put into powerful Hungarian oak which is toasted, not charred – to give rich toasted and woody notes. Much thought is given to these Hungarian oak casks. Andres uses 3 different types of Hungarian casks to create his desired profiles: a medium toast, a “medium+”, and a heavy toast barrel which is close to a charred barrel but without the damage on the surface that a charred cask would have. The staves which make up the Hungarian casks are all seasoned for 3 years in Hungary. The seasoning process breaks down the tannins in the wood and creates a complex set of flavour characteristics while reducing tannin levels. This last set of Hungarian casks builds up the spicy finish in the whisky and reinforces the structure of the whisky.

The different Hungarian casks give different notes to the whisky – the medium toast lends tannic astringency and a dry finish, the “medium+” gives lots of spice and the heavy toast lends a lot of savouriness, bacon fat, and fattiness – but without the tannin and spice. This second finishing process is only 2-3 weeks, depending on taste.

The Hungarian casks are only used three times, with the best extraction coming on the second use. All three barrel types, with the three refill numbers, are blended together – each batch comes from about 100 barrels. At the end of the life, the casks become solera casks.

Complicated enough? I’d say so. After the time in Hungarian oak, Andres spends about 2 days tasting through all the casks and separating them into flavour “families”. The rest of the week preparing his blend.

It’s quite an oaky whisky – but it’s where the palate is focused these days. The whisky has been received well, winning one of the 25 gold medals at the 2019 Canadian whisky awards. My review is below.

For more info, I highly recommend Mark Bylok’s interview with Andres on The Whisky Topic.

I’m making a bit of an assumption that Canadian Mist is the distillery, given that it’s the only major distillery on the Georgian Bay, as the label states…

On an “interest” note, I’m a bit surprised the LCBO stocks the whisky- they are pretty bullish on not having any danger associated with alcohol (as a “bear” or scars might). I know a few brands who have had their label shot down as it “implied danger”. From my end, nothing against the branding, on my end - I think the bottle is great!


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2018

First time I smelled this, I thought – nice corn whisky! And indeed – nice creaminess, light corn husks – but lots of oak: cinnamon, pencil shavings, clove, and charred oak. The wine influence might not be what you expect – it’s more on the line of blackcurrants, red pepper jelly, and currants. Lots of varied dried fruit. Despite all the oak, the distillate character is not lost…

The palate has a rich oily body, with some nice corn at the centre – both kernel and husk. The palate has a nice “zing” to it with oaky spice, dried fruit, and tannins playing off one another. There is a core of sweetness which works well. The finish has charred oak, cherries, cinnamon, even some gooseberry (without the tartness) and apple skin. It reminds me a bit of the oiliness in Forty Creek whiskies.

I quite like that despite all the oak, the distillate is not lost. Also, not too winey – which is easy to do – it comes out on the nose and on the finish – but not too much, but it adds quite well to the whisky with the spice, fruit, and lightly oxidized set of flavours.  Intriguing, moreish, and a great addition to the Canadian whisky landscape.

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

Value: High. $40 combined with the quality of this means you can’t do a whole lot better for the price.


Review: Masterson's 10 Year Old Straight Rye Whiskey (Barrel Finished) by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
10 yrs; Matured and Finished in Charred Virgin Oak
Recipe
100% Unmalted Rye
Distiller Alberta (Calgary, Alberta)

This is Masterson's standard 10 year old rye, but finished in new charred virgin oak of different types. Since the base rye of each finish is the same, it really showcasing the effect of different oaks for maturation.

Very broadly, the differences between the oaks is subtle. The American oak is more creamy and sweet, and the "smoothest". But, I think, the least complex, though still very complex. The Hungarian oak is the earthiest, and the most unique and hence interesting. The French is the most complex, and the most "old-world" reminding me of the oaky influences on old world wines and spirits. It is also the most tannic and has tons of dried fruit notes. Interestingly, for the side by side tastings I have done, the American has the best nose, the French the best palate, and the Hungarian the best finish. It's a fascinating side by side, if you ever get the chance....


Review (2017)

  • Batch: PSA3 / American Oak Barrel Finished batch 001

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

The winner of the 2017 Canadian Whisky Awards, a month-long blind judging competition by a jury of 10 judges. The staves for this finish were from Missouri and seasoned (air-dried) for over two years to develop flavor before being crafted into the finishing barrels for this whisky. The wood was largely (80%) tight grain oak. I have two batches above, since I tasted them side by side and the same tasting notes and rating applies to both batches. I thought they were quite consistent.

This whisky is finished in American oak, and, as such, it is a bit different than the regular Mastersons. More woody – broader, but not quite as sharp. We have the best of the creaminess of Masterson’s, but enhanced with a buttery, slightly oaky, and anise laden covering. Some really nice black tea notes too, which emerge beautifully over time. It is different – not as sharp as previous masterson’s, but everything is still there. The palate is woody, with oak, but such a terrific backbone of awe-inspiring rye. Arugula, cinnamon, oak, caramel, vanilla, butterscotch, anise, black tea, and a whole mixed bag of spices and vegetal notes and some sharp medicinal notes characteristic of Alberta rye. Lovely! The finish is full, oaky, creamy, and loaded with rye.

I love the sharpness in batch 1 and 3 of the non-finished whiskies. This isn’t quite there – but whether this is your favorite, or whether the unfinished batches are – will be more up to personal preference than quality. These are all so terrific.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: Hungarian Oak Finish, Batch 001

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Hungarian oak is its own species, quercas petraea also known as Sessile Oak, much like American oak (quercas alba)  – one of the two prominent European oak species (alongside French oak, quercas robor). The trees are from a slow growing region of Hungary, air dired outdoors for two or more years. The folks at 3 Badge, who produce Masterson's, says it contributes a nutty profile to whisky. By the way, Hungary is a beautiful country (I lived there for a few months), so it's interesting to taste a bit of the land, so to speak.

Spicy, with prominent persimmon and earthy Armagnac notes. Oaky. Peach, plum, apricot, and some floral notes also come in on the heavy fruity nose – but still so oaky. Spiced candied citrus rinds, vanilla, earth, cashews, menthol, and sharp candied notes. The palate continues on with the big fruit before a big vanilla-laden oak and very dry finish. Currants, and wine tannins too. The finish is wonderful, with a mix of vegetable, wood, and spinach and arugula notes. Dried mushrooms (chanterelles) too. Once the oak fades, the arugula emerges. Brilliant. Perhaps the most interesting of the finished mastersons.

Amazing the difference between the oaks. Much more spicy, dried fruit, and dry than the American oak finish which is more creamy and light.

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

Value: Average.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: French Oak Finish, Batch 001 (PSF3)

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

Finished in virgin French oak.  Air dried staves for at least 2 years.

Oak, oak, oak, but also currants, arugula, clove, and it still has a spicy, candied set of flavours not seen in the American oak finish (but seen in the Hungarian) – it reminds me very much of spicy cognacs. But, to the rye...Complex - oak, apple, light toffee, unripe pear, arugula, black tea, juniper, black pepper, creamy tropical fruit, fresh orange, and dried corn. The notes continue, more or less, on the palate, with slight astringency. A decent strength of finish - and a good bit of rye. The dried fruit notes fit in so brilliantly with the rye. Brilliant whisky.

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

Value: Average.