Ontario

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: Canadian Club Chronicles 44 Year Old Canadian Whisky "The Whisky Sixes" by Jason Hambrey

ABV
45%
Aging
44 Years; Refill American Oak
Recipe
100% Corn
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

The oldest Canadian whisky ever! We are at 44 Years now, still drawing from that special parcel of whisky from 1977. This whisky was matured in once-used white American oak whisky barrels that previously held rye whisky. The 44 year old part is corn whisky aged in those barrels, although the whisky kept getting regauged (combining barrels of whisky together so it doesn’t dry out in the barrel). After aging, a bit of rye whisky and sherry was added to the blend.


Review (2021)

  • Batch: Issue no. 4

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2021

The nose here is just so full of aged whisky notes – it’s quite intense. Underneath, there is a really nice earthy, spicy note and some rich, dried fruit. I’m glad it’s in at 45% - even at that strength, it’s pretty light. The palate starts with some honey and then moves on to some really nice spicy rye notes, plum, and some fall marsh notes (in a very good way). The finish is complex – light corn, light tannins, vanilla, dried fruit, white pepper, citrus pith, and baking spice.

Not as big or as rich as the 43 from last year, but this is still really great stuff.

Very Highly Recommended (19% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: Very low. But, my perfect whisky is worth $300, which I still haven’t met (a few have come close). So, it depends how much you value $$ vs something this old. If this were a Scotch, even a single grain….


Review: Willibald Vodka by Jason Hambrey

willibald vodka 1.jpg
ABV
40%
Aging
None
Recipe
Triple distilled corn, rye, and barley
Distiller Willibald (Ayr, Ontario)

This vodka is made from a mashbill which used corn, rye, and barley - the same base mash bill that is used for all Willibald’s products, including their excellent gin. Corn tends to give a nice body and sweetness in vodkas, and rye gives a bit of spice - so, at the least, we expect this one to have a bit of character.

The vodka comes off the still at above 90% after three distillations, and it is then proofed down using water from the well onsite.


Review (2021)

  • Batch:

  • Bottling Date: ~2020

  • Bottling Code: N/A

A clean, buttery and clean nose with some very nice edges. This spirit remains firmly in the vodka camp but has subtleties that you rarely see in the category: light baking spice, dried fruit, wheat, and the lightest touch of berries. On the taste, a thick mouthfeel with extremely clean, bright flavours, with touches of berries and spice on the finish. It has a very pleasant bite while remaining buttery and smooth. This is firmly atop the list of my favourite vodkas: clean, pure, and full of subtlety and spice.

Served straight up, any bite quickly fades, the viscosity goes up a notch, and the berry fruit character sits at the centre – to great effect.

Their recommended cocktail is the Caesar, which this would serve terrifically. However, a lot of the character gets lost, so I’d go another direction - this makes a terrific vodka martini. The brightness of the fruit and spice notes in the vodka makes me favour a lemon twist over an olive. When made extra dry (say 2 oz vodka, ½ oz dry vermouth) with a respectable vermouth (like Dolin dry), and a lemon twist (or olive) it competes with the best gin vodkas – I think. It’s different than some others since the vodka has so much character, but highlights the vermouth so well.

Assessment: Very highly recommended.

Value: High. $34 for a vodka like this is great.


Review: Vodkow Cream by Jason Hambrey

vodkow cream 2.jpg
ABV
17%
Aging
None
Recipe
Cream, sugar, vodkow
Distillery Dairy Distillery (Almonte, ON)

Dairy Distillery is known for their innovative Vodkow, a vodka made from 100% milk permeate which is a waste product in the dairy industry that is challenging to dispose. Now, they’ve added a cream liquer, but they’ve done something a bit unique - they haven’t flavoured it! In the words of Omid McDonald, the Dairy Distillery founder: “Fresh cream tastes great and we wanted it to be the star”.

Many cream liqueurs don’t even use fresh cream instead buying a commercial cream base. The cream in this case comes form Lactalis dairy in Brampton, Ontario, where it is processed by the distillery by their own homogenizer which enables them to craft the process much more completely themselves.

The lactose-free cream liquer is also unflavoured so that the spirit of the liqueur, Vodkow, can shine through - a light, creamy, and slightly spicy vodka that would get completely lost in a flavour-forward cream liquer.

The simplicity of the product also means less sugar (1/3 the calories of Baileys) and makes mixing possibilities abound. I like it with a dash of amaretto, creme de cacao, or both (2 oz vodkow cream, 1/4 oz amaretto, 1/4 oz creme de cacao is my fancy but you can add more of both if you are ok with more sweetness for more flavour).


Review (2020)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2020

This cream liquor is simple, creamy and clean – unlike most cream liquers that are loaded up with flavours (often artificial), this lets the main ingredient drive the flavour – Canadian cream. The sweetness is balanced, and the alcoholic bite is ever so slightly present to comfortably remind you that despite the purity of the drink, it’s definitely more than just good cream!

A nice refreshing and versatile change-up to many of the overly-sweet and artificially-flavoured cream liqueurs.

Assessment: Recommended.


Review: Canadian Club Chronicles 43 Year Old Canadian Whisky "The Speakeasy" by Jason Hambrey

Canadian Club 43 1.jpg
ABV
45%
Aging
43 Years; Refill American Oak
Recipe
100% Corn
Distiller Hiram Walker (Windsor, Ontario)

For the past number of years, Canadian Club has been releasing among the oldest Canadian whisky every to be bottled, starting in 2017 with the 40 Year Old (one of the best whiskies I’ve ever tasted). Then they followed up with the “Chronicles” series, starting with the “The Water of Windsor” at 41 Years Old, then “The Dock Man” at 42 Years Old and now this, “The Speakeasy” at 43 Years Old. As far as I am aware, this is the oldest age-stated Canadian whisky ever – but my personal knowledge of bottles pre-2000 whiskies are limited and research isn’t easy. I’ve checked with a number of authorities and the oldest age-stated whisky I’ve heard of before these old Canadian Clubs was a 37 year old Seagrams before prohibition. Not to say an older one hasn’t been bottled, but if it has, it’s certainly not well known.

Regardless, it’s certainly the oldest whisky that’s been available in decades.

Canadian whisky ages very well, in part because of the use of less active casks, a spirit whose lightness takes very well to age, and careful blending (as Canadian Club has done with these releases). I really like the character, in part because the nuance created by the aging process doesn’t get masked behind a lot of oak or strong spirit character. Some Scottish grain whiskies have similar age and character, but I find they typically haven’t had the depth or vivacity that I’ve seen in a lot of the old Canadian whiskies.


Review (2020)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: L20240IW14:08

  • Bottling Date: 2020

The nose is glorious. It’s full of old leather, dried fruit, berries, brown sugar, prune, beeswax, nutmeg, corn oil, vanilla, and weathered oak. It’s a nose, indeed, that could hold me for 43 minutes – most aged whiskies won’t. The palate is glorious – soft, with rich character, light oak, molasses, beeswax, dried blueberry, clove, and white pepper. Very delicate, yet very rich. Dried fruits hold the finish, coupled with lots of old leather and a really nice dusty, dry spiciness on the finish. The whisky in many ways reminds me of many of the scents of the furniture section of antique stores.

It’s much richer than a lot of the lighter aged Canadian whisky – but still at 45% it’s soft enough that I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was 40% - but the extra strength really helps out on the finish.

For me, 2018 only yielded one “exceptional” whisky (a 35 year old Caol Ila). 2019 also only yielded one (Mister Sam). I was wondering if 2020 would pass without one.

I guess not.

Exceptional (3% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date receive this, my highest recommendation).

Value: Low - at $320 you aren’t buying this for value! However, as far as 43 year-olds go, this is extremely reasonable!