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!