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: Gooderham 1832 Decanter Canadian Whisky (1946) by Jason Hambrey

Gooderham 1832 2.jpg
10-35 Years
Distiller Gooderham & Worts (Toronto, ON)

This whisky was bottled to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the distillery, in 1957, composed of a mix of whisky 10-35 years old (i.e. this has whisky distilled as early as 1911!). The cork disintegrated when it was opened, but it did not suffer any corkage (thankfully). I don’t know much about this, except that there was also a version released with a tax stamp of 1948 and 1951. I’ve had the 1951 – it’s smooth, easy, and perhaps a bit simple. This vintage is better, if you like more than just smoothness...but they are all nice whiskies, if undamaged

As far as I know, or can guess, this whisky is the oldest gooderham 125th anniversary decanter release - either released in 1957 (the 125th anniversary) alongside the 1947 release or preceeding it. Then, evidently, the popularity drove this to be released again with a 1951 release in 1961 or later (since they all say the whiskies are at least 10 years old).

This could have had stocks from Hiram Walker, too, since both distilleries were owned by the Hatch family at the time - and my friends who used to work at the distillery don't know anything about this bottling. It was a remarkable distillery - huge, ambitious, and with many stories to tell. Much of it still remains, though with little history remaining as it's turned into more of a real estate/tourist attraction - but you can still go down to see some of the outsides of the old brick barrel warehouses, or the distillery, or the offices, or the stables, or sit in Blazac's coffee, which used to be the old boiler room (still having the original mahogany trim), and think about how times have changed...

Review (2017)

  • Batch: Tax Stamp 1946

  • Bottling Code: None

  • Bottling Date: 1956

The nose is rich, full of dried fruit and caramel – rich and buttery. Clove, apple juice, and light cork (not in a bad way – not corked, but does smell a bit like an old cork). Corn husks, prune, raisins, currants, dried apricot, lots of grape, dusty earth, oak, and a bag of mixed spices. The palate is big and full of fruit, spice, and toffee along with rich charred oak and herbal undertones. Loads of dried fruit, and loads of spice. Balanced, interesting, well blended, and delicious. The finish has spices, loads of dried fruit, and enough brown sugar that it might be confused for an aged rum that isn’t too sweet. The rich spices underpinning everything are remarkable – I rarely see that – in that way it reminds me of Hiram Walker special old but this is on another level with all the dried fruit and toffee in the mix. Remarkable.

Highly Recommended (48% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher).

Value: N/A

Review: Gooderham Centennial 15 Year Old Canadian Whisky (1952) by Jason Hambrey

Gooderham Centenniel 1.jpg
15 Years
Producer Hiram Walker & Sons (Windsor, ON)

I don't know where this was distilled - it could have been made at Hiram Walker in Windsor, or Gooderham & Worts in Toronto, at one time the largest distillery in the world but closed at the end of the 1980s with most of its brands shifting to Hiram Walker.

This whisky, though, is special - it was bottled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Canada (and here we are, celebrating 150 years!). It is a rich, well-crafted whisky and, notably, a screw cap so it doesn't have cork damage if you can acquire one. It comes in a thick, hexagonal bottle showing the founders of Canada, and has a pamphlet inside showing which describes who everyone is!

Review (2017)

  • Batch: Distilled 1952

  • Bottling Code: None

  • Bottling Date: 1967

A rich nose full of prune, vanilla, old clove, corn husks, white pepper, caramel, leather, raisin, oak – very rich. Lots of old clove. Gorgeous. The palate is even better – sweet entry full of a big oaky backdrop complete with fresh oak notes and barrel char, loaded with light vanilla pudding, caramel, fruitcake, dried fruit notes, and prune in the backdrop. The finish is full of light grain and vanilla, and slowly fades to clove and white pepper as it dries, yet it retains sweetness so that you want another sip. Very well balanced, and not too sweet at all – the spice, fruit, grain, and body all work together very well. They knew how to make good Canadian whisky in the 50s!

This is extremely elegant whisky. It’s hard to quite find a modern comparison. It reminds me a bit of the rich corn character of highwood ninety 20, but it doesn’t carry the same age, complexity in the same way, or waxy notes. It reminds me a bit of Crown Royal Limited Edition in terms of style (light, complex, and clean), but this is much deeper. Some of the fresh oaky notes remind me of Wiser’s Union 52 or the 150th limited edition, too.

Classically Canadian, and one of the best I’ve had in the style.

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

Value: N/A

Review: Proof Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

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!