Wine Finish

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: Shelter Point French Oak Double Barreled Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Image courtesy of Shelter Point Distillery.

Image courtesy of Shelter Point Distillery.

ABV
50%
Aging
6 yrs; American Oak; Blackberry Wine Finish
Recipe
100% Malted Barley
Distiller Shelter Point (Vancouver Island, British Columbia)

Shelter Point double barreled some of their whisky in French oak blackberry wine casks - here is something unique! This was after about 6 years in American oak.


Review (2018)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

Coconut, vanilla, caramel, pineapple, and rich orchard fruit and sharp baking spice. Big on the palate – spicy, rich, and full of grain and milk chocolate notes even amidst all the fruit sitting overtop. Lots of rich dried fruit, particularly apricot – frankly, it’s remarkable how well the apricot fits in. The finish rides on a wave of vanilla. My favorite Shelter Point to date. It doesn’t have the finish of some of the artisanal cask finishes but it brings a whole lot to the table…

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

Value: Average, based on $80.


Review (2019)

  • Batch: 2018

  • Bottling Date: 2018

  • Bottling Code: N/A

Toffee, broad grain notes, marzipan, and apple juice – yet still with lots of oak, dried fruit, and berries. There is a really great nuttiness shining through, complemented nicely by the oak. It is sweet, easy, and fruity – both fresh fruit and dried fruit, with a bit more emphasis on dried fruit – both stone fruit and raisins and currants. Excellent, and even a touch better than last year!

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

Value: Average, based on $80.


Review: Wayne Gretzky Ninety Nine Proof Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
49.5%
Aging
3 years (bourbon barrels); Wine Cask Finish (100 days+)
Recipe
Malted Rye, Unmalted Rye, Corn
Producer Wayne Gretzky Estates (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

Many critics consider Canadian whisky undervalued – in part because of reputation which isn’t generally merited at any shelves except the bottom. indeed, the most expensive Canadian whisky in Ontario is usually only a hair above $100 – we’ve had 21 year old rye whiskies selling for under 50$, 30 year old ryes selling for $50, 25 year old ryes selling for $25. The most expensive whisky in the LCBO now is a (terrific) 21 year old Canadian Rockies for $126. Gretzky is making a bold move, here – putting their nice looking new release in at $100, saying a lot for a whisky that is 3 years old.

Available at the Gretzky Winery and Distillery.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: 711015:20L3 54SL278

  • Bottling Date: 2017

 

The nose is still in the oaky, spicy gretzky style – but bigger, and with more overt wine influence. Rich dried fruit, charcoal, black cherry, wax, and lots of old cinnamon and clove. Dried apricot, prunes, dried cherry, anise, fresh oak, caramel sauce – all there as well. The palate is very much a whisky, but with loads of wine influence – with notes of a spicy, big, cabernet blended in. The spices continue, along with oak, clove, charcoal, and toffee – with a finish of red wine tannin, clove, anise, cashews, and buttery toffee. The finish is really nice. A bigger whisky than the other Grezkys, and it does very well at this strength. Very enjoyable (especially on a cool, rainy day like today!).

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

Value: Low. Against Scottish single malts, this might compete in a value category, but against whisky as a whole $100 is a lot for this.


Review: Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Ice Cask Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
41.5%
Aging
3 years (bourbon barrels); Ice Wine Cask Finish (~4 months)
Recipe
Rye, Corn
Producer Wayne Gretzky Estates (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

There is little more Canadian than Wayne Gretzky, or, for that matter, Ice Wine - the wine that put Canadian wine on the map in 1991 when Inniskillin's 1989 Vidal Ice Wine won Gran Prix D'Honneur at Vinexpo. It is the one segment of wine in which Canada truly produces world class, best of the world - a sweet, dessert wine made from sweet grapes that have are harvested after they have frozen on the vines (typically harvested overnight at temperatures below -30 Centegrade) and are gently crushed to release an ultra-sweet grape juice to make a sweet, acidic dessert wine which is often matured for a time in barrels.

Gretzky isn't the first to make whisky matured in ice wine casks, but I think they are the second after some nice bottlings froms Glenora. This bottling is blended from sources whisky that has been matured for at least 3 years in first fill (i.e. once used) bourbon barrels and then finished in 225 litre Gretzky vidal ice wine barrels for about 4 months. To balance the sweet and light fruitiness from the ice wine, the amount of rye whisky going into this blend on top of corn.

Coming to the LCBO in October 2017.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2017

The nose has some really nice, clean, fruit – white grape, gooseberries – alongside a buttery, spicy spirit that is slightly heavy. It still carries some of the oiliness and charcoal of the Gretzky brand, but the woodiness is not as overt and the light fruit brightens the nose, and the palate. It develops well, and the fruity and sweet wine grows very nicely with time. The palate has some spicy oak, gooseberry, white raisin, and clove – it is slightly tangy – leading into a buttery finish full of bright fruit, spice, and fading to oak tannin. The cherry on the Sundae is the light bit of oxidized wine at the end. Nicely balanced.

On one hand I feel that it is still a bit heavy to fully embrace the ice wine cask – and yet, if it were lighter, I wouldn’t like the style as much. But it is a level above the Gretzky Red Cask, and I like it much more – lighter, cleaner, and more elegant. If you liked the Red Cask, you’ll probably like this too. Impressive work.

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

Value: Average. Against Canadian whiskies, it’s on the lower side, but it’s about par for the course against whiskies in general.


Review: Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Thanks to Crown Royal for the image.

Thanks to Crown Royal for the image.

ABV
40.5%
Aging
Finished for 6 months in Californian Cabernet Sauvignon Cask
Recipe
N/A
Distiller Gimli (Gimli, Manitoba)

This whisky is a crown royal finished in cabernet sauvignon casks - the second in their "Noble Collection" after last year's Cornerstone. This whisky is finished in freshly emptied, medium toast Cabernet Sauvignon casks from the Paso Robles region of California for 6 months.


Review (2017)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: Lot 0100-43-B1245

  • Bottling Date: 2016

I’m getting interesting notes on the nose. Canadian whisky is becoming really interesting – expanding, yet still within its own style. Hats off to the team at Crown Royal.

New oak, superposed on rich grain (bourbony notes and some rye) with lots of fruit – prunes, dried peaches, dried apricots, along with typical wine notes of cassis, black currant, and then we have clove, green cardamom (French oak, perhaps?), mixed baking spices, cola, licorice, and pine. Buttery and creamy, with all of that oak influence. It really evolves, with rye notes emerging more with time. And, underneath, beet root! Some blending magic at work.

The palate is full of new oak and toffee, yet those cassis and blackberry notes continue. Lightly herbal, with mint, tarragon, arugula, and dried corn husks. Also, lots of custard (quite clearly so). I don’t know if I’ve ever had a whisky display custard so prominently. The finish continues with custard and spices – nutmeg, clove, and green cardamom. And a splash of rye, coming out more clearly as you drink it. Very complex, as a whole.

Wiser’s isn’t the only one continuing to push Canadian whisky forward. I like this more than last year’s release. The thing I like the most about this is where the rye sits – underneath it all – and I didn’t notice it at first, but it starts to emerge as a backbone of the whole blend. I do like rye a bit more forward, but it is still impressive to be able to merge the fruity and creamy style with the herbal rye. Also, it’s not overtly winey - which I like – it is subtle and very well integrated.

Since tasting notes can be confusing to interpret, here is how I would describe this whisky relative to others – it is somewhat of a cross between the fruity style of a cognac finished crown royal (think XO or Cask No. 16), with the buttery, creamy style of the softer crown royals, and the softer new-oak influenced wiser’s whiskies like One Fifty, Union 52, or Red Letter (but not as spicy as Red Letter). It has similar notes to last year’s Cornerstone blend, in terms of the rye notes – but it is very different in focus. Some marvelous blending at work here.

Very Highly Recommended (18% of all whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). An exceptional work of blending - balanced, broad, complex, deep…

Value: Very high. I think this is a stunning whisky, and 70$ for that is a bargain.


Review: Wayne Gretzky No. 99 Red Cask Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

ABV
40%
Aging
3 years (bourbon barrels); Wine Cask Finish
Recipe
Malted Rye, Unmalted Rye, Corn
Producer Wayne Gretzky Estates (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario)

This whisky is produced by the Wayne Gretzky brand, which started with wine and has started to delve into whisky. It is whisky which is sourced, made from 100% Canadian ingredients, blended, and finished in a Gretzky wine cask. Wayne Gretzky loves wine, and moved into the wine business operating a vineyard in Niagara-on-the-lake from 2008 to 2011. The brand is now owned by Andrew Peller who also own Peller Estates and Sandbanks. Whisky is the new endeavor, alongside a brand new winery and distillery opening in 2017 at Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Each bottle of the whisky supports the Wayne Gretzky foundation, which helps youth be equipped to have opportunities to play hockey.


Review (2016)

  • Batch: N/A

  • Bottling Code: N/A

  • Bottling Date: 2016

On the nose, rich maple, charred wood, candle wax, and terrific rye lead the way along with a well integrated wine character – lots of berries here alongside some terrific, clear cut, white pepper. The grains are still present. The smoky wood and wine notes work wonderfully together! It is a bit raw – but it comes together very well overall. On the palate, currants jump out alongside blackberries and cacao before the grain takes over with rich corn and a finish of creamy oak and vanilla. The palate is interesting, and is even better than the nose. It finishes with some citrus pith, more vanilla, oak, cacao, currants, and the lightest touch of bitterness. The wine influence is there, and it fits in well without clashing or dominating the grains. The finish is sweet, fruity, and lightly creamy – bringing to mind, in fact, vanilla yogurt mixed with berries. And I do love the bit of rye in here. Another great Canadian whisky under $40. Pleasant enough to sip such that you miss the complexity underneath.

It is somewhat natural to want to compare this to 66 Gilead’s Crimson rye, a rye whisky finished in a pinor noir cask. The whiskies are very different (and I quite like both of them). Crimson Rye is very winey, and fruity in a different character – much lighter, with cucumber and green apple – while the Gretzky whisky is more grain and oak driven, with fruitiness from the wine more along the lines of dried fruit and berries. I am a bit of a sucker for the mushroom notes in Crimson Rye, but that whisky is bigger and more raw than Gretzky’s, and a bit less refined. However, Crimson is a bit more interesting and unique – but some of the raw-ness detracts.

I’m really glad for the price point of this whisky. They could have pushed it into a higher category, and it would have been too much. But this makes it accessible and really lets it shine in the category. I've liked it more with successive tastings. Another score, Gretzky…

Recommended (81% of whiskies I’ve reviewed to date get this recommendation or higher). It’s a bit oaky and dense at times, but this is a pretty unique style in Canadian whisky and it’s worth a go at least once.

Value: Average, nearly high, at $35.


Review: Forty Creek Evolution Canadian Whisky by Jason Hambrey

Forty Creek Evolution.jpg
ABV
43%
Aging
3 years; blended & redistilled; cabernet sauvignon casks for 9 years
Recipe
Blend of barley, corn, and rye whiskies
Distiller Forty Creek (Grimsby, Ontario)

This year, the limited release from Forty Creek is called “Evolution”.  Evolution is the 8th limited release from John Hall, whisky maker at Forty Creek. John Hall was originally a wine maker, and made his own Cabernet Sauvignon at Kittling Ridge, and, thus, in theory, had easy access to wine barrels. This release is roughly 12 years old, though it has a bit of a journey – 100% corn, 100% barley, and 100% rye whiskies, in the Forty Creek style, were aged in white oak for three years and then these aged whiskies were re-distilled to concentrate flavours, as John Hall often does at some stage with his premium releases. They were then re-barreled into French Oak Cabernet Sauvignon casks where they were aged for an additional 9 years. A few other of John’s “favourite barrels” were also added to balance the flavours. The name, evolution, is to signify the whisky’s capacity to change over time. A fitting name, perhaps, too, because John Hall used a wine cask now to house whisky not wine, a sort of evolution in itself. And, on another level, Forty Creek was bought out by Campari last year which may allow a lot more opportunity for growth in the brand and production as well.

On a side note, after leading a few tastings with this one – you need to sip it slowly. Otherwise you are just tasting cinnamon hearts and you miss the whole thing if it is gulped down. Also, as with other whiskies – if it is coming off bitter try refreshing your palate with black coffee and give it another go…


Review (2014)

  • Batch: Lot 2014

  • Bottling Code: 15G14 09:41:10

  • Bottling Date: 2014

Nose: Nutty, with some fruit chocolate aromas – raisins, dried currants, milk chocolate, toasted oak, olive oil, green bell pepper (as in the wine!), and some ruby port-type rich fruitiness and the oxidized notes of tawny port or sherry. It does have quite a bit of a wine edge to it – the tannic edge of red wine is in this one, and there is indeed some earthiness in the mix – like rooty, dark, damp soil . The olive oil is interestingly present and quite a significant portion of the nose, and they seem to develop into slightly earthy black olives. I find dates start to emerge, and I am just full of images of brandied fruitcake and fig and date bars. Light vanilla is present in the background, which is nice because it would be out of place otherwise. Terrific balance, and, indeed, it evolves – but, at least to my nose, not primarily in the earthy ways described by John Hall. However, one can think a bit of chocolate and nuts with port before getting distracted and chewing on some olives and then to dates and figs before finally settling down with some fruitcake. The spices seem to come, oddly, the most present at the end where we seem to get everything – some cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and gingerbread. A bit of a different egg coming out of Forty Creek this year. This is multi-dimensional, and quite a bit different, and very intriguing – the dried fruitiness has been elegantly balanced beside the interesting vegetal notes, nuttiness, and all the other flavours that stop along the way. I spend nearly an hour nosing this on my first sample, and kept discovering new things and “pairings”, indeed, that come in the nose. Upon successive nosings, I think this noses better in a glencairn glass than a wide-mouthed glass as it allows the development to happen a bit more slowly.  There is very little else I could ask for in a nose - this is one of the best I've ever come up against.

Taste: Surprisingly sweet, with lots of raisins, dates, and chocolate notes before some toasted oak, nuts (roasted cashews and peanuts), spice (cinnamon and nutmeg), and vanilla waves and a lightly tannic finish. Despite everything going on, it somehow works, and well, at that! The tannic edge on this just gives it a wonderful edge and shape that is little short of fascinating, and elevates the whole experience – and the toasted oak just works brilliantly with the rest. Absolutely wonderful!

Finish: Cinnamon, tannins in a bit of the mold of a tannic red wine (though they’re not, of course, that intense), dates, lovely tawny port oxidized notes, and a resilient browned butter note all of the sudden.

Liquid fruitcake? I love fruitcake, port, nuts, and just about all that this whisky is about. I absolutely love this stuff.  It is a brilliant whisky to analyze, but isn’t perhaps as approachable or as good of a casual sipper as, say, Forty Creek Confederation Oak, as you need to take some time to fully appreciate its brilliance, and you will probably enjoy this more if you like fruitcake and some of the tawny port notes.

To further state my enjoyment of this – my reviews usually consist of three reviews, each of which are usually 20-40 minutes. An ounce of this held me to nearly two hours on my first review! An absolute class act from Forty Creek, once again.

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

Value: Very High. One of my all time favourite whiskies; I’d have no problem paying 70$ for it.