Year Review

My Favourite Non-Whisky Spirits of 2021 by Jason Hambrey

My search to continue Canadian spirits lead to exploring many Canadian-made spirits, beyond just whisky. There are some terrific spirits out there! My list hasn’t really changed since I posted earlier in the year, so - much of this is the same, and worth repepeating.

Honey Spirits

The two most exciting discoveries for me this year have been aged honey spirits. They are incredible complex, rich, interesting, and different. I highly recommend trying any that are available to you. Despite all the good whisky I’ve had this year, these have been far more memorable and exciting in the past year.

Burwood make a few different honey spirits, and I recently tried and loved their single hive (rye whisky cask). But, they make others – I’d try any of their aged honey spirits – their “single hive” or their “honey rum” (if you can find it) which is made from the intense caramelized honey stuck on spent beehives.

Wayward Distillery’s Drunken Hive Rum is also excellent, and makes the list too.

Gin

It’s hard to narrow to just two gins here, but two have stood above the rest. The first is St. Laurent’s Gin Citrus, a gin that has captured the essence of fresh citrus more genuinely and intensely than any other gin I’ve had. It’s made with multiple citrus fruits and is vacuum distilled to ensure that the fresh character of the citrus is captured without cooking any of the peels.

The other gin that’s really stood out to me is Confluence Distilling’s Pink Gin. The reason it stood out is because it is so similar to your classic recipes but makes small, and impressive, steps into unknown territory – grapefruit instead of lemon, red chilli peppers instead of black pepper, and chamomile to bring it all together. It holds lots of suprises while remaining true to the gin theme.

Ok, I can’t quite stick with two. Two honorable mentions are well deserved for the woody Stump Coastal Forest Gin from Phillips Fermentorium and the rich character of the colour-changing Gin Royal from compass distillers.

Vodka

Some pandemic-inspired cocktail research has made me discover vodka in some new ways in the past few months. While I don’t appreciate them as “sippers”, I do appreciate them. Served in the right ways, they can really be an experience. Two vodkas really impressed me so far this year – the first a very flavourful vodka made from corn, rye, and barley coming from Willibald Distillery. It’s buttery, clean, with some nice berry notes.

The second really impressive vodka comes from Lone Pine Distilling in Edmonton – one of the best vodkas I’ve tasted. Their parkland wheat vodka has an incredible long, creamy finish while displaying an incredible complex and subtle grain character throughout. It is very impressive.

Other spirits

One of my favourite spirits this year so far has been a Sons of Vancouver Barrel-Aged Amaretto that has been partially aged in Westland whisky casks. It has an incredible fruit character with all the barrel-aged goodness and complexity you could hope for in a spirit.

Dragon Mist Distillery also makes a Baijiu – an aged earthy, grainy white spirit originating and widely consumed in China. I don’t have much experience with Baijiu, but the spirit is just so interesting and deep that I can’t stop talking about it.

And of course, I do love a good aquavit, a Nordic spirit flavoured with fennel, anise, and/or caraway. Confluence makes a flavourful, balanced, and powerful one that I love (Vinland Aquavit). It certainly belongs on this list.

My Top Two

Of all these, my top two spirits are Burwood’s Single Hive and the Sons of Vancouver barrel aged amaretto, although the St. Laurent Gin Citrus and Confluence’s Pink Gin made me pause. They aren’t whiskies, but fall is really the time for whisky (and things would be different if we had a stronger Two Brewers release).

My Favourite Whiskies of 2021 by Jason Hambrey

Here is my list of a few favourite drams this year. They are not necessarily the best whiskies I tasted in the past year – but the most memorable.

It was an interesting year - frankly, there were a lot fewer whiskies that either were available or in the price range that interested me based on what I knew about them. On the Canadian side, I got a little bored with the available whisky and went to exploring spirits, of which my favourite was clearly aged honey spirits (really great!) but I landed with some great gins and liquers also. The Canadian rum scene is a little dissapointing, generally - I’m still waiting for a bit more there.

However, Canadian whisky came out with a bang in the fall. Corby’s, which has owned the Canadian whisky fall in the past couple years, had a second straight year that was a bit lacklustre (in my opinion) with peated lot 40 cask strength and Pike Creek PX finish. But everything else seemed to hit. Crown Royal released a stunner with their Noble Collection Winter Wheat, Forty Creek hit it out of the park with Master’s Cut after many years of dissapointing releases, Alberta distillers released another great batch of Alberta Premium Cask Strength, Canadian Club continued their string of super-old releases with a very nice 44 year old. And, a few more craft distillers are just on the outside looking in with a few great releases like Last Straw’s stout whisky, North of 7’s continued rise, and Odd Society’s Powell Street bourbon-style whisky.

I can pretty well repeat my Scotch sentiment from last year - Scotch continues to get expensive and quality tends to be diluted. Availability in Ontario (and Canada) continues to be a challenge, and I didn’t even find many reasonably priced new releases. Highland Park came through with an excellent cask strength release (well, I guess two) and a delightful 15 year old. Beyond that, not many new releases have taken my eyes off the standard classics for too long. Elsewhere, there is better access to more going on - but good and interesting Scotch continues to (most of the time) command prices that lead to a non-competitive price/quality ratio compared to other categories.

American whisky continues to do great stuff, and continues to be very difficult to find. Even basic releases like Buffalo Trace are often absent from shelves in Ontario these days. As for the sought-after releases, they are impossible to get in the LCBO “lotteries”.

Well, on to the list:

1. NORTH OF 7 SINGLE CASK - PERSONAL BOTTLING

I did this again this year - buy a cask of whisky from a cask selection with a bunch of friends and whisky acquantances. What fantastic fun! This year, we selected from 6 casks and bought cask 28, a cask which we had tasted at our barrel selection last year. It significantly improved over the extra year of aging.

It is made from a recipe of 70% corn, 25% rye, and 5% malted barley, matured in a heavy char/light toast barrel and was bottled after nearly 6 years at a cask strength of 58.5%.

Just fantastic!

Read my review here.

2. FORTY CREEK MASTER’S CUT

I’ve been waiting for a release like this since 2014. Forty creek released their first cask strength release this year, intentionally bottled at a low ABV to get all the flavour at a lower cask strength ABV - of 48.5%. It is complex, rich, spicy and elegant. A real highlight.

Read my review here.

3. CROWN ROYAL NOBLE COLLECTION WINTER WHEAT

I was so surprised at this. Crown Royal doing something with winter wheat? I feared it could be, what do they say, “smooth” and less flavourful than their other offerings given that wheat doesn’t have as vibrant of a flavour than other grains. That fear was not realized - this whisky is incredibly complex, balanced, and interesting. It’s awesome! One of my favourite Canadian whiskies, ever. It headlines the year for me.

Read my review here.

4. CROWN ROYAL 16 YEAR OLD RYE (NOBLE COLLECTION)

This really was a whisky of 2020, but I didn’t get to taste it until this year since it wasn’t released in Canada and the border was shut for much of 2020. Probably my favourite whisky that I tasted this year, but it’s gone now without a chance for me to get a bottle…

Read my review here.

5. TWO BREWERS RELEASE 23

As good as Two Brewers is at making whisky, it seems they hadn’t quite hit their stride yet on the finishes - but they’ve gradually getting better and this sherry cask finish was an absolute stunner. You could just taste how good the cask was.

Read my review here.

6. ODD SOCIETY POWELL ST BOURBON STYLE WHISKY

This bottle quite impressed me - perhaps the best bourbon imitation I’ve encountered from a small producer. I really enjoyed it and I thought it did a really nice job at balancing grain flavours, fermentation flavours, and cask flavours. Try some, if you can find it.

Read my review here.

7. ELIJAH CRAIG SMALL BATCH

You can tell I haven’t had much access to the top rung of bourbon this year….that being said, I enjoyed a bottle of Elijah Craig so much this year - the oak, spice, and corn - that it had to be on the list even if it is far from being near the best bourbons I’ve critically evaluated. But, it’s a great bottling and really hit the spot so many times this year.

I didn’t even post a review of it this year, but my old review will do just fine. Read my review here.

8. MAKER’S 101 PROOF

It isn’t the best Maker’s I’ve had, not in the top 5, and it’s overpriced. But, similarly, this one hit the spot many times this year .Just a solid, enjoyable bourbon.

Read my review here.

9. HIGHLAND PARK CASK STRENGTH

I was thrilled to see this come, and, moreover to be high quality and so intrinsically Highland park - smoky, floral, citrusy, and earthy. Both of the first two batches are terrific.

Read my review here.

10.HIGHLAND PARK 15 YEARS OLD

There has been a 15 for some time, but it’s only just been rebranded as “Viking Heart” (sigh) and making its way to Canada. Not the best, but my favourite Scotch of the year since it has such a nice nose, shows off the incredible complexity of Highland Park at higher ages, and is just delicious.

Read my review here.

My Favourite Whiskies of 2020 by Jason Hambrey

Here is my list of a few favourite drams this year. They are not necessarily the best whiskies I tasted in the past year – but the most memorable.

This year, I didn’t go as hard on the reviews (about a third of last year’s quantity)- but, nonetheless, it was a memorable whisky year and life, for me, as for many, took a few turns which required attention elsewhere!

It was too bad to see a lot of premium Canadian whisky releases get postponed or cancelled due to COVID-related reasons, but we still had a few good ones to go by. I did miss the usual Corby’s collection of a premium Wiser’s, Pike Creek, Gooderham, and Lot no. 40 - but fingers are crossed for next year. I was delighted to see Forty Creek hearken back to the old days with a 20th anniversary bottling of Three Grain.

Scotch continues to get expensive and quality tends to be diluted, but there were a few great finds for me - on the reasonable end (Arran 10) and the more expensive end. These days, I buy less Scotch but am more choosy with what I buy which means I sometime go above what I have in the past on my bottles.

American whisky is doing all sorts of great things, but it’s very competitive to get a lot of the limited stuff and ultimately it means there isn’t much variety of great American whisky in Canada as there used to be. It’s too bad since there is lots of exciting things happening- and, with COVID, I didn’t get across the border as expected to do any whisky shopping.

Oddly enough, there is more Irish varieties coming through Canada and some good finds are there.

I was a lot less active on the spirits scene than in years past - I’ll try to amend that one this year. Another good Barchef bottled cocktail was terrific (a Vesper) and Dillon’s Peach were the two main standouts.

Well, on to the list:

1. North of 7 Single Cask - personal bottling

I can’t help but start here. North of 7 distillery, here in Ottawa, let me and a bunch of friends select one out of ten casks to bottle at cask strength. The favourite was a nearly 6 year old four grain whisky which is a fantastic spice bomb, and packs quite a punch at 74.5%! The process was so much fun, and the whisky is fantastic. We have a barrel of rye stashed away as well to age for a few years…

Read my review here.

2. Arran 10 Year Old

What a fantastic, affordable, Scotch! It is probably my favourite bottle in the cheaper tier of single malts. Just terrific. A consensus winner from a few “budget” Scotch tastings I held this year. (Honarable mentions - I do also think Glenmorangie 10 and Highland Park 10 are terrific too).

Read my review here.

3. Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 14 Year Old

I find the new edition better and it exhibits such wonderful tropical fruits. Awesome stuff.

Read my review here.

4. Little Book Chapter 03

Just a fantastic blend of Jim Beam whiskies. This one is all bourbon, and it’s just a fantastic blend of different mashbills. Too bad about the price (~$140 in Canada) but it probably was my favourite bourbon this year.

Read my review here.

5. Jack Daniel’s Single Cask Rye

Pickings were slim for American whiskies in Canada this year, but this is quite a nice rye with a rich, fruity and spicy character throughout. They’ve done quite well with their rye - it’s quite a far distance from their flagship whisky.

Read my review here.

6. Shelter Point the Collective

Perhaps my favourite Shelter Point to date. A terrific blend - deep, broad, unique and very interesting: smoky, grainy, spicy, fruity, and oaky. A blend of 5 different casks of whisky.

Read my review here.

7. AnCnoc 16 Year Old 125th Anniversary

An awesome cask strength AnCnoc. It’s about all you can ask for from a fruity, malty dram - full of complexity and depth.

Read my review here.

8. Cragganmore 12 Year Old Special Release

A deep, smoky Cragganmore. Just incredible. My favourite Scotch of the past year. I liked this more than the 15 year old Talisker in the Special releases that folks tended to rave about.

Read my review here.

9. Benromach Cask Strength

Well, I might as well wrap up the Scotches. This whisky does the rare balancing act of having a strong sherry, peat, and malt influence almost in even quantity.

Read my review here.

10. Crown Royal Blender’s Select

I’ll always have a weakness for “coffey rye”. It is so welcoming and confectionary - truly one of the world’s most special whiskies.

Read my review here.

11. Glendalough Pure Pot Still Irish Whiskey

This shows off a very different side of pot still, with incredible herbaceous barley notes. What is more, it’s matured in Irish oak. Tons of flavour, and very interesting whiskey.

Read my review here.

12. Canadian Club 43 Year Old

My favourite whisky this year, and the only one to get an “exceptional” mark that I reviewed this year. It’s incredible in complexity, subtlety, and richness. Nothing like the core lineup from Canadian Club, if anyone wondered.

Read my review here.

Honorable Mentions: I quite liked a bottle of Glenfarclas 105 that I got before the quarantine hit, and the Bruichladdich Bere Barley did not disappoint. Also, the Shelter Point Single Cask Peat Finish at cask strength was fantastic as was Smoke Point edition 2, and Two Brewers Batch 18.

My Favourite Non-Whisky Spirits of 2019 by Jason Hambrey

I have had so many good spirits last year that I thought it was worth putting out a non-whisky spirits list on its own. In particular, there are a number of fantastic Canadian gins out there from small producers which are just terrific (Black Fox Dry and Oaked are also honourable mentions). And, the usual from elsewhere. Sadly, it’s hard to find too much really interesting rum in Ontario so it’s been difficult to explore that area much - although I’m happy to see Plantation finding its way over.

1. Steinhart Dry and Rhubarb Gin

Steinhart Dry Gin might be my favoute gin ever. They even take care to make it with fresh citrus peels! Mostly, producers use dried. Luckily, this Nova Scotian gin has made it over to Ontario.

Their Rhubarb Gin is also just terrific - full of spice and rhubarb tangy fruitiness. Some sweetness balnaces it all out. Awesome stuff. Also, their blueberry gin is quite intriguing as well - as an honourable mention.

2. Parlour Gin

Eau Claire distillery is putting out some decent whisky, but their gin is just terrific and has found its way into winning a few worthy awards at the World Gin Awards as a result. Really nice stuff.

Read my review here.

3. Willibald Gin

A gin for whisky drinkers. Aged, big, and oaky - with a body that suits the heavy cask finish. It’s much more than a gin which is finished in oak - this is a big, bold spirit made for aging in a cask which will lend a lot of cask influence. I’ve tasted this at many whisky tasting in which whisky connoisseurs who don’t like gin come away wanting to get a bottle.

Read my review here.

4. Sheringham Akvavit

Sheringham makes this anise-flavoured Nordic liquer in a way that really brings out the base spirits and the spices. An awesome spirit - for sipping but also especially in cocktails. Try, if you get the chance!

Read my review here.

5. Vodkow

Yes, a vodka. It tastes like a vodka, like a good one - but it still is a vodka which aren’t worth much to sip, for me at least. But, this is made from milk byproducts in a way that is good for the environment - so, it may be a vodka - but this is very memorable.

Read my review of here.

6. Summer Breeze Pastis

I’ve only recently started to like Pastis, and I’m picky about them and don’t have much selection here in Ontario. This is made in Ottawa, and it is awesome! Big, spicy, with a good kick of grapefruit. Incredible stuff.

Read my review here.

7. Pierre Ferrand Renegade Barrel Chestnut Cask

We can’t get away with no amount of brown spirits in the top spirits list, can we? Here is something unique - a cognac, finished in casks made from chestnut wood, and bottled above the ubiquitous 40% for cognac - at 47%, delivering great flavor and finish. And it tastes great.

Read my review here.

8. Gunpowder & Rose Rum

The Newfoundland distillery crafted something pretty unique here - trying to emulate gunpowder soaked rum by adding charred birch and kelp and salt to recreate some of the charcoal and Sulphur notes. And, added some wild newfoundland roses for a good lift. Pretty cool stuff!

Read my review here.

9. Rum Fire

This is a pot still Jamaican rum, made at the remarkable Hampden distillery and bottled at a healthy 57%. It’s a white rum, full of esters and all kinds of briny and fruity notes. It’s incredibly complex, and costed nearly nothing. I wish I had brought back a number of bottles rather than just a mini to try. It describes itself as “Exceptionally Smooth” - I think it is far from that. But, I do think it is “exceptional”.

My review for this is coming tomorrow!

My Favourite Whiskies of 2019 (Part 2) by Jason Hambrey

The second dozen of my favourite whiskies of 2019. These are almost all Canadian (Mister Sam is part Canadian, part American). We had a few lovely surprises, such as Alberta Premium releasing a 20 year old and a cask strength 100% rye at over 65%. And the micro-distillers continue to impress…

1. Mister Sam Tribute Whisky

A blend of Canadian and American whiskies from Sazerac in honour of Mister Sam Bronfman, one of the most legendary whisky figures. It was bottled at 66.9% and is one of the best whiskies I have ever tasted.

Read my review here.

2. Alberta Premium Cask Strength

Yes, this is a whopper! It really delivers on flavor. Nice to see Alberta Premium start to engage the connoisseur market as their usual bottom shelf stuff belongs there - but they make the best rye on the planet.

Read my review here.

3. Shelter Point Single Cask Virgin Oak Finish

This whisky came in right at the end of the year, and I absolutely love it. I found Shelter Point really started to move from good to great last year, and this is one of my favourite whiskies they’ve released - indeed, one of my favourite whiskies ever from a small producer. It is part of a series of single casks that have all been good - a cask strength rye, a Foch wine barrel finish, “Smoke Point” an Islay (Laphroaig) finish, and now this.

Read my review here.

4. Shelter Point Avant-Garde Barley (Bottled for the Strath Liquor Store)

A cask strength Shelter Point, finished in an ex-blackberry wine cask. These cask strength wine finishes (often bottled for specialty liquor stores) are very worthy buys if you can find them. Shelter Point’s Double barrel also receives an honourable mention.

Read my review here.

5. Two Brewers Peated - Batch 12.

I think Two Brewers is currently the only small craft distiller who can compete with the big distilleries for the best whisky made in Canada. This whisky was incredibly complex, interesting, and more smoky than their previous batches.

Read my review of here.

6. Fils du Roy Rye

Lots of elderflower on this very unique New Brunswick rye whisky. Full in flavor and balanced - I first found out about this after marking it very highly in a massive blind tasting.

Read my review here.

7. North of 7, Four Grain, Barrel 5

At well over 5 years of age, this whisky really starts to shine. Really awesome stuff - I’ve shared multiple bottles of this to very appreciative audiences. I only buy a handful of whiskies a year, and rarely multiples - but I bought three of these and may go back for more (if any are left).

Read my review here.

8. Pike Creek 21 Year Old Oloroso Sherry Finish

I actually didn’t think Sherry would pair well with well aged light Canadian corn whisky. I was very wrong.

Read my review here.

9. Wiser’s 23 Year Old Cask Strength

Again, I was wrong here. I thought a cask strength 20+ year old light Canadian corn whisky would just be full of nail polish remover at cask strength. But, somehow, Wiser’s pulled off a stunner of a whisky.

Read my review here.

10. Gooderham & Worts 49 Wellington 19 Years Old

Might as well give the hat trick to Corby’s/Wiser’s. Of every whisky I tried this year, this one begged a second dram the strongest, among them all. I found it difficult to only have one. Really nice stuff.

Read my review here.

11. Hochstadter’s 16 Year Old Family Reserve

Another Alberta rye, at 16 years of age and massive in flavor - but bottled by an independent bottler. Just awesome.

Read my review here.

12. Hochstadter’s Vatted Rye Whisky

A blend of ryes from the USA and Canada. I think it is just absolutely fantastic. If I lived in an area where I could buy this, it would be my everyday whisky.

Read my review here.