Category Archives: whisky

A Shot with a Beer Back: The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve & Tree Hop Head Double IPA

Each weekday this week, I’ll be posting a pair of mini-reviews covering selections from the latest additions to the LCBO’s Whisky Shop premium whisky program, and the products in the LCBO’s Spring 2011 Specialty Beer promotion. Today’s picks are a blended whisky that surprises, and a hotly anticipated beer that lives up to the hype.

The Famous Grouse Gold Reserve (LCBO 220764 – $39.95/750 mL)

At first glance, including a less-than-$40 blended whisky in a line-up that features primarily higher-end single malts seems like an odd move on the part of the LCBO. But just as the standard Famous Grouse is one of the best entry-level blended Scotches available, the Gold Reserve is a fantastic mid-level blend that rivals some single malts in complexity and quality. It offers a nice balance of flavours, with fruit (especially apricot) and spice off the top, peated grain and sherry wood in the middle, and smooth caramel notes in the finish. A really great whisky, and an amazing value.

Tree Brewing Hop Head Double IPA (LCBO 209346 – $5.35/650 mL)

As one of the first American-style Double IPAs to ever be widely available in Ontario, the anticipation among Ontario beer geeks for the arrival of this beer was such that it’s been selling out almost instantly as it hits the shelves, which means it might be hard to track down. But if you do manage to get a bottle, you won’t be disappointed – assuming you’re looking for some red-hot hop action, of course. Reddish copper with a thick and creamy off-white head, it throws off a delicious aroma of pine resin and candied citrus peel, with caramel malt notes playing second banana. In the flavour, the malt comes forward a bit more, giving some balance to the big hops that sing out with pine, spruce and grapefruit. The full body gets a little syrupy as it warms, but not to the point of being cloying. Fantastic stuff, and if you want to see how it stacks up against a great Double IPA from south of the border, grab some Southern Tier Gemini (LCBO 211425 – $9.00/650 mL bottle) which is also part of the Spring release.

A Week of Whisky: Red Stag by Jim Beam

Right. So, my weekend off from writing means that what was supposed to be a week of whisky posts is now extended into a second week. Let’s just pretend, shall we?

I’ll start this one by stating right up front that I don’t hold much truck with flavoured versions of traditionally unflavoured spirits. I make an exception for booze that’s house-infused at fancy bars, since they’re generally working with natural ingredients, and doing interesting things with the end result. But store bought hooch that’s spiked with artificial flavouring? Call me crazy, but when I drink gin or rum or bourbon, I usually want to taste gin or rum or bourbon.

So when a bottle of Red Stag by Jim Beam (LCBO 198200 – $26.95/750 mL) arrived last week, and I saw “Black Cherry Flavoured Bourbon Whiskey” emblazoned on the label, I’ll admit that I was predisposed to dislike it even before I opened it. Seeing “Sugar” and “Artificial Flavour(s)” * on the ingredients list didn’t do much to alleviate my concern.

* Yes, the bottle in the photo above says “Infused with Natural Flavors”. It’s from the U.S. website. So either they’re using a different formula south of the border, or the rules about what’s “Natural” are looser down there.

But as always, I did my best to tamp down my prejudgment so I could approach and review this new-to-Canada product as fairly as possible.

(See what I do for you people? I really hope you appreciate it.)

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A Week of Whisky: Master of Malt – Drinks by the Dram

As I noted a couple of posts back, I’m far from being an expert on whisky, and a lot of that has to do with the limited exposure I’ve had to it.

Sure, I’ve been lucky enough in the past couple of years to attend a fair number of media tastings, and the samples that arrive at my door from time to time are appreciated as well. But even with all of that, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there in the wide world of whisky (and whiskey, and bourbon, etc.), and quite frankly, the main thing holding me back from becoming a serious whisky nerd is the cost. I’d love to have a cabinet stocked with all my favourite spirits from Scotland and Ireland and the Southern US and beyond – but until I win the lottery or find some other path to wealth, it just ain’t gonna happen.

The folks at Master of Malt, a whisky and spirits mail order service the UK, know that there are a lot of people like me out there. And while they can’t go so far as to start sending us free bottles of anything we want – because as nice as that would be, it’s really not much of a business model – they’ve done the next best thing with an initiative called Drinks by the Dram, in which they’re offering a selection of items from their inventory of 3000+ whiskies and spirits in 30 mL samples that start at £1.95 per cute l’il bottle.

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A Week of Whisky: The Macallan

While I do get around to writing about whisky eventually in this post, there’s a bit of meandering along the way. If you only care about the booze, feel free to skip to the last few paragraphs – but if you do that, you’ll be missing a good rant!

Also, sorry for the crap photos – I forgot my camera and was using my two-years-old-but-already-ancient iPhone.

And yes, I know that I’ve already missed a posting day in this supposed Week of Whisky. No need to rub it in…

Writing for TAPS Magazine, TasteTO, this blog and a few other places has put me in an odd position of being somewhere between a blogger and “real” media in the eyes of many PR firms and others who are looking to pitch stories. And believe me when I say that there can be a big difference between the way that some PR folks approach and treat bloggers versus more traditional or established media outlets.

In the case of blogs, pitches are often filled with loads of mumbo-jumbo about “tastemakers” and “social media outreach” and “influencers” and such. They can  also try to build a false air of mystery around whatever product is being promoted, saying only that we should “save the date” for the launch of an “exciting new high end spirit” at a “trendy downtown location,” or similar nonsense.

Pitches aimed at more traditional media, however, tend to be straightforward and to the point. The PR companies know that people who write for a living generally don’t have the time or the patience to deal with extraneous fluff and bullshit, so they simply say what’s going to be offered, where and when. Easy peasy.

A couple of months back, I was able to make a good comparison of these two approaches when I received invitations to a tasting event for The Macallan whisky from two different sources.

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A Week of Whisky: Gibson's Finest

I’m not sure if it’s a reaction to my articles on Glenfiddich and Jack Daniel’s posted to TasteTO last fall, or just a general increase in the number of tasting events being held and promo samples being sent out. But whatever the reason, I’ve seen a serious spike in pitches to do stories on whisky recently – so much of a spike that I have quite a backlog of notes and samples to get through and write up.

While it might be a bit optimistic of me given my usual track record with these sort of things, I’m going to attempt to do a series of daily posts this week covering the various whiskies I’ve sipped and savoured in the past couple of months. I’ll note right up front that even though I love the stuff, I’m far from being a whisky expert, but one of the reasons I want to do this series and future articles on the topic is to help myself learn more about wide variety of whiskies and other related spirits that are out there.

First up is the series is Gibson’s Finest, a Canadian whisky that I’d never tried before a tasting a couple of months back. The history of Gibson’s is long and complicated, and rather than trying to recap it here,  I’ll just mention that the brand is currently owned by William Grant & Sons (also owner of Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and many other whisky and spirit brands), and direct those who would like to know more to this post on the excellent website Canadian Whisky that gives the whole story.

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Catching Up

While I take some time to get things together for some posts I’ve got planned, here are links to the beery and boozy writing I did for Taste T.O. in the couple of months before we put the site on hiatus.

Nov 9th: Beers of the Week – Harviestoun Ola Dubh Series
A review feature on the five Ola Dubh versions – 12, 16, 18, 30 & 40 – that were released at the LCBO recently.

Nov 2nd: Pub Crawl – Parkdale
A virtual tour of five of the best places get a pint in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

Oct 28th: Glenfiddich – Not Just For Newbies
A re-cap of two Glenfiddich tasting events I attended in one day, one of which included the somewhat rare 21 Year Old, and the really rare 40 Year Old.

Oct 26th: Beer of the Week – Creemore Springs urBock
Review of a returning seasonal favourite.

Oct 19th: LCBO Opens The Whisky Shop
A look at the line-up of premium spirits on offer via the LCBO’s new Whisky Shop promotion.

Oct 12th: Beers of the Week – Birrificio Brùton
Some thoughts on the beers of Italy’s Birrificio Brùton, which I enjoyed in the company of brewery founder Iacopo Lenci.

Oct 5th: Pub Crawl – Downtown Yonge
The first installment in the returning Pub Crawl series, and also the first in the new multi-venue format, featuring short write-ups on five bars and pubs in the same neighbourhood.

Sep 28th: Beers of the Week – Here’s to Hallowe’en!
An advance preview of the pumpkin beers and other spooky ales brought in by the LCBO for Hallowe’en this year.

Sep 21st: Beer of the Week – Muskoka Harvest Ale
Review of one of the best seasonal ales available in Ontario this fall.

Sep 14th: Beers of the Week – The Ales of Autumn
Preview of the beers included in the LCBO’s 2010 Autumn Ales promotion.

Sep 7th: Hanging Out With Bud And Jack
Notes on a unique day where I met the men currently responsible for two of America’s most legendary alcohol brands: George F. Reisch, Brewmaster at Anheuser-Busch; and Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s.

I Love Scotch. Scotchy, Scotch, Scotch. Here It Goes Down, Down Into My Belly.


A decade or so ago, I became interested in whisky as more than just something to mix with Coke or ginger ale, and started exploring the parallel worlds of single malts and quality bourbons. After buying a few bottles, I decided that getting serious about it would be too rich for my blood, and started paying more attention to beer instead. But I never lost my taste for the good stuff, and I’m always happy to get an opportunity to tip some back.

So I was pleased to be invited to the Canadian launch of The Balvenie Signature, a new limited bottling from the Balvenie Distillery marking the 45th year of service of Malt Master David Stewart. The event fittingly took place at a gallery in The Distillery District here in Toronto, and started with a talk and tutored tasting – uh, I mean “nosing” – presented by Balvenie’s David Mair, who flew in for a whirlwind visit to host the launch.


(Apologies for the strangely blurred photo – I was using an ancient digital camera in a darkened room, and this was literally the best of the bunch. Although I guess it fits nicely with the “whirlwind visit” comment above…)

The audience for the presentation was a mixed bag of food, drink and lifestyle media, so Mair gave a good overview of the whisky production process, placing particular emphasis on the fact that Belvenie is one of the few distilleries that still grows and malts their own barley (not enough to make all of their whisky, but about 10%-15% of their supply each year), and that has both a coppersmith and a cooperage team on staff.

Mair then explained that for the Signature whisky, David Stewart was asked to create whatever he wished, and he decided to bring together 12-year-old malts from three different casks – first fill bourbon barrels, refill bourbon, and sherry casks – to create a complex but easy drinking whisky.


Based on the nosing/tasting, he seems to have succeeded, as it’s a very enjoyable sipper with fruity notes from the sherry casks, spice and vanilla from the first fill bourbon, and a soft mellow woodiness from the refill. There’s also a faint but discernible smokiness in the finish of the flavour, even though the malt at Balvenie is only lightly smoked during kilning. Moderately complex and very drinkable, just as promised.

Following the media preview, there was a larger reception that I was unable to stick around for, but if I had, I would’ve been treated to an exclusive performance by The Sam Roberts Band (no great loss for me, as I’m not really a fan), and I would assume some food and more Balvenie. But alas, I had stuff to do at home, so off I toddled with a boozy belly and a loot bag containing a beautiful Balvenie glass created by glassblower Clark Guettel.


Should’ve been the end of the story, but when I got home, I found that my wife – who had also been invited to the event, but was unable to make it – had been delivered a consolation prize this afternoon: a small bottle of The Balvenie Signature, packaged with three small vials containing samples of the three cask types that were brought together for the finished product. A very nice little package, and it’s great to have some Signature on hand to break in the new glass.

I’m not sure what the distribution is like elsewhere, but here in Ontario, The Balvenie Signature is available at the LCBO for $72.95.