Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Davin - a passion for all things Canadian Whisky

Happy 1st anniversary to me!  Well, actually I've officially been on twitter for a little over a year and a bit now but over that course of time I have racked up 17,600 tweets.  I've been teased quite a bit about it and was dubbed "twitter queen".  I don't mind because one of the things I have appreciated the most about being on twitter is how it has lifted me onto a much larger playing field.  I'm sure at first I must have been a bit of an enigma always talking about my passion and self proclaimed ambassadorship when it came to Canadian Whiskies and yes I was teased about that as well.  My favorite remarks from whisky imbibers thus far:  Canadian Whisky is "brown vodka" or "good Canadian whisky is an oxymoron".  And honestly no wonder when you see what we end up exporting to the States and overseas.  What gets sent away is the "mixing whisky".  The stuff people ask for when they want a rye & coke.  Hell, even Canadians have no idea how good some of our whiskies are?

I simply can't help who I am which is a very dedicated and serious ambassador when it comes to talking about Canadian Whisky so I started offering to send whisky samples from my own personal collection (I have over 30 bottles) to anyone who wanted some.  People from all over the world started receiving Canadian whisky some as far reaching as New Zealand (Hey Jay!)  I always asked for anyone who received them to be honest and let me know what they thought.  I'm a firm believer that most people were and what came back was 95% were amazed at the taste/flavor and profiles of some of the whiskies I sent.  No, it's not Scotch. So let's not try to compare two completely different whiskies. It's Canadian and that is what makes it unique.  Some people had never experienced the delicate but delicious flavors of 100% rye. Other whiskies I sent like Forty Creek (didn't matter which one I sent) often left people extremely perplexed with the nose/palate being so completely different than any other whisky they ever tasted.  Are all Canadian whiskies fantastic? Hell no but neither are all bourbons or scotches.  Let's be honest there are some real duds out there no matter what type of whisky we are talking about.

courtesy of www.canadianwhisky.org
Someone I was extremely fortunate to befriend very early into my whisky adventures was Davin de Kergommeaux.  It goes without saying (but I'll say it anyway) that he is THE Canadian Whisky Expert.  He has been a great friend, a wonderful mentor and has added so much to my life when it comes to advice about writing and a myriad of other things.  Davin is a scholar, a true gentleman, a Malt Maniac and a passionate Canadian Whisky Geek (that is a huge compliment!!).  It was an honor to be a judge for the 2012 Canadian Whisky Awards and I made the trip out to Victoria where I met several other Malt Maniacs, drank some of the best whiskies and of course hung out with Davin and many others.  2013 has already become a year of leaps and bounds on my crazy but always fantastic whisky journey.  

In late winter a fellow whisky writer created a Facebook Page for Spirits Bloggers and I was invited to join. Yet another wonderful example of what the whisky fabric is about.  Great ideas and creative discussions take place in that group. So when "we" decided to have a huge and very successful Twitter Flash Mob Blog on March 17th it sparked a few more great ideas; one of which was Davin wanting to try something a bit different.  He contacted me and we began to brainstorm. The thought was to create a social media event that would not only promote his book but allow people to try Canadian whiskies for themselves.  We came up with a plan, put it out there to the writers/bloggers and what came back was overwhelming.  We anticipated getting 10-15 interested people but in the end we had 32 ask to take part.  I was gobsmacked!?   

However, with only so many pours in one bottle we had to apologize to 17 and went forward with fifteen.  We had folks from Israel all the way to Oregon USA.  So I set off sending samples, Davin set off sending a few books to those who didn't already have it and between us all we got organized and did something that had never been done on twitter before:  A weekly chat with an author about his book combined with a blind whisky tasting.  

This took place over the course of the month of May on every Sunday at 3:00pm EST.  
We had an assignment every week to read 4 chapters and then on said date/time we all had the opportunity to ask Davin questions about the book, the experience of writing it, Canadian whisky and/or the individual chapters.  At the 30 minute mark we would break open one of the mystery samples, nose/taste and try to guess what it was with of course the big reveal at the end of the hour.  I was happy to volunteer myself as the keeper of questions and moderator and Davin did a fantastic job fielding and answering the rapid fire questions in 140 characters!  STUPENDOUS feat in itself...  :)  

So what came of it?  Every week, our numbers grew. More people started to join us for the chat.  Some followers poured a Canadian whisky and bounced along with us while others went out and bought the book and joined in with questions/discussions. It was a great way to get people talking about Canadian Whisky the portable expert and walk people through a nosing/tasting of some really good whiskies.

By Sunday May 26th our numbers had almost reached 50.  One as far as Australia (up at 4:30am!?) poured a sample I had sent him and watched the twitter feed (#DavinTT).  It truly was an exhilarating experience to take part and what I came away with was how much fun it was to read and watch Davin breathe life into his book for all of us on twitter.   So many great questions came out of the sessions and I personally feel like "we" were getting the word out about the real history of Canadian whisky.  Debunking so many misconceptions and myths (don't drink the kool-aid as Davin always says).   The "tah dah" moment for me was watching people react to the 4 whiskies Davin chose:  Lot 40, Alberta Premium Dark Horse, Danfield's 21 and Forty Creek Portwood Reserve 2012.  Did everyone LOVE every single one of them, of course not?! Some thought a few were less then stellar but that is truly a subjective thing.  For me they ranked: Forty Creek, Danfield's, Lot 40 then Dark Horse which surprised me because I initially loved the Dark Horse and hated the Lot 40 about 6 months ago. Regardless, the point was to have people from all corners of the world have the opportunity to try read and then try these beauties and I'm beyond happy they did. 

Canadian whisky can be GREAT.  The people like Davin who have a passion about them are making sure the word gets out and the people like me, well we share.  The old story goes:  Give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish he eats for the rest of his life. Well, Davin is out to teach us all about Canadian Whisky and my belief is once you taste is you'll be willing to try/buy them for life. 

As a result of this great little event I have received many twitter, facebook and email messages from people thanking us for the experience.  My favorite so far is this one: "This has indeed quite broadened my horizons and has opened my eyes (and palate) to the wonderful world of Canadian whiskies, about which, I'm afraid I knew nothing about.
Because of your kind invitation to join in, I have made amazing discoveries ( I have yet to recover from the exquisite pleasure brought on by last week's Danfield's 21 year old Limited Edition) and learned that great whiskies are being made in our own backyard! Thank you again,  Maryse"

This is what fuels my passion.  Congrats Davin on a job well done, not only on the book which is a fantastic award winning read but on truly being the Canadian Whisky Expert!  If you haven't purchased a copy yet, I urge you to.  Available at book stores, online and in E-book format.  

Better yet, Father's Day is around the corner so tell your kids you want this:

A) It's a very well written book about whisky.


B) It's way better than a tie!

Continuing my work/passion for all things Canadian Whisky, I remain...

The Lassie

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Stalk & Barrel Canadian Single Malt Whisky - Still Waters Distillery

"And what is good, Phaedrus, 
And what is not good 
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"  Robert Pirsig

Two friends had a goal: The desire to produce Canadian Single Malt Whisky and so... they did. In 2009 the spirit flowed and started going into barrels. Just short of four years later on April 27th, 2013 the first bottles of Stalk & Barrel Single Malt were on the market thus becoming only the 2nd distillery in Canada to do so. So here's the funny thing:  Their address is 150 Bradwick Drive, Unit #26 in Concord, Ontario north of Toronto. 

It's not an estate with acres of land fed by natural mountain spring water nor is it a state of the art multi-million dollar venture like Shelter Point BC (no offence).  Not even close! They call themselves Ontario's first "micro-distillery" and with good reason. Still Waters is located in a small industrial strip mall within a space that has less square footage then my home, 1200 to be exact. Yet when you step inside it has everything they need to make whisky - raw materials, a pot still, barrels, storage area, bottles, etc and 2 very loyal people: Barry Stein and Barry Bernstein. Founders, owners, mashers, distillers and bottle washers of Still Waters Distillery since January 2009. If you want to learn more about their journey, dedication and products please visit their website:
https://www.stillwatersdistillery.com/  Go check it out, I'll wait... 

Ok good you're back, on with the story then.  
Some distilleries tell you their products are made by hand. Having been at Still Waters very recently and seeing it with my own two eyes this is not something Barry & Barry exaggerate about. They have a hand in every aspect of their operations from grain to glass and produce 2 barrels/week. After a quick walk about we were treated to sampling their spirits. First I tried the new makes (single malt then 100% rye), some tasted the vodka (me not so much) and then I moved on to Cask #1, #2, #3 and their blend "1+11".  

From the moment I plunged my nose into the single malt new make I knew something was quite different about this whisky. For those of us who regularly imbibe, go to shows or visit distilleries you can pretty much identify/recognize new make. It has a very particular aroma and for me that is rum raisin ice cream. NOT THIS ONE. It truly threw me for a loop because it's quite different. It has some really unique aromas that reminded me of gin. I'm not saying it smelled like gin but rather the new make had a very botanical, clean and green smell. I called it "herbaceous". I found it quite pleasant on the nose but it left me quite perplexed as I have never encountered a whisky new make that smelled like that. After talking to Barry Bernstein about it, he stated that he thinks it's because their "heart" cuts were quite tight and that was their goal - to have as clean and precise of a cut as possible.  I like that my nose detected that as it makes me appreciate my ability even more. 
Barry S. & Barry B.
I also wanted to know why they decided to bottle at cask strength for Cask 1 & 2?  Simple:  A bit of consumer research and feedback showed that's what "we" wanted.  I've looked around on the internet and to the best of my ability did not find any other distillery in Canada currently doing that.  I've also seen and taken part in plenty of discussions on facebook group pages as well as twitter about people wanting a cask strength Canadian whisky.  
The next question I had was how the decision was made to come to market so early as their whisky is still in its infancy.  Why not wait a few more years?  The reply was twofold:  They both felt, albeit young, that the whisky was ready and of course because they are such a small endeavor there is a bit of a financial reason as well.  There are "people" looking to see where all this money goes? Let's face it, it takes money to stay open. Yes, they have other products that certainly help create the funds to keep them afloat while the whisky ages but in the end they are whisky makers so with confidence in their cask strength the decision to go to market was made.  

Back to the whiskies:  Of all the ones I tried, I preferred Cask 2 & 3 so they ended up coming home to NB with me.  I paid $70 for #3, bottled at 46%.  I paid $100 for #2.  Did your mouth fall open?  I'll repeat: I paid $100 for single cask, cask strength whisky that is less then 4 years old.  Do you think I'm nuts? Some people I've talked to have said I am and some went as far to say: "I wouldn't pay that much for a new whisky no matter where it was from.  I would wait until some of their stock is older".  This started a huge debate in my own head:  If everyone had that attitude and nobody bought their whisky now what is the likelihood Barry & Barry will survive financially?  Is $100 too much for such a young whisky?  And so began the writing process...   

I did a bit of research and found that most distilleries overseas will sell young whisky - cask strength/single cask releases for $75-$135 and some independent bottlers like SMWS only sell whisky that way.  Their 5 year old "Jar Jar Binks in trouble again" sells for $90.00.  While I'm at it, let's go down this road: What about the latest rage of paying crazy prices for NAS whiskies?  Ardbeg Galileo is $120 in Canada.   

I don't think I'm crazy and here's why. Still Waters Distillery is not a sterile billionaire conglomerate company hyping up a mediocre, 
Best marketing nomination?
dare I say "Walmart" whisky nor do they have a marketing department whipping up whisky drinkers into a frenzy believing that this is the ultimate most fantastic whisky you will ever collect/buy. No, what we have here are two guys investing in good quality materials from start to finish who stand shoulder to shoulder while buying the right barley, casking their spirits, filling bottles then sweeping the floor before they lock up for the night. I know, roll your eyes all you want with the sappy story.  Every distillery has one?  Well, Barry & Barry are making history. That's not that easy in Canada's distillery business and even less so with today's economy. Do you know how many times Glenora (the other little guys who make single malt in Canada) have declared bankruptcy and changed hands?  Plenty!  Glen Breton 10 year old "artisan whisky" is $76.00. Are there any other Canadian Whisky Distilleries bottling at cask strength or even making single malt?  No.

So, why wouldn't I pay $100 for a Single Cask/Cask Strength Canadian Single Malt? There's only one reason I can think of- If I thought it was a wolf in sheep's clothing.  However, this is not the casewith Still Waters Distillery whiskies.  They submitted their blend 1+11 for the Canadian Whisky Awards Competition in 2012 and I rated it quite highly (blind). In my opinion: The care taken in every step of making their products is quite apparent in the flavor and quality of their spirits.  So yes I will pay $100 for their single malt - single cask - cask strength whisky.  I'll also pay $70 for their 46% casking and $35 for their 1+11 blend.  Why?  Because it's good quality whisky, that's why. 

Stalk & Barrel Single Malt Whisky, Cask 2, Bottle#15 Single Cask/Cask Strength - Distilled 2009/Bottled 2013.  61.3% ABV (un-chillfiltered, no added color)

Color: Golden honey.  Legs plentiful, thin but very viscous.

Nose: Loads of honey at the front with a backdrop of fresh cut hay.  Floral in nature but more like spring blossoms on a tree (quite a green quality to it). The sweetness almost makes my mouth water.  Very reminiscent of Mackmyra 1st edition. With water (and it can take quite a bit), there's a lovely sultana raisin quality that is brought out - juicy almost grape like.  The honey turns to a vanilla custard.  Very nice nose indeed.

Palate:  At cask strength, it "spanks" your mouth.  Very prominent flavor or cedar or fresh planked wood.   Spicy "hot" like biting/chewing a fresh piece of ginger root.  A bit bitter, almost white grapefruit pith at the back corners of my mouth.  With water - tones down the heat of the ginger and becomes more like granny smith apple peels, a bit "malty bitter".  Again, the fresh and clean quality of chlorophyll is very apparent with the addition of water.  

Finish:  HOT!  Takes your breath away at 61.3%.  Left with a warm, lingering and yet drying effect.  Very spicy but there's flavors of sweetness there too.

I think I actually preferred it without water even if at that strength.  I'm actually surprised at how balanced it is for such a young whisky.  

That is the most important point I want to stress:  It's a very young whisky.  Not even the makers try to dispute that.  BUT... as I stated it's a quality whisky that is not only beautiful on the nose but very flavorful on the palate.  Yes, it has a really hot finish and it's probably a bit raw around the edges but I really don't see it as any different then the other "young bucks" in my collection: Kilchoman, Mackmyra, Kilkerran or Balcones as examples?  I will gladly offer Stalk & Barrel to friends or for sample trades and have already started doing so.  

Case in point:  A friend came over for supper last weekend and brought with her a Macallan 1824 Estate Reserve she purchased for $235 at a Duty Free shop abroad.  We opened & drank my Stalk & Barrel #3 (46% ABV) and she shared her Macallan with the rest of us.  She was heavily disappointed in hers and didn't think it was a reputable whisky brand worth the money she had paid.  When I told her how much I paid for Stalk & Barrel she was even more adamant it was a much better whisky for the value then the "other" stuff (I won't say what she actually called it after that).  Does it prove that a large brand name and expensive means better quality?  I don't know but it certainly makes me wonder sometimes as to what some people think that means.  I'd rather pay for quality vs name brand and don't get me wrong sometimes they do go hand in hand.  Mind you that seems to be happening less and less because it certainly feels sometimes like the whisky world is going to hell in a pretty handmade stamped mahogany box??!! I.E. -> Tuesday of this week someone paid 401 Euros for a 50ml sample of Ardbeg Ardbog on E-Bay.  Do you still think I'm crazy for my choice to purchase Still Waters? 

So to those of you who don't see the value in paying $100 for a whisky that isn't even 4 years old move along and continue to enjoy your expensive or very old bottles after all it's your dime.  BUT if you are someone who has an appreciation for quality then by all means at least try some and decide for yourself if you think it's quality for value. 

It's available in Ontario, soon to be released in Alberta, New Brunswick and in some of the USA.  

I don't normally post other people's opinions but the following two are Malt Maniacs and serious whisky imbibers whose "opinions" seems to be trusted by the masses.  If these two gentlemen are talking about Still Waters, I might not be as crazy as you think? :) 

http://whiskycast.com/episode-424-may-12-2013/ - At the 26:00 minute mark of Mark Gillespie's episode as well Still Waters website has Mark's notes/score.

http://t.co/TPNBmq49Mo He also visited the distillery.  I will post his interview with Barry & Barry once he airs it.

I've said for the last 4-5 years that we were on the brink of creating great whiskies.  John Hall from Forty Creek has opened that flood gate and as a result many more new and delicious whiskies are coming out of the wood work (pardon the pun).  Brink no more!  Canadian Whisky is here so don't limit yourself to your father's Crown Royal. I mean of course if you are happy with the "Walmart" stuff used to mix with Coke go for it.  But if you are ready for 100% ryes, whiskies bottled above 40% ABV, some that are finished in port/sherries or others released at Single Cask Strength get out there and at least try them!  Better yet, support Canadian and buy them.  Make no mistake, I do and will continue to do so.  I guess that makes me a self professed Canadian Whisky Ambassador somehow :) 

I am proud to buy and drink the whiskies I like.  Stalk & Barrel Cask Strength is very good.  Not only am I happy to have it in my personal collection, I look forward to sharing it and getting more.

Thanks Barry & Barry.  Oh.... and Phaedrus!


Psssst!   Oh good, you are still here.  So another funny thing sort of happened while I was at the distillery. I thought I was picking up a small 50 ml sample for a fellow whisky writer, to which Barry & Barry obliged happily.  When I got home and told the friend I had his sample, he advised he had already picked up his own bottles.  So I ended up with a free sample...  If you are still reading and would like to win that sample, please retweet my story and I'll be drawing a name at random on Sunday May 26th.  

Friday, May 17, 2013

The honesty about honesty, honestly...

LASSIE:  Ever stop and watch serendipity place things right in your lap?  Maybe you might not notice right away but then something clicks and you say:  Hey, what a minute and suddenly you piece everything together.  No?  Well, it happens to me quite often.  Case in point:  Honesty.

Honesty situation #1: What did she just say??  It began last week while I was in Toronto.  We were fortunate enough to tour two whisky distilleries.  One fairly established in the Canadian Industry and the other brand new.  While I was at the  newest distillery I sampled several things:  Single Malt new make, 2 different cask strengths and a 46% ABV.  The new make was, well "new make'ish" for a lack of a better term:  Hot, very young and white.  However, something a bit odd trickled into my head. It reminded me of gin.  Yup, gin.  Did I want to tell Barry & Barry that I felt like I was smelling a gin when I should have been using whisky words!?  Well I could have as that would have been the most honest of answers but I stopped myself from blurting that out and tried to deconstruct what exactly made me think of gin. 

Botanicals often used in Gin
Distilled Gin: Re-distillation of 96% ethyl alcohol, juniper berries and botanicals (I'm keeping that definition really simple).  Breaking it down on the nose it was really green (chlorophyll) and herbal.  The word herbaceous popped into my head and that really seemed to fit, so I said it:  "This new make smells herbaceous".  We were 6 people standing around and everyone sort of looked at me. I don't remember who spoke up but they repeated the word I had used as a descriptor, then a few jokes were made and we moved on.  The point I'd like to make is no whisky maker wants to hear their product smells like gin (well at least I don't think they would, I could be wrong?) so I was hoping in my own way to state what I thought was different about the new make.  I have never smelled a new make like it before so I'm hoping it's proof they are making something quite unique and that's reflected once it goes to sleep for a few years.  I think I handled that in a good and honest way.

Honesty situation #2:  Some people just can't handle the "truth".  Two weeks ago we had a team building exercise (groan...) and at the end of the session we all agreed that we could speak to each other in a very honest way without repercussions or taking the information personally.  Well, that lasted exactly 8 business days.  I despise ineffective and wasteful meetings.  Tuesday of this week, a 30 min conference call had drug over 2+ hours.   A rambler...  The kind that likes to share every detail right down to what time they stopped to talk to someone in the hallway at 8:22 had the table.  After trying to remain patient for almost 15 minutes, I interrupted and asked if "we" still needed to be on the call.  It wasn't so much what I said that hurt that person immensely, it was how I said it.  The whole thing turned into a shit show.  Some people left crying and my boss was dumbfounded. Fuuuudddddggggeeeeee.  My delivery sucks, I've known this for years.  I come across as very abrasive, direct, aggressive, etc..   Great for project management, not so good in a "team environment".  My boss called me later on in the day and advised I had probably burned a few bridges, hurt some people's feelings quite badly and I should probably learn to keep my mouth shut (didn't exactly say it that way, but I got the just of it).  So, in situation #2, I realized even though people agree you can be honest, you can't be sometimes or at least you have to be really careful how you say it.  So, with that coworker, I know I need to be more "gentle" in a rounder way as to not "punch them in the face" with my brutal honesty.   Lesson learned.

Honesty situation #3:  Twitter tastings, are you being honest, honestly? This one, really has me perplexed as I play devil's advocate on the subject in my own head, often.  

Balblair TT I recently participated in - DELISH!
I've been on twitter for one year now.  I've been lucky enough to have been invited/chosen for a few whisky twitter tastings, but on average I'm just a little league player compared to some who seem to be on the panels regularly. Here's where I struggle so I'm trying to write this as honestly as I can:  I follow about 75% of the twitter tastings that go on.  I also pay attention to details.  Some of the regulars who tend to get on most of the panels (very small number) have a tendency to LOOOOOVE every single nose/palate from every sample bottle they receive and are tweeting about (Spoken like Captain Kirk, emphasis on every.. single... word... as its own sentence, of course...)  Hmmmm, doesn't that make you wonder about the validity of some of these whiskies?

Where is the integrity?  Where is the honesty in that? Why would someone play up every single dram they are tweeting about like it's the nectar of the whisky Gods?!  How does the help the people making the whisky or any of us that might want to buy it?  Ok, yes.. nobody should say #fail!?  This is utter crap...  etc..   But surely to those of us who are quite serious and are truly passionate, isn't it our responsibility when we are chosen for these types of panels to be honest?  If there's something unbalanced about the whisky, why not say so?  If it's hot/young, wouldn't we all expect to see that in a tweet somewhere? How about it's a great whisky but I don't think the common person would afford to pay $350 for it?  No, you don't see those types of comments - really rare.  Are some people scared to say honestly what they think for fear the organizers won't pick them again?
Ok, so what's the purpose of the twitter tasting to begin with?  Well obviously (I think anyway) to get the whiskies read about, some global attention, publicity, sales...  So it only makes sense that the organizers as well as the whisky companies want great remarks, amazing reviews!  Right??   Would I invite people to try whiskies and then have them say "these are terrible"?  Of course not.   But do I or you want a bunch of hyped up and in some cases (not all) untrue comments about what's being nosed/tasted?  I would certainly hope not.  Don't the whisky makers want comments that are truthful especially if there is room for improvement on a whisky they are making?

In my opinion as a self professed whisky geek I think there needs to be more honesty when it comes to these twitter tastings and blogs that follow and here's why:  Because the rest of the world following along on will eventually (if not already) realize that all the rosy, rainbow and thesaurus
descriptors are not necessarily the truth and the credibility of these types of tastings will go down the tubes...   Now that is my opinion, doesn't mean it's right or wrong it's what I've noticed seems to happen more and more during tastings (and yes, I take notes).  I know which bloggers are being consistently honest and which few I feel are either scared to be honest (out of fear of retaliation) or worse (I hope it's not the case) might be in it for the free whisky.   

I recently helped organize two twitter tastings and I'd like to think we picked people we knew would be objective, honest and could provide constructive criticism. I've gone back to look at the #TT thread and saw that most spoke up if they didn't like something but in a respectful and constructive way. I think every tasting, virtual or otherwise should be done by the participants in that manner anyway?

AND honestly:  If we want twitter tastings and bloggers to be taken seriously as part of the whisky world then we should be ensuring we have people who demonstrate constructive criticism with integrity on the panels, shouldn't we?  Oh and as a side bar it's refreshing to see different people from time to time too, not the same 20 twitterers. Diversity is a great tool than can be used to reach new audiences. 

And if you pay close attention, like I do... you'll quickly notice those who LOVE, LOOOVE, LOOOOVE the whiskies while they tweet or in their blog reviews but behind the scenes or after the tweet panel is done they will easily state:  "That was shite and I would never buy it".  Sad and like I stated earlier really doesn't help anyone, including them.

Will this blog burn a bridge, maybe?  Is my honesty too much, maybe? Do you agree or disagree - I would be interested in hearing your opinion as I'm keen on seeing how I did with situation #3. 

Lassie, doing what the sign says... 

Until next time, if I haven't offended you :)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Is the Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala worth attending? Damn skippy it is!!!

My goal this year was to attend 5 whisky events across Canada.  Spirit of Toronto has officially been checked off as #3. My parameters:  Cost (accommodations, events, classes, etc), Venue (Locale, food, geographic location), Classes (Quality, type, length), Main event (Availability of whiskies, venue, services, knowledge of exhibitors, etc.) & Overall personal experience (People, place, Whisky).  Scoring system:  A (Exceptional value), B (Great Value), C (70-80 Good value), D (Some value) and F (Fail) - Waste of time.

Here we go:  The Spirit of Toronto Whisky Gala has been running for 9 years.  It's produced by Johanna Ngoh who is known as an independent and outspoken reviewer of the whisky business.  SoT bills itself as the largest whisky show in Canada. It's a one evening event every year in May.  If you would like more information please visit their website at:

Pro #1 - It's held in Toronto which is easily accessible from any airport in the world.  

Pro #2 - Although only a one day event, it offers something for everyone (novice to full out whisky geeks)

Con #1:  Waited a long time for ticket info and confirmed classes (that's hard for someone coming from out of town that has to make flight & hotel arrangements)

Con #2:  I am a bit confused wit the definition of largest whisky show in Canada.  Largest how?

Accommodations: The first of my chosen events not to have the venue at a hotel, so that meant doing a bit more research.  The SoT website offered 2 hotels with show rates: Fairmount Royal York and Marriott Residence Inn.  Fairmount rate $229/SoT rate $159.  Marriott rate $299/SoT rate $159.  Best deal I could find online (not related to show) for both: $129 for Fairmount and $179 for Marriott.  So, I took the $129 rate and saved $75.  

Heart of Downtown Toronto
The Fairmount Royal York is one of Toronto's oldest finest hotels.  Fact:  They have 3 bee hives on the 13th floor roof terrace.  The bees make about 700 lbs of honey every year and help pollinate the in-house herb/flower garden the kitchen uses. (thought I would share that, hehe).  It truly was a lovely stay at their hotel.

Events:  Nice selection and very unique: BBQ, Bourbon & Blues, Sipping with Ralfy (from Ralfy's Canadian Bothy), Whisky Cocktail lounge (with renown cocktail designers:  Yuki Yamasaki & Kentaro Wada) and an open poolside terrace to enjoy a cigar and a whisky (if that's your thing).  The only one that had a cost: Bourbon, BBQ & Blues - $10.00.  The others were part of your general admission ticket which was $135.

Classes:  12 classes total offered & ranged from $15 - $55.  They all sold out before the show.

Cost for my tickets:  $235 (Three master classes, early bird entry and show ticket)  

Total cost for lodging & whisky related events:  $533.



Roy Thomson Hall is situated in the downtown theater district of Toronto.  On bus, tram and subway route.  

Pro #1:  Walking distance to hotel and everything else.  Literally at the heart of Toronto.

Pro #2:  Beautiful facility for this event.

Pro #3:  Spacious for master classes as well as main event.  
Locale:  As odd as this is going to sound the masterclasses seem to take place in the basement.  However, this was actually a plus I think because we were far removed from the main event, it was quiet and staff where everywhere to help with getting to/from the venue.  There was no opportunity to get lost.  Staff was plentiful and extremely helpful.

Food:  Unlike the other shows I have attended this year, the Spirit of Toronto does not take place at a hotel so the "food" portion of the actual event will be reviewed as part of the main showcase event below.  HOWEVER, from a food perspective for Toronto:  Whoa!  
Famous but defunct
We ate well no matter what type of meal we had, and it was never overly expensive.  Found a great cup of coffee in the Distillery district that didn't cost $5.00. Hundreds of great restaurants all within walking distance or a quick subway ride.  Truly great!

Location:  I have to say I'm not a big fan of Toronto however there is so much to see/do.  The transportation system is cheap, fairly easily to use and there isn't anything you can't get to within 20 minutes.  

Quality/type:  If I go back to the definitions I used during Victoria Whisky Festival, the "master classes" were misnamed in some cases.  Some of the master classes, in my opinion, should have been labeled as Grand Tastings:  Chip Tate, Angela D'Orazio, Harlem Wheatley and Michael Urquhart.  

There were 12 classes total available and it was very difficult to only pick two.  How can you pit Chip Tate against Charlie MacLean AND Angela D'Orazio!!!!   So coins were flipped and I had to choose.  So hard!!!

I chose my classes based on "availability".  In other words what was the likelihood I would ever get to see/imbibe with these people again?  So, Icons of Islay from Past to Present with Charlie MacLean and on recommendation from Chris Ste-Croix (fellow blogger) - Single Minded, About more than single malt scotch with Johanna Ngoh.   WELLLL...  neither class disappointed.  Although the whiskies were not crazy impressive (I did enjoy trying the Bowmore 1968) I certainly was impressed in in awe of Charlie MacLean.  He's the type of speaker than makes you feel like you are getting one on one attention and you hang on his every word.  The room was truly mesmerized and not many spoke.  

Johanna's class BLEW me away.  The whiskies are from her personal collection (HER HOUSE!!) and she picked some jaw dropping whiskies to share, with us. I think that is fabulous.  I think they are worth mentioning:

#1:  Sweden - Box - Forsmak 63% ABV, New make.  
1981 Karuizawa
#2: India - Amrut - Greedy Angel 53% ABV (1 of 144)
#3: Scotland - Berry Brother's - Blue Hanger 6th rel, 45.6% ABV
#4: Scotland - Girvan 48 year old (1964) 49.5% ABV (Whisky Agency "Fights" 2012)
#5: Japan - Karuizawa 1981 (30 years old) 55.8% ABV (Cocktail Series). 

People gasped, clapped hands and were beyond surprised with every reveal.  Johanna also did a fantastic job walking us through each whisky in a way that I had never seen done before.  Truly was as great as Chris told me it would be.  (Thanks!)

Pro#1:  Classes were extremely relaxed and we were encouraged to take our time and stay afterwards to talk to the presenters.  I LOVED THAT!


Main Event:

I purchased an early bird ticket that cost $35.00.  It allowed access 30 minutes before the show.  I highly recommend doing this at any show if you can afford it.  It's worth it for me because I can go directly to the tables that have the whiskies I want to try.  Spirit of Toronto Gala was so diversified because you could
Charlie, me and Ralfy sharing a Lot 40
wander in/out of areas like:  Ralfy's Canadian Bothy and share a dram with him or walk over to the pool side patio and enjoy a really great cigar with your whisky then attend a master class, try a few more whiskies, or some cocktails served on hand carved ice balls.   The food:  WOW!  I have never encountered this level of deliciousness at a whisky event.  Personal wok boxes/chopsticks, Yorkshire puddings, carved ham (cooked to perfection) on baguette with grain mustard and cranberries, tables filled with gourmet cheeses, it was truly ENDLESS.  I ate very well.

The whiskies - over 100, spread out very nicely over two large areas.  Plenty of water available and spitoons.  Whisky varied from regional (Still Waters was there with their newest releases), North American and Internationally.  Independent bottlers, small craft distillers and of course the "Big guys".  The people pouring were great, mostly knowledgeable and quite friendly.

Whisky surprises for me:  G&M Mortlach 21 (I went back twice), Balcones 5th anniversary bourbon and Isle of Arran 16 year old.  ALL THREE IMPRESSIVE.

The only downfall of the Gala and it's so minor:  Trio of musicians were playing right beside where Ralfy was set up which meant he had to yell over the music in order to be heard.  


Overall Personal Experience:

This Gala was truly exceptional in nature and had something available for the first time imbiber all the way to the geeks.  The venue was great, the people working behind the scenes helpful and very friendly.  Again yet another highlight for me was the caliber of people I got to meet and hang out with. The "bloggers" from GTA were the friendliest we have met thus far.  Rick (@rmculver) picked us up at the airport and showed us the time of our lives on Friday:  Breakfast at a marina (we are sailors so that was beautiful), his place for a quick couple of drams and some sample exchanges, to the Forty Creek Distillery where not only did we get personal one on one time with Ralfy but I got to see where my favorite Canadian Whisky is made.  
Me kissing the sleeping whisky !!!
I have secrets I can't divulge but what is coming for 2013 is going to surpass expectations from the Forty Creek followers!  If you want to reserve the bottle, visit www.fortycreek.com on May 27th to reserve your very own bottle of Heart of Gold. Check the site for the details (as there are restrictions..) Rick then brought us to Stillwaters Distillery (www.stillwatersdistillery.com) for a quick tour and where I purchased several bottles of the newest single malt done in Canada.  Then supper at Habits Gastropub with Angela D'Orazio & Jonathan Luks from Mackmyra, Matt (@scotchblog) & his wife, Ross (@ScotchGuyTO), Jeff (@boozeandbrains), Igor (@whiskyvip), Jarred (thecyclingyogi) and those are who I remembered (sorry if you are not listed).  

My Saturday morning was spent doing something quite exceptional with Angela D'Orazio that was exhilarating and was the highlight of my trip, then lunch then a few quiet minutes with Chip Tate (@BalconesWhisky) and then the show.  Afterwards of course was a huge party at Elephant & Castle. What a fantastic whisky community in Toronto!

We were treated like gold and I came away feeling utterly exhausted but happy.  Some of the notable people I got to see again:  Mark Gillespie, Lawrence Graham & John Hall.  Some new faces I was ecstatic to meet:  Charlie MacLean, Ralfy, Barry & Barry (Still Waters), Chip Tate & Angela D'Orazio.  


Something I'd like to acknowledge is how hard Johanna Ngoh must have worked to get this show accomplished.  I'm sure that behind the scenes there must have been moments of madness but you would never know it.  She has pulled off a coup by getting Chip Tate and Balcones Whiskies to Canada.  
 Of all the feedback I have received about what was the most impressive for the evening (and I asked over 100 people) - BALCONES was it!   Many would love it here in Canada, so let's hope Chip is working his magic and able to divest into the Canadian market sometime in the near future.

My only advice to organizers:  Keep up the fantastic work.  You shouldn't bill yourself as the largest whisky show in Canada, I think that label clearly goes to the Victoria Whisky Festival, in my opinion.  

HOWEVER, you have the right to bill yourself as one of the BEST Canada has to offer!


If you live in Canada or are a fairly close US cousin, you really need to add Spirit of Toronto to your 2014 whisky events list.  It truly is the best show I've been too, so far this year.  Excellent value!

Ready for the next adventure, I hope you will join me soon...