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:  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? :) - At the 26:00 minute mark of Mark Gillespie's episode as well Still Waters website has Mark's notes/score. 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.  

1 comment:

  1. Macallan disappoints again (not Ardbeg, though). I'm going to try this, in part based on your review. Thanks.