Friday, January 23, 2015

You ready to join the revolution?

As a self-professed whisky geek there are very few whiskies that I will try but NEVER drink again. I can count 3 times in my 30 years of imbibing where I can clearly remember a whisky that fits in that category. The first and worst was with a blend and it was truly disastrous. As I recall it combined spitting, several expletive comments and a mad dash to the bathroom to pour the contents of my glass down the toilet immediately followed by brushing my teeth. Ahhh blends! Now, honestly, ten years ago I would have said I prefer single malts over blends but that was before the 2nd revolution. All I knew back then was Johnnie Walker, Bells and Teachers. Whoa whoa whoa!!! Wait a minute Lassie, back up the truck did you just say this is the second revolution? Yes, that's exactly what I said.

History lesson time my friends: Let's go back to the mid 19th century. Irish whiskey was queen -> Yes, you read correctly. The whiskey from Ireland was the world's sweetheart and Scotch was mostly crap. Now don't send me hate mail because these are the facts... However; the Scots got really smart and started distilling grain whisky. They in turn blended those with their single malts which created a milder product much more suitable to the foreign palate. By the mid 20th century Johnnie Walker was now king and blended Scotch whiskies were being drunk all over the world. Then came the disastrous 80's where the bottom of many whisky distilleries fell out. Closures, mothballs, bankruptcies and loads of whisky barrels sitting in warehouses occurred. Not long after that, the birth of "age statement" whisky was born. (That's the Cliff note versions...)

My favorite 80's show, MASH, quote: 

Radar: Is 12 year old scotch ok for everybody?
Colonel Blake: Yeah, fine Radar, perfect.
Radar: (as he hands him a glass) Uh, I ran out of ice sir so I used bourbon.

Blends took a back seat as aged statements demanded the stage. The blended whiskies became the bottle to have on hand if your grandfather came over or if you had a friend who liked mixing it with coke. 

Then comes the 2nd revolution of the 21st century (oh good you are still paying attention). 

Recognize that guy? Well if you don't you are still a single malt snob or worse you've been living in the mountains off the grid for the last 15 years?! John Glaser, ex Johnnie Walker International Marketing Director, who founded Compass Box Whisky Co. in 2000. This highly respected man has been featured at least 5 times as Whisky Innovator of the year and the range of Compass Box spirits have won close to 75 awards including package design. This company has rocked and pushed the limits of definition to the point where the SWA had no choice but to pay attention and as a result changed some of their rules and regulations... which of course caused the rest of us in the whisky world to wonder what exactly Compass Box Whiskies were all about?  

Still have no clue what I'm talking about? Awwww man now I seriously feel for you at this point ;) 

Behold the loveliness:
These John Glaser creations are the not bland harsh young whiskies thrown together for the sake of mass consumption! Au contraire my whisky frère, these are small batch, high quality blends. I will even go as far as saying these are a whisky art form. Yes, yes, I know there are many, MANY blends on the market that are not even fit to clean your garden shears but the same can be said for wine, beer or any other spirit on the market. What I'm saying is, from a chemistry perspective, blending is a far more complex and creative process and when done right demonstrates a deep understanding of distillery whisky & flavour profiles. It's the difference between buying a canned spaghetti sauce and watching an Italian display the magnificient relationship between garlic, fresh vine tomatoes and basil by creating the most delicate yet delicious marinara you've just tasted. 


Still don't believe me? Well then I will tell you from personal experience what it feels like to create your own blend. You see on my fabulous trip to the UK in 2014 I had the pleasure and honor of attending the Compass Box School of Blending. We spent the better part of a day with a hands learning experience about the fascinating process of making a blended whisky. 

The first thing we did, of course was enjoy a few whiskies, as one should on a Friday morning :)

Then we proceeded to learn about many of the core whiskies that Compass Box has on the market. This involved an intense hour of schooling about what goes into each of the five whiskies we had before us. 
Many opportunities to ask questions, take notes and truly understand the compositions for Asyla, Oak Cross, Spice Tree, Peat Monster and Hedonism. Then it was our turn to use all the tools and information we were provided to create, name and bottle our own blend. If I wasn't already brimming ear to ear like a true geek we then relaxed while we were offered the opportunity to sample some of the whiskies of years gone by. Glass in hand the room came to a hush as we sat in an enlightened state of pure whisky bliss as we sipped the holy grails of the Compass Box world. I think I may have cried a little when I experienced this one: 

At the end of the day I left an even bigger fan and/or geek. If ever you have the chance to speak to John Glaser he's a lovely man who truly is passionate about his whiskies (and he's got great taste in music -> Miles Davis poster in his office). He takes the time at almost every whisky show I've ever seen him at to spend it with the people who come to the table. Mr Glaser never rushes, always has an ear for every fan and is more than happy to introduce a novice to the core line. 

One of the greatest things I love about Compass Box is the fact that I use them to demonstrate to "blend nay-sayer friends" that it's not crap. So, I have a tendency to say: What shall I pour and when they say surprise me, I do... I usually pour a Spice Tree, an Oak Cross or as of late The General. The absolute joy I get listening to them go on about what a great single malt they are nosing/tasting followed by the shocking gasp when I say: it's a blend, surprise is simply devilish! I dare say, often they sit speechless until finally they ask for the price and whether it's available at our local liquor establishment. A few months down the road, I'll notice they have a bottle in their own collection and no longer badmouth blends. But then again, it goes to show that good whisky made by innovative people doesn't need a number on the bottle nor does it have to be a single malt to have value for money appeal. 

I'd also like to mention John is not the only one who is doing this. He may have started the 2nd revolution but since then many companies have also been producing some really amazing blends. This is currently my top 10 list:

1. Blue Hanger: Any of them
2. Chivas: 18 year old
3. Cutty Sark: Prohibition
4. Douglas Laing: Big Peat, Timorous Beastie
5. Duncan Taylor: Black Bull 12
6. Monkey Shoulder: Any of them
7. Spencerfield Spirits: Pig's Nose, Sheep Dip
8. Springbank: Campbeltown Loch 21 (My newest discovery - DELISH)
9. Tweeddale: Any of them
10. Wemyss: Lord Elcho 15, The Hive 8, Velvet Fig

And I SHIT you not when I say the following: I practice what I preach. I own a blend from every of the above ten above mentioned. If you don't believe me, let me know and I'll happily post a picture to you.

Are you still complaining about single malt prices going through the roof? I'm not. I know where the value for money is (for me) and right now it's in good quality blends. Then again, I don't put much thought into age statements. I simply am a consumer who loves and shares good whisky. 

So: VIVE LA RÉVOLUTION and let me drink blends! Be damned the people who don't know any better or who choose to wear whisky blinders because in the end that means more for those of us with open minds and wallets. 

Now, if you'll excuse me there's a Compass Box Cocktail waiting with my name on it to start my lovely weekend.  

Cheers #whiskyfabric and until next time.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Alter Ego of Johanne McInnis, the one and only Whiskylassie...

It's not every day one gets interviewed by a magazine so when the opportunity came around I'm glad it happened. I was fortunate enought to meet a very interesting Californian who made me giggle for hours and an even more talented young and aspiring writer who chose to stay east and write about the great people he knows, meets and loves here on the east coast of Canada.

I do hope you will continue to I see really big things materializing for Alex Cook. 

A huge thanks for everything and can't wait to see where the adventure leads both of us next...

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dry January what??? #Heelslayer January for this Lassie

So many of my whisky friends have pledged to have a dry January. Today is only the 5th day of the new year and already some of them seem to be awfully grumpy. I suppose it's not helping that I as well as others are posting all the lovely whiskies we are drinking and in my case I'm quite the opposite in thinking as every year my challenge is to get rid of as many whisky heels (bottles 2/3 empty) by the end of January. It helps that I have many friends and a mid month party to help me accomplish that. I assure you we don't spend the entire month of January in a whisky induced haze. If anything, our consumption is done on a much more moderate basis as we seem to limit ourselves to 1 to 2 drams and not even every evening. As a matter of fact, I haven't had a whisky since January 2nd. So, it's not like we are obsessed with getting rid of the whisky by any means.

Dry January? Now I know some people do it as a fundraiser, that's fine but for those who are not I was a bit perplexed so I did a bit of research and found that many health professionals are in agreement when they say that for the heavy to moderate drinker this "dry January thing" is total bull feces and if anything will only cause some people to drink more for the rest of the year. Overindulgence during the holidays leads to an overtired liver and bloated tummy and so I get it, some people are on a perpetual food/alcohol hangover so they think by crying out: That's it, I'm going to detox and drink not a drop of alcohol for the entire month of January!" they are doing their body good. But the reality is, they are not. 

They spend a month of abstinence staring obsessively at the date they can pour their first of many whiskies and statistics show February 1st is now one of the busiest days for pubs and bars. 

Wouldn't it simply make more sense to take the time to consciously make it a point to drink in moderation let's say 360 days a year or better yet, maybe designate one day a week as alcohol free? That would be 52 days of sober/year and a weekly detox for your liver all in the name of good health and moderation without giving up on something you enjoy doing. It really shouldn't have to be feast or famine, should it? Just sayin people, just sayin...

Good luck to all the lot of you who have decided to try this but with that said today I'm starting my month of #heelslaying. Out with the old, time to clean out the bar and finish off some of those whiskies I've been desperately clutching to for whatever reason. Last year's total was 26. How far will I get this year, with a little help from all my friends of course :) 

FAIR WARNING - Many photos of my heelslaying will appear on facebook and twitter so beware you poor dried out souls, it's going to be a tough month. For the rest of you I issue a challenge! Holding on to that last sip of Yamazaki 18 for a special occasion or the 124 samples sitting in a cardboard box full of dust? YEAH THOSE, it's time to get rid of them and get your #heelslayer on. Have fun, be safe and post those photos. Share your empties as well as your memories with me please! 

Friendly competitions always welcomed. Might even consider sending a rare sample out to anyone who beats me :) Cheers all and have a great January no matter where or how you choose to live it.

Let the #heelslaying begin!


Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014's biggest whisky story in Canada...

"A great whisky is like a good book. Within the first moments it grabs your attention and entices you to want to know more. It has vivid descriptors, good story lines and all kinds of personality. You simply can't put it down. You reach the dénouement and find yourself thrown in different but unexpected directions and then you are so pleasantly surprised by the ending that it leaves you hoping for a sequel" - John Hall 2009

That's one of the very first things John ever said to me as he poured me a sample of Forty Creek Confederation Oak. John's personality was relaxed, easy going but passionate. In the 5+ years I've known him that attitude has never changed & his love for what he does never wavered. So on the eve of Graham's 35th birthday - March 11th 2014 when I received a personal email from John stating that he had sold Forty Creek I was a bit shocked and honestly quite saddened. But in John's true style, he wanted to let me and a few others know before it was announced publicly the next day. Gruppo Campari had reached an agreement to purchase 100% of Forty Creek for $185.6 million dollars. 

And there it was in black and white: One of the last Canadian independently owned distilleries was going to belong to a global & prosperous company. John would stay on as chairman and whisky maker but all other aspects of the business would now be in the hands of the Gruppo Campari team. Forty Creek fans around the globe pondered and questioned aloud what was "next"...

In all the madness, John remained... John. Which again, comes as no surprise to those of us who have had the privilege to get to know him a bit better. So it also came as no shock that when I asked if I could interview him, the answer came back with a large sly grin - why yes, of course....  :) In the event you have been living in a cave in the Borneo forest let me give you a bit about the history of the man that created Forty Creek Whisky.

John had many jobs but by the late 60's found a passion in wine making which lasted for 30 years. He noticed in 1990 that Scotch single malt and bourbon were really starting to become popular but the opposite seemed to be happening in Canada where our whisky heritage was stagnant and slowly dying. John is a bit of a creative butterfly and loves challenges so in 1992 he decided he would start his own whisky distillery in a small town called Grimsby Ontario. Considering the history of some of the other distilleries in Canada, he was coming to the party almost 100 years a little late and with no whisky making experience. To the outside world this must have seemed like a crazy hair brain idea that would be doomed to fail... and yes, there came scary moments. Not long after his first whiskies were listed in the liquor store he received a letter stating people were simply not buying it and if that trend continued Forty Creek would be delisted and not picked up again. John's tenacity kicked in and he began to travel by car everywhere in Ontario to promote a product he believed in. It paid off and as it's been said many times, the rest is history. 

My interview with John:

What still inspires you get up and go to work every day? 

"There is an old saying that goes: If you find a job that you love you will never work a day in your life. So going to work really is not in my vocabulary since I still love what I do. There are two key factors that inspire me greatly. When I was 12 years old my mother said: "Johnny if you are going to do a job do it well or don't do it at all". That not only inspired me but her wisdom also showed me the way to enjoy my job so that it really did not seem like work. The second inspiration comes from all the Forty Creek fans that have supported me through all the years through emails, meets or tweets. Their support always encouraged me to continue my pursuit to make the best whisky I could and for that I thank them all so very much."

Has becoming one of the leading Canadian whisky innovators changed you as a person?

"I don't feel like it's changed me but I've noticed I seem to have a lot more friends!" (He laughed quite heartily at that one)

When you look back at your career what defining moments are you most proud of?

"Oh there are so many. I think the moment that I will always be the most proud of was the the day I realized all my hard work in creating Forty Creek had finally paid off. The whisky had brought new life to Canada's National Spirit. And you know as Canadians we tend to be very modest when it comes to national pride. Our spirit seemed to be fading away the last couple of decades and it wasn't in the spotlight anymore. Scotch, bourbon, Irish and other world whiskies were suddenly taking center stage and to put it quite bluntly Canadian whisky was sitting on an old wooden stool at the back door of the theater. We were slowly losing an icon. That would be like losing hockey or maple syrup. Can you imagine? Maybe people don't realize it but it wasn't just a railroad that built this beautiful country. Whisky production was also instrumental from the east to west coast and everything else in between. We simply couldn't lose that, it's part of our heritage. So, knowing that Forty Creek provided the spark to regenerate the excitement, romance and pride is a very proud moment in my life. I think Forty Creek not only has provided a new taste expression to existing whisky enthusiasts but also has brought new consumers to a category that was almost non-existent and dying. Canadian whisky is back in the running and the world is watching." 


Now that you are the chairman and whisky maker how many days will you be on the road?

"Well looking back to when I was introducing Forty Creek I was on the road 160-180 days a year and considering there are only 120 working days in a year you can see where I couldn't have been counting the days because I wasn't really working, I was truly having fun. Last year I may have been on the road a total of 85 days and for the new year it will be much less. I'm content with that."

So, now that you have sold Forty Creek where do you see you and the whisky going?

"Well, presently Forty Creek is only available in most of Canada and in some areas of the United States. It's like the old commercial: "Only available in Canada? Pity". So had I continued on my own, the whisky could not have grown globally. I think now that it's in the hands of Campari you will see them expand so that every province has it in Canada, I'd like to see it being sold internationally across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. You know yourself how many requests we have received from so many different countries and we simply didn't have the resources to expand the market. I'm still the whisky maker so the quality and integrity of Forty Creek will not change. Campari has an existing network worldwide and although it may take a few years they are the company that is going to share Forty Creek with the rest of the world, after all it's won all sorts of international awards. So fans be patient, in the next 5-10 years I think you'll see Forty Creek on an international plateau. As for me, well I'm looking at slowing down, taking more time to spend it with my family. There are some really nice properties on lakes available and my fishing rod is starting to call to me more and more often. Whatever comes our way, I'm looking forward to the next chapter and writing it. That is a given because after all, I'm still having fun and not really working."

If you could give one piece of advice to someone just starting out with their own dream what would you say?

"No matter what comes your way, always follow your dreams. After graduating I didn't land the job I thought I would get at the local whisky distillery but I didn't give up. I worked hard and although it took almost 22 years, not only did I land the dream job at a distillery, I opened & owned one. So that's my advice. No matter how small or large your dream is, don't give up on yourself. We only live once so be here and do everything to the best of your ability and do it with passion and respect. The day will come when you realize your dream and when it comes time to move on, you will be able to do that without any regrets." 

I have no worry in the world when it comes to what's next for John and his lovely family. If anything we might get to see him even more often in our neck of the woods (some really great salmon fishing this way, hint... hint...)

So that's the story that totally rocked my whisky world for 2014.  The end of an era but the beginning of a new and hopefully exciting chapter that will lead to a world wide domination for Canadian whisky!!!! 

Ok, that's my dream...  

To the next chapter in all our books.  May you choose wisely where your next adventure leads.

Cheers John, one of my favorite whiskyfabric weavers!